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Here's How Shang-Chi Director Destin Daniel Cretton Avoided Harmful Stereotypes

For the past several years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has found new strength in diversity. Following the runaway success of "Black Panther," which even found its way to an Oscar nomination for best picture, the largest movie franchise in history has made efforts to focus on diverse characters and their cultures. Now, with "Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings," Marvel Studios brings what its cast of mostly Asian stars have called "a celebration of culture" to theaters worldwide.

Marvel's characters, however, have a long history, not all of it progressive. "Iron Man 3" famously avoided trafficking in racial stereotypes by revealing that Ben Kingsley's Mandarin was a character manufactured as cover for the real villain of the story, playing on American xenophobia to sow chaos. But the Mandarin of the comics was a crash course in orientalist stereotyping, an ill-defined character whose evil traits were closely linked with his Asian identity.

That was the challenge inherited by "Shang-Chi" director Destin Daniel Cretton when the studio handed him the reins for their latest feature film: to take a slate of characters rooted in damaging stereotypes and reimagine them for a modern audience without breaking the intricate continuity Marvel has spent the last decade building in the MCU. Speaking with Variety, Cretton opened up about his approach to filmmaking and explained how he built a world of martial arts and dynastic legacies without resorting to caricature.

Cretton wanted the characters in Shang-Chi to feel 'truly human'

Asian characters have long lived in the American imagination as one-dimensional, often reduced to a set of cultural signifiers. For Destin Daniel Cretton, the goal was to make the characters in "Shang-Chi" fully realized human beings. "From a character standpoint," he said, "I feel like the process of breaking stereotypes is really just trying to humanize the characters as much as possible, give them as many sides as we could, make sure that each character had something clearly human about them that they are dealing with, that we can all connect to."

Some characters, however, did not lend themselves easily to that task. For "Shang-Chi" to work, the character of The Mandarin had to become almost an entirely different character: Wenwu, played by Tony Leung Chiu-wai. Cretton explained that convincing an actor like Leung to come onboard the project wouldn't have happened if the character had been stereotypical. "The only way to do that would be to pitch him a character that was breaking those stereotypes by just being a person that people can relate to," the director said.

Kevin Feige, the head of Marvel Studios, has said that he's wanted to make a Shang-Chi movie since the beginning of the MCU, even dropping hints to the Ten Rings organization throughout the Iron Man films. Now, with an Asian director, writers, and actors, that dream could finally come about. Cretton explained that his strategy was to "give people something different that they haven't seen in these characters before."