The Inverse Interview

'Shang-Chi' director reveals the truth behind the movie's dragons

“It was very cathartic.”

Destin Daniel Cretton

Destin Daniel Cretton didn’t grow up reading comic books. It wasn’t his decision.

Over Zoom, Shang-Chi’s director reveals to Inverse that Marvel’s kung fu superhero had no presence in his upbringing simply because his mother decreed such action-packed storylines off-limits.

“I was not aware of Shang-Chi,” the 42-year-old filmmaker tells Inverse. “My mom would not have let me read Shang-Chi [comics,] because she was not into anything remotely close to violence.”

It wasn’t until after Cretton was approached to direct Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings that he became acquainted with the comics’ so-called “Master of Kung Fu.”

The character of Shang-Chi “came to my attention through this movie,” explains the director, speaking softly but thoughtfully during a junket in promotion of Shang-Chi. “That’s when I started going through and reading all the comics, from the 1970s all the way to the present day, familiarizing myself with the history.”

Destin Daniel Cretton, behind the scenes of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.Marvel Entertainment

But Cretton connected instantly with both the character and his struggle with issues of family, honor, and selfhood.

Born and raised in Hawaii, the filmmaker — who is of Japanese, American, Irish, and Slovak descent — was home-schooled by his Christian mother and later worked with at-risk teenagers after graduating from Point Loma Nazarene University, a small private liberal arts college.

This lived experience overseeing troubled youth led him to write and direct a 22-minute short titled Short Term 12, which won a Jury Prize at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. Cretton later remade Short Term 12 as a feature with future stars like Brie Larson, Rami Malek, and Lakeith Stanfield. He won further acclaim with 2019’s Just Mercy, which cast Michael B. Jordan as lawyer and social justice activist Bryan Stevenson.

All this to say: On paper, Cretton might appear an unlikely choice to helm a superhero movie, let alone a mega-budget Marvel homage to the martial arts genre. But in the movie’s focus on an estranged young man, Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) evading the reach of his overbearing father, Wenwu (Tony Leung), there was perhaps nobody more prepared to direct Shang-Chi than Cretton. His fascination with themes of family, empathy, and mutual understanding has informed one of the MCU’s most emotionally arresting entries.

Further evidence of Cretton’s kindness: My internet service dropped significantly during the interview, an anxiety-inducing turn of events during a tightly scheduled 10-minute slot. “We’ll save you that time we just lost,” Cretton reassured me.

Across our interview, Cretton discussed the importance of representation, movies as a “powerful” tool for social change, and dragons. Yes, dragons.

In his superhero movie debut, Destin Daniel Cretton brings his firms grasp of empathy and humanity into the Marvel Cinematic Universe.Marvel Entertainment

Minor spoilers for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings ahead.

Shang-Chi has long been a superhero whose stories weren’t told by people of color. Why is it important that storytellers of Asian descent have creative control of Shang-Chi?

I think as creatives, we are striving to tell stories that are authentic. That typically is easier to do when it’s your own lived experience. Even though this movie is technically a genre movie, in a lot of ways — superhero genre, kung fu genre — we really wanted these characters to feel authentic. We wanted their experience to reflect the experience that I know growing up as an Asian American writer. Our co-writer [Dave Callaham] is Chinese-American who grew up in the Bay Area. Our creative process initially was just sharing stories about our lives, seeing what might be reflected in this movie. It was very cathartic, almost therapeutic to go through that.

Kevin Feige has made it clear that Tony Leung's Wenwu is not Fu Manchu or a yellow peril stereotype. But given that origin in the original Master of Kung Fu comics, how did you reinterpret that antiquated archetype?

It’s a process we all go through when making a movie, trying to create a character that is fully realized. Our biggest challenge was to make our villain a real person and not a one-dimensional stereotype. In order to get Tony Leung, we had to do that. We looked at Wenwu as a human with dimensions and his own personal desires.

In order to get esteemed Hong Kong screen legend Tony Leung for Shang-Chi, Cretton says the filmmakers had to completely reimagine Shang-Chi’s villainous father, who in the comics was the pulp villain Fu Manchu.Marvel Entertainment

In the midst of Covid-19, we've seen spikes in discriminatory violence against the Asian community. What do you think a Marvel superhero movie like Shang-Chi can mean in a time like this? Is a movie just a movie, or can a movie mean something more?

A movie can be a very powerful tool for people to use for social change. I don’t think people are necessarily fully transformed just by strapping [themselves] into a theater, but there is an emotional shift when you are exposed to different cultures and ideas in the context of a theater, where you have to turn off your phone and really soak in the images that are onscreen.

For me growing up in Hawaii, going to a theater was my window into other cultures and places I wasn’t able to visit because I was living on an island. But it made me feel connected to people who didn’t look like, who had a different social background as me. I do hope this movie not only entertains you but may have that effect as well.

Shang-Chi goes big in the finale, which Cretton explains is a metaphor for power “that is not out of sheer force.”Marvel Entertainment

Minor spoilers here but Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings introduces two giant dragons. What were their thematic significance and design influences?

In my mind, I don’t see that other creature as a dragon. I think the dragon in the world that we are operating in holds much more respect in the eyes of our characters. It represents goodness and flow and peace and power in a way that is not out of sheer force. I don’t see it as a good dragon/bad dragon fight, but it is a big creature battle.

I spotted a Bruce Lee homage in the bus fight scene, where Simu Liu is posed like Bruce Lee in The Big Boss. Was that intentional? Are there other nods to martial arts movie masters?

There’s a lot of intentional homages in this movie. I can’t wait to see everybody find them.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is now playing in theaters.