In this lesson, students will learn about Marvel’s first Asian superhero film. Then, they will reflect on the importance of seeing oneself onscreen.
Featured Article: “How Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu, Knocked Down Stereotypes” by Robert Ito
In September, Marvel released “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” based on a little-known comic series from the 1970s. “Known property or not,” writes Robert Ito, “the movie is a cause for celebration: It’s Marvel’s first and only superhero film starring an Asian lead, with an Asian American director and writer, and based on a character who was actually Asian in the original comic.”
The film set the record for Labor Day openings, with $94.4 million, and has to date earned more than $365 million worldwide.
In this lesson, you will learn more about the newest Marvel hit and how its creators set out to conquer Hollywood stereotypes about Asians. In Going Further activities, we invite you to share your own experiences seeing — or not seeing — yourself in superhero stories and consider how we might knock down other stereotypes in the comic universe.
Are you a superhero fan?
Do you think superhero comics and movies do a good job of portraying a diversity of communities — whether by race, gender, class, sexuality or other identities? Or do you think they often end up featuring the same types of characters and the same types of stories?
Take a few minutes to make a list of common superhero stereotypes you have read in comic books or seen in movies. Consider the main characters’ looks, personalities, origin stories and story lines, as well as their sidekicks and the settings in which the stories take place. You might start with the sentence stem “Superheros usually …”
Then, share your list with a partner: What similarities and differences do you find? Together, discuss what impact you think these stereotypes might have on viewers.
Read the article and then answer the following questions:
1. Why was Shang-Chi a surprising choice of character to join the pantheon of Marvel superheroes like Spider-Man, Iron Man and Captain America, according to the article? Why did this help give the film’s creators a lot of freedom in crafting the main character?
2. How was the Marvel Comic series “The Hands of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu,” first published in 1974, “a product of its time”? Why, according to Mr. Ito, was it “one of Marvel’s most racially problematic”?
3. What were some of the Hollywood stereotypes and preconceptions about Asians that the creators of Shang-Chi hoped to dispel? How does Shang-Chi’s character in the movie adaptation compare to the superhero stereotypes you came up with in the warm-up activity?
4. How did the creators reboot the original comic book series to counter these stereotypes? Why was it important for the creative team that the updated character of Shang-Chi be “relatable — even funny”?
5. The article concludes with a quotation from the screenwriter David Callaham reflecting on his experience creating the script and realizing how one scene mirrored his own lived experiences:
“I suddenly felt myself overwhelmed with emotion,” he continued. “Generally I’m hired to write a movie-star role so that we can attract a movie star, and typically those have not been Asian faces. It’s usually a beautiful white man named Chris or something. And all power to those guys, but I’ve always had to put myself in a position of imagining what it would be like to be somebody else. This was the first time in my life I’ve been able to sit back and not have to imagine it anymore.”
What is your reaction to Mr. Callaham’s quote? Why is it important to see, and in this case write, oneself onscreen?
6. Have you seen “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”? If so, what was your reaction? Do you think that it successfully broke stereotypes? If you haven’t seen it, does reading the article make you want to? Why or why not?
In “Asian Americans Are Finally Getting the Heroes We Deserve,” Jeff Yang writes:
Shang-Chi isn’t the first Asian protagonist we’ve seen on a screen. But as a big-budget, big-screen Marvel superhero, he’ll be ubiquitous. Superheroes today are on every screen, device and platform, visible to every demographic in our society. Shang-Chi will usher in the next cinematic phase of the most successful franchise in global history. In his wake will come more Asian heroes: Gemma Chan and Kumail Nanjiani as Sersi and Kingo in “Eternals,” Iman Vellani as Ms. Marvel in “The Marvels.” Their casting ensures that a generation of young Asian Americans will, for the first time, see themselves front and center, larger than life, on the biggest of screens.
So will the rest of the world, which is arguably even more important — when people see us as heroes, they’re forced to see us as humans.
That can mean the difference between life and death. Throughout our history in this country, Asian Americans have seen the dire consequences of compliance and invisibility: exploitation, exclusion, internment. We’re seeing them again today in the time of Covid, as the pandemic has underscored our country’s xenophobic hostility, and unleashed a wave of violence against the most vulnerable in our communities.
Read the entire article, and then respond to one or more of the following prompts in writing or through discussion:
Do you agree with Mr. Yang that it is important for people to “see themselves front and center, larger than life, on the biggest of screens”? What difference does it make for young viewers? For you personally?
Mr. Yang writes that “when people see us as heroes, they’re forced to see us as humans.” How do you think heroes like Shang-Chi can shatter stereotypes, discrimination and even violence toward Asians?
Mr. Yang writes:
“When I and many of my Asian American peers were growing up, we were so hungry to see ourselves represented that we’d scream and call the family to join us in the living room when an Asian guest star wandered into a scene on TV or a commercial came on featuring an Asian family.”
Do Mr. Yang’s experiences with movies, television and popular culture in general resonate with your own in any way? Do you see yourself reflected in the characters, themes and stories of superhero comic books, television shows and movies? Does the identity — race, ethnicity, gender or sexuality — of a comic book character matter to you?
Do you feel that we need a more diverse universe of superheroes? Why or why not? Do you think Marvel, DC and other companies have a responsibility to ensure that their products are culturally and socially representative?
Additional Teaching and Learning Opportunities
Challenge existing stereotypes. Return to your list of stereotypes from the warm-up activity: What comic book or superhero stereotype would you most like to see go and why? If inspired, write a letter to Marvel or DC explaining your thoughts and calling for a change.
Pitch a superhero reboot to a comic book or movie company. Is there a superhero you would like to see rebooted or reinvented? Or do you perhaps have an idea for a brand-new character? Pitch an idea for a character, story or film that would break stereotypes. Describe the stereotype, where you have seen it, and explain how your idea transforms, subverts or breaks free from it. If inspired, include a sketch or a drawing of your character.
Learn more about being Asian in America today. The article “How It Feels to Be Asian in Today’s America,” offers 27 perspectives on fear, pride, identity and belonging from Times readers. How do these reflections resonate with your own experiences and identity? How does the article add to your understanding of stereotypes and the Asian American community? What further questions does it raise for you?
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