Dominic Mah is a writer, director, rock musical aficionado, and ex-professional gambler. He can be found on the internets as dommah, paranormalstatus.com, and @ThorHulkCritic. His personal heroes are Stan Lee, Bruce Lee, Annabel Lee and Barbara Lee.
It is very cute that a movie about Marvel’s BIG HERO 6 exists, and thank gosh they remembered to use the Oriental Menu font in the title logo.
I’m sure it will be a precious fun movie. But as “an Asian Marvel movie?” DOES NOT COUNT. DOES NOT QUALIFY. Let’s just quash that idea before it trends.
BIG HERO 6 (and its DC equivalent, “Super Young Team”) is full of silly characters exploiting the half-idea that “a team of Japanese stereotypes and manga archetypes would be totally kawaii!” Yeah, cute, but, dude. These are not the Asian Marvel characters you’re looking for. A real Marvelasian superhero movie (or hey, a videogame) would feature some or all of these characters:
Marvel’s premier Japanese superhero, frequent ally of the X-Men, a character that cries out to be played by Tadanobu Asano. He flies, controls solar plasma, and also is sort of a dick (that’s not a mutant power, it’s his character flaw). Whenever the X-Men are in the Eastern Hemisphere and need some major shit blown up, Sunfire is usually on the scene, in one of his many totally excellent costumes:
“I thought the X-Men shouldn’t all be white Americans.” – Roy Thomas, Marvel writer, co-creator of Sunfire.
2. KARMA was one of the original New Mutants, a (laudably) multi-cultural X-team from the 80’s. She is Vietnamese and has the power to take control of others’ bodies. As noted in my first-ever Guest Offender piece for YOMYOMF, Karma’s finest and loopiest storyline was that time she was possessed by telepathic crimelord Amahl Farouk (a fat evil dude) and became Morbidly-Obese Karma:
OMG! A body-image storyline featuring a Vietnamese woman! In a comic book! I know, right? Later, Karma sheds the evil pounds by walking around in an Asgardian desert for a month and hunting lizards to survive. (See, we used to not even think of these stories being told cinematically, because Asgard seemed “too weird.” But now, thanks to the master planners at Marvel Studios, Asgard is just another place that people mention in conversation, like Wisconsin.) Anyway, Karma goes through this whole body-dysmorphic vision quest before meeting up with her teammates again to fight Loki, and in later versions she has the costume with the Yin Yang on it, and later she has pink hair, and I think at one point she is gay.
So my point here is, in addition to being an excellent storied character, Karma is a bit of a chameleon.
3. ARMOR was created by Joss Whedon, and although she is somewhat egregiously Whedony (snarky female waif with improbable skill at punching people + gratuitously Japanese-cute) she has a cool power and, more importantly, is not Jubilee (more on that later).
4. OMEGA SENTINEL
Remember the female Terminator in T3 who could basically do anything? So that is Omega Sentinel, who was a police officer in India before she became a devastating enemy of the X-Men, and later she became an X-Man. Er, X-Person. X-Cyborg-Killing-Machine. Anyway, it’s complicated. She is nearly indestructible and has hands that are guns.
We sort of like the idea of Frieda Pinto as Omega Sentinel, don’t we? I think we do.
5. SHANG CHI, MASTER OF KUNG FU
Remember in the ’70s when people were as crazy for kung-fu films as they are for comic-book films now? It’s contextually important when considering Marvel’s main Asian character of the ’70s, who, in case you were wondering, is a master of kung fu.
Shang Chi was a top-selling title for Marvel in the early ’70s, because, again, kung fu. But note something else here. What’s odd about this picture? Oh yes, it’s an ASIAN-AMERICAN MALE LEAD, FLUENT IN ENGLISH, IDENTIFIABLE IN POP CULTURE, BECAUSE BRUCE LEE IS AWESOME.
Let’s track this: In the ’70s, Marvel has a top-billed Asian male hero. In the ’80s, the X-Men fight some ninjas, Iron Man fights the Mandarin a few times. In the ’90s, some Asian female characters rise to prominence. In fact, previously-Caucasian Psylocke becomes Japanese, just to be weird. In the ’00s-’10s, Asian female Marvel characters are increasing visibility at a steady rate, some of them retconning to become even more Asian than they were previously: Nico Minoru, Mantis, Omega Sentinel, Armor, Jubilee, Wolverine’s 37 Other Female Asian Sidekicks.
What major Asian male character (non-villain, non-Wolverine-slashfodder) has Marvel introduced in the last 10 years or so?
I think the answer is Amadeus Cho, and I think I don’t give a big hoot about him. But points for trying. Once. (Mr. Cho was co-created by Asian American writer Greg Pak.)
And I get it, ’cause I get how comics work. Asian women are more fun to draw, and more appealing to the demographic that likes Asian women (i.e. Everybody). You achieve some measure of diversity while maintaining the sexualization at the same time. It’s a marketing win-win and no one minds too much that Psylocke never wears pants.
See, Marvel Comics are good for another thing; they’re a curated visual record of American cultural trends. For example, before Bruce Lee died, it was briefly cool to be an Asian American male in the pop-cultural context. We know what happened to that farfetched notion. Today, using the Marvel Universe as an evolving reflection of our cultural landscape, we see that it is a little bit cool to be an Asian female (as long as you forget pants) but with the sole exception of Sunfire, your only cosplay choice as a male Asian American Marvel fan (of which there are literally hordes) is to dress up as, um, I dunno….the Invisible Woman?
I mean, I don’t give a huge hoot. I do like Spider-Man because he’s a dude in a mask who could be anybody. And I am a big fan of most of the Marvel films; and yet, Asian males haven’t seen themselves as the hero in a Marvel book, much less a film, since Shang-Chi? Is that weird? Because we all know it’s the Asian dudes with glasses who are reading the comic books, and also Asian dudes are about 25% of the human race, give or take. And we’re all somehow excited because CHRIS PRATT is unconventional casting? WTF?
For whatever reason, in recent years, DC has had a lot more Asian male characters than Marvel. One of them’s the Atom, but still. Maybe because Jim Lee is in an executive position at DC now? Hopefully so (more on the all-powerful Jim Lee later).
6. XORN/ANYONE BUT JUBILEE
I dissed Grant Morrison earlier for Super Young Team, but he is also the mad genius writer who created Xorn, a Chinese mutant with a star for a brain and more than a few similarities to the Dalai Lama. He turns out to be not really Asian and not really a hero (it’s an ingenious story, worth reading) but for a while he is the X-Men’s Yoda, instilling Eastern spirituality into the young students at X-Men School.
A lot of people would point to Jubilee as the premier Asian American Marvel character, but seriously, Jubilee sucks. The only reason she has a following is because she was lucky enough to debut being drawn by JIM LEE (Every superhero loses their mind at the thought of being drawn by Jim Lee; he’s like the Annie Leibowitz of comic artists). But her power is, well, stupid.
So yeah, Asian and Asian American Marvel Heroes, they’re out there. And most of them are friends with the X-Men, so they could conceivably show up in an X-Film. We’re not asking for the moon here, Marvel Studios people. It was way cool how you cast Fan Bingbing as Blink when you didn’t really have to do that. But hey, how about one of those characters who has, y’know, a story? Or even a strong villain character with history and complexity, like the Mandarin….?
Oh, wait, forget that.