In an upcoming run of Totally Awesome Hulk, Amadeus Cho aka The Hulk, will be teaming up with other Asian-American superheroes for an epic story the likes of which I never thought I would see in my lifetime. The story will feature Amadeus Cho as The Hulk, Cindy Moon as Silk, Kamala Khan as Ms. Marvel, alongside a smattering of others.
I grew up loving all things fantasy related. While I didn’t consume comics or their films the same way I do today, I did read a lot of Japanese manga and watch too much anime. I still do… ahem. As such, the plethora of comic book films released by Marvel the past 9-10 years, coupled with the renewal of the Star Wars franchise have had my inner nerd on overdrive as I’ve tried to see everything that I can.
And as much as I’ve loved all of these films for their epic stories, insane visual effects, and near perfect casting (damn you Chris Evans and your chiseled pecs), one thing that stood out to me was the lack of Asian characters, lead roles or otherwise. This didn’t surprise me, rather I subconsciously expected it. The only Asian faces I saw growing up were my own, my mother’s, and the occasional passerby on the street.
These days things have changed, and for the better. Daniel Henney is on the main cast of Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders, and Fresh Off the Boat based on Eddie Huang’s autobiography has been a hit, earning a third season.
Movies seemed to be a bit slower at accepting Asians into main roles, and this holds especially true for action films. Hell, one of the biggest superhero films of the past few years, Captain America: Civil War didn’t have any Asians in the cast at all. Cue Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
When the cast was announced I lost it. Donnie Yen, THE Donnie Yen, was cast as a blind, force sensitive character. What. Then I saw that Jiang Wen, a famous Chinese filmmaker, had been cast as a rebel soldier. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I still couldn’t when I went to see the film either. For the first time outside of a Chinese martial arts film, Asians were lead characters – and badass rebel war heroes to boot. It was like a dream come true.
The thing that was so great wasn’t just their inclusion in the film. What really got me was their characters. Neither one played a token, and neither subscribed to the near endless stereotypes that many Asians fall prey to in cinema. For so long I was used to seeing Asian characters play the silly sidekick or Mr. Miyagi like sage characters. I’ve even been called the “Asian from Disturbia!” (played by Aaron Yoo).
Jiang Wen as Baze Malbus was a gruff, cannon wielding powerhouse. He didn’t use any special martial arts, he wasn’t primarily comic relief, and he played a vital role in the story. He was big, masculine, tough, and entered his fights guns blazing. Malbus played the foil to a many of the stereotypes that surround Asians today.
Donnie Yen as Chirrut Imwe was trickier and danced on a fine line, but his character was handled well. It’d be easy to write him off as the typical mystical Asian – he’s blind, believes in the Force, fights with martial arts, and kicks butt with a staff.
But it was his relationship with Baze Malbus and the other characters that set him apart from the typical tropes. First and foremost, no other character was as skilled as he was in hand to hand combat. Often times in film Asian characters will be bested in combat by their white counterparts. Another great example of this is the fight scene on the drill from Star Trek (also directed by JJ Abrams like Star Wars) where Sulu, played by John Cho, enters the fight alongside Captain Kirk eventually overpowering the baddies and saving Kirk. Sure, one could comment on another Asian character having a katana and knowing martial arts, but I’m going to let that slide due to how epic that scene is.
Compare this to X-Men Origins: Wolverine from 2009 featuring Daniel Henney as the mutant Agent Zero. My first viewing of this film had me excited when he appeared. Finally, a suave, villainous Asian character. This turned out to be a major disappointment as his character had few lines, no development of any kind, and was eventually killed off in a rather anti-climactic fashion.
This doesn’t even touch on the Hollywood’s obsession with white-washing roles, or hyper-westernizing Asian settings (looking at you San Fransokyo in Big Hero 6). Those can be entire posts on their own. The point is that while Asians have been left outside of the Hollywood spotlight for far too long, things are improving.
Going back to Amadeus Cho and the super team up… it has me hopeful. While comics historically haven’t been the most diverse or culturally sensitive works, things have definitely been changing. Seeing as comic book films are constantly being reimagined and released, maybe one day we’ll have Miles Morales as Spider-Man on the big screen, or Kamala Khan’s Ms. Marvel portrayal could nab a spotlight. Who knows.
What I do know is that the future is bright, and maybe one day I too can be the hero.