There’s a scene in Marvel Studios’ Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings that shocked director Destin Daniel Cretton. It isn’t the part where Shang-Chi (played by Simu Liu) gets trained to be an assassin as a child, or when he finally confronts the shadowy leader of the Ten Rings crime syndicate, or even the final battle of the movie. What surprised Cretton was a scene that takes place at a bar: just four friends, talking and laughing together.
“It was a typical scene in every way, except all four actors were Asian Americans of different ethnic backgrounds,” says Cretton. “For the first time, I could see people interacting in a movie that looked like myself and my friends. It was emotional to watch that.”
Xialing (actor Meng’er Zhang), Shang-Chi (actor Simu Liu) and Katy (actor Awkwafina) in Marvel Studios’ Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. PHOTO BY JASIN BOLAND ©MARVEL STUDIOS 2021.
For Marvel, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings represents the studio’s 25th film in its cinematic universe of comic book blockbusters, which originally began with Iron Man in 2008 and most recently dominated the box office with Black Widow in July. However, more significantly, Shang-Chi is the first superhero movie to star an Asian character in the lead role.
When Cretton heard early announcements about preproduction for the film, the 42-year-old director—who was born on Maui and has made a name for himself in Hollywood directing acclaimed biographical dramas, including The Glass Castle and Just Mercy—met with Marvel execs to discuss Shang-Chi and what he hoped to see in an Asian-led superhero film (namely, authentic storytelling). These discussions snowballed into Cretton being offered the role of director.
“I never thought I’d do a big action film,” Cretton says. “But the kid in me came alive because this is what I didn’t have when I was little; there wasn’t that superhero who looked like me that I could dress up like on Halloween or to make-believe as with my siblings.”
Playing make-believe was a big part of Cretton’s childhood. Raised in Haiku, Cretton’s father worked for the fire department and his mother was a hairdresser who homeschooled her kids and discouraged them from watching television. Instead, they played in the backyard. The family’s Quonset-style plantation house bordered a pineapple field, where Cretton and his five siblings rode bikes and explored gulches. Without TV, they invented their own entertainment, imagining everything from short skits to martial arts moves to dance routines.
Liu as Shang-Chi. PHOTO BY JASIN BOLAND ©MARVEL STUDIOS 2021.
When Cretton was in fourth grade, his grandparents took the family on a tour of California. “My grandma bought a VHS camcorder that she and my grandpa were using when they went on vacation and she let me borrow it for the trip. And then… I just never gave it back to her,” Cretton says with a laugh. “Me and my siblings’ backyard skits suddenly became little commercials and short movies.”
He became obsessed with filmmaking, though he never imagined being a filmmaker or a director (“I didn’t even know what a director was,” says Cretton) could be a viable career path.
While in college, Cretton worked at a group home for at-risk teenagers. He drew from his experiences to create Short Term 12, a 22-minute short that became Cretton’s film school thesis project and led to the production of a feature-length film starring Brie Larson, which earned the director top awards at SXSW Film Festival in 2013. He followed up with I Am Not a Hipster, which began as a slice-of-life comedy but soon evolved into a drama about family and growing up.
“I was writing that movie when the tsunami hit Japan in 2011 and I had this feeling of, ‘Why am I stressing over this little story when there are people dying in other parts of the world at this moment?’ Understanding different struggles became that movie’s emotional spine,” says Cretton.
His next films were adaptations of memoirs: 2017’s The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, about Walls’ nomadic, poverty-stricken childhood; and 2019’s Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, which follows a young defense attorney (played by Michael B. Jordan) who successfully appeals a death row inmate’s murder conviction in Alabama.
Director Destin Daniel Cretton, fight instructor Alan Tang, a crew camera operator and Simu Liu on the set of the film. PHOTO BY JASIN BOLAND ©MARVEL STUDIOS 2021.
“Before every movie I make, I typically have a major panic attack where I think, ‘This is the moment where everyone finds out I have no idea what I’m doing,’” he says. “But the voice in my head that tells me I’m going to screw up becomes a positive tool because it becomes less about my personal experiences and more about my ability to listen and engage with the person whose story I’m trying to tell. I find emotional links that I can relate to.”
On the set of Shang-Chi in 2020, that link was not only an Asian heritage (Cretton’s mother is Japanese) but also the responsibility of forging a narrative that celebrates the cultural impact of Asian Americans during a time when hate crimes are on the rise due to misconceptions about COVID-19.
“When audiences see this movie, they’ll go on a wild superhero ride and be entertained, but they’ll also be exposed to many different types of characters with different personalities,” Cretton says. “It will be very difficult to leave the theater believing all Asians are the same and that they’re all responsible for some pandemic and that they deserve to be hit or thrown on the ground or whatever some people believe. I hope that this movie can be at least a stepping stone to expanding peoples’ worldviews.”
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is in theaters now and will arrive on the Disney+ streaming platform.