The intersection between hip-hop and comic books runs deep, but it was Wu-Tang Clan who took the connection from subtext to text. The Staten Island-formed rap legends took the things they loved to nerd-out on and integrated them into their music, their alter-egos, and the mythos surrounding the group. From sampling kung-fu movies to Ghostface Killah incorporating Iron Man lore into his identity, it’s long been a vital factor in the group’s longevity and influence.
It only makes sense, then, that comics would be an influence on the group’s new TV show, Wu-Tang: An American Saga. The show, which premiered on Hulu on September 4, is a fictionalized retelling of the group’s origins in late-’80s Staten Island. The lead-up to the series largely seemed to focus on the group’s music and the culture theygrew up around more than kung-fu homage, but make no mistake, it’s there. The series is four episodes in and while it may be more subtle than expected, Wu-Tang: An American Saga is very much a musical biopic series for you, fellow comic book geek.
Warning! Spoilers ahead for Wu-Tang: An American Saga
Unless you’re well-versed in Wu-Tang, you might not recognize every member of the group the first time they’re onscreen — or the second, or the third. Wu-Tang: An American Saga doesn’t tell you whom among its cast will become a member of the group. Thankfully, there are no gaudy title cards when a character makes their first appearance, informing you that this is “Dennis Coles, AKA Ghostface Killah.” Nor are any of the members going by their rap monikers when we first encounter them.
It’s a bit jarring — after all, isn’t this a Wu-Tang show? Where’s the RZA? Where’s Raekwon the Chef? But once you realize what’s going on, it feels like aneffective choice. In real life, members of Wu-Tang have often talked about their rap names as superhero identities. Keep that in mind as you make your way through the show, and you’ll realize that the men we’re getting to know are less like the Avengers and more like Tony Stark before he did his time in the cave or Bruce Wayne before that fateful night in Crime Alley.
Wu-Tang is an origin story, after all, and we’re watching in real time. The events of the series are what turns each member into the rap titans we know them as — they just don’t know it yet.
As an added bonus, this approach gives a few scenes a real Marvel movie post-credits feeling. A few future Wu-Tang legends make brief appearance, having not fully aligned themselves with the group yet. These moments play as superhero movie teasers, like the scene in Captain America: The Winter Soldier in which Jasper Sitwell namedrops Stephen Strange years before Doctor Strange hit theaters.
This is to say, if you don’t immediately recognize who the manager in the gift shop scene is, don’t hit up Wikipedia and spoil it for yourself. It’s going to be a nice surprise.
Building The Wu-Tang Clan
Something that becomes evident from the very first episode is that Wu-Tang: An American Saga is playing the long game. Hulu dropped the first three episodes on September 4, and by the third episode’s closing moments, the group is far from complete. They’ve hardly even come together, in fact, each is still flying solo as a musician. Some haven’t even realized music is something they want to do.
Episode 3’s closing set piece features various members of the group that will come to be known as Wu-Tang performing at a rap competition. As individuals, they each put on a good show (save for series protagonist Bobby, the future RZA, who blows it with an existential freestyle that falls flat) but are easily shown up by a polished, if not corny, group from Brooklyn brought in by the man who organized the show.
It’s in seeing that group’s performance that Bobby begins to realize there’s strength in numbers. Alone, each is talented for sure, but together they’d be unstoppable. At this point, it’s still only an idea, though. It’s clear from that point forward that the arc of Season 1 won’t be the group recording their debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers. It’s going to be about these nine extraordinary talents realizing that in order to succeed, they’ll have to put aside any of their petty differences and band together.
Sound familiar? If you’ve seen any superhero team-up movie you know how this goes. It’s the same deal — a group of extraordinary individuals band together to form something greater. Alone they’re powerful but imperfect. Together they’re unstoppable. It’s hard to not notice the parallels, and how clearly intentional they are. With Wu-Tang: An American Saga, you’re watching the same journey, only by way of The Wire instead of the MCU.
Wu-Tang Gets Weird
If ever there’s been a musical biopic/series that demanded some creative liberties be taken it’s Wu-Tang: An American Saga. The lore behind the group is so deep and incorporates so many facets of media outside of music that not drawing from that pool of reference would be a missed opportunity of epic proportions. While the show largely plays it straight, opting for a grounded take on the story, weird elements have already begun to pop up here and there.
The most obvious is the animated scene depicting Bobby and his crew rising in the local drug trade. It’s an odd, trippy sequence that feels like the first moment the show begins to realize its potential. After that, the series uses a grainy overlay in flashback sequences, giving the feel of old grindhouse and kung-fu movies — the kind the Clan grew up on. The camerawork also gets more inventive and more blatantly inspired by genre cinema and experimental techniques.
Wu-Tang: An American Saga also pays homage to these niche nerdy influences through easter eggs and references. When Dennis, the man who will become Ghostface Killah, is introduced, he’s recounting Iron Man’s exploits to his two little brothers. Kung-fu movies like 36 Chambers of Shaolin and Shaolin and Wutang play in the background of scenes. And, perhaps most appropriately, the favorite television show of Bobby’s little brother is Voltron, famously used as an analogy for the group’s power in a verbal bit on the album Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers.
While it never takes away from the grounded real-world nature of the show, it seems to be building steadily as the group inches closer and closer to their shared destiny. Watching that journey play out both narratively and aesthetically is sure to be a real joy for fans of comic books, kung-fu movies, and old-school cartoons.
The first season of Wu-Tang: An American Saga is streaming now on Hulu.