Hollywood’s Search for a Chinese Superhero

Can a Chinese hero save Hollywood from cultural irrelevance?

The deluge of Hollywood superhero movies shows no signs of abating, with an estimated 63 comic book adaptations set to hit the big screen by 2020.

A sizeable chunk of the global takings come from China, the world’s second and soon–to-be largest film market. However, Hollywood’s future success in the Middle Kingdom is far from assured. With competition from an improving domestic industry and the massive new audiences outside top tier cities less responsive to English-dialogue driven fare, it is predicted that US films will lose market share as the box office grows.

As Hollywood studios increase their China presence, they are recognizing the need for more localized content. Earlier this year, the Russo brothers, directors of the Captain America franchise, announced they were teaming up with Chinese partners to form development and production studios in LA and Beijing, before unveiling plans for a $230m trilogy of Mandarin superhero movies starring an original Chinese hero.

Russo Brothers by Gage SkidmoreThe Russo Brothers. Copyright Gage Skidmore

Mellow Yellow

The Russos are not the first to see the potential in a Chinese hero. In 2011, former Marvel president Stan Lee co-launched Magic Storm Entertainment with a view to producing superhero movies for Asian markets. The first announced project was an English-language film titled “The Annihilator”, about a Chinese expatriate named Ming, “who must choose between remaining in prison or enlist in a secret U.S. super soldier program”. Slated to star Wang Leehom, the project appears to have stalled in the early stages.

The same fate appears to have befallen his latest project, Realm of the Tiger, this time a Mandarin language co-production with different partners featuring a heroine supposedly set to be played by Li Bingbing.

Stan-Lee-in-2015---Gage-Skidmore1Stan Lee and would-be superhero stars, Wang Leehom & Li Bingbing. Copyright Gage Skidmore

Lee has actually been devising Chinese characters for decades, albeit less heroic ones. In 1965 he co-created The Mandarin, a droopy-mustached throwback to the ‘Yellow Peril’ characters of the 1920s and 30s. Back then a xenophobic fear of the perceived threat from the swarming masses in the east saw Chinese characters presented as either primitive peasants or evil masterminds like Fu Manchu or Ming the Merciless.

Yellow-Perils1Spot the difference: ‘Yellow peril’ inspired super-villains Fu Manchu, Yellow Claw, Ming the Merciless and The Mandarin.  Marvel preceded The Mandarin with Yellow Claw in 1956 and actually bought the rights to Fu Manchu in 1973.

In fairness to Lee, The Mandarin was conceived during the height of the Cold War amid fears of spreading communism and nuclear war. Unsurprisingly when Marvel Studios co-produced Iron Man 3 with DMG Beijing, with an eye on reaping huge rewards from the China market, they chose not to present The Mandarin as an evil Chinese dictator with ambitions of world domination. The arch-villain was instead revealed to be a bumbling junkie actor used as a front for Aldrich Killian’s terrorist organization, provoking the ire of nerds everywhere.

Radioactive-Man1Another Lee co-creation, Chen Lu, China’s leading nuclear physicist who transforms himself into a Radioactive Man, a walking blob of nuclear waste recruited to help his government stop Thor blocking the spread of communism into India.

Everybody Was Kung Fu Whitewashing

American comic creators have been inventing Chinese characters for almost 80 years. Despite the prevailing Yellow Peril mindset, some more positive fictional characters began to emerge in the late ‘30s, like the Green Hornet’s sidekick Kato, a character that probably inspired DC’s Wing, a Chinese immigrant working as the driver and sidekick for a wealthy publisher and caped crusader in New York.

Van-Williams-as-the-Green-Hornet-and-Bruce-Lee-as-Kato-from-the-television-program-The-Green-Hornet.The Green Hornet (Van Williams) and Bruce Lee as his sidekick Kato on The Green Hornet TV show (1966-67).  The Green Hornet started life as a radio show in the 1930s
Wing1DC’s Wing, sidekick to the Crimson Avenger (far right).  Following his dignified early appearances in 1938, Wing’s design later descended into a racist stereotype typical of the era.

Chinese portrayals further improved after the US joined World War II and became formal allies with China, ushering in, in 1944 Blazing Comics’ short-lived series starring the Green Turtle, widely believed to be the first Chinese comic book hero, who fights in China alongside local troops against the Japanese.

GT1The Green Turtle – the first Chinese comic book hero?

Attitudes were still far from enlightened. American-Chinese artist Chu Hing supposedly intended to create a Chinese hero but was blocked by publishers who felt an Asian character wouldn’t resonate with a US readership. Chu cunningly kept the Turtle’s ethnicity ambiguous by drawing his eyes obscured and using a surreal shadow of a turtle to represent his hero’s face.GT2

Whitewashing for a US audience endured 30 years later, when white actor David Carradine was cast as the lead in the Kung Fu TV series, in which a half Chinese Shaolin monk fights his way through the American Old West.

David_Carradine_Kung_Fu_1972David Carradine in the Kung Fu TV series (1972-75). Carradine played Kwai Chang Caine, a Shaolin monk who travels through the American Old West armed with his spiritual training and his skill in martial arts, in search of his half-brother.

Negative though that may appear, the show inspired a martial arts craze in America in the 1970s, leading to more admirable Chinese comic book heroes including ‘The Master of Kung Fu’, Shang Chi. If any US-created Chinese hero is fit for export to modern China it might be Shang. In 2005 he was one of ten characters included in a proposed Marvel Studios slate and, though he never got his movie, there are rumors he may soon appear in the Netflix Iron Fist series, supposedly played by an Asian male that probably isn’t John Cho.

latest-1Shang Chi debuted in 1973, initially as an evil character, the son of Fu Manchu.

It’s unknown whether a Chinese face would attract cinemagoers in China. Would say, a Chinese Superman, fare better than the lukewarm reception for Man of Steel or Batman Vs. Superman. That dream may be closer than we think, after DC recently bestowed the ailing caped crusader’s powers onto Shanghai teen Kenan Kong as part of their Rebirth event.

Kenan-Kong1Kenan Kong, a Chinese Superman

John-D.-and-Catherine-T.-MacArthur-Foundation1Kenan Kong is co-created and co-written by Asian-American artist Gene Yang Luen.  In 2014, Yang also revived The Green Turtle, telling his origin story in “The Shadow Hero”. Image courtesy of John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

One US created hero that has remained Chinese to the core is Captain China, a Mandarin language series started in 2012 by American-Chinese duo Jim Lai and Chi Wang. Their Cap is a product of Mao Zedong initiative to create a Chinese superhero during the Great Leap Forward, revived after 50 years to demonstrate China’s economic power. Though amusing clashes between Cap’s Maoist anti-American ideology and China’s modern capitalist values ensue, surely no sane studio with designs on China would touch such sensitive subject matter.

Captain-ChinaJim Lai and Chi Wang’s Captain China.  Despite some confusion among netizens, he is not the star of the Russo brothers’ forthcoming movies.

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it a 16th century Chinese deity?

With 5000 years of history and mythology, it is often said that China already has the raw materials for great movie storytelling. While that forgets the all-important ‘telling’ part, it’s true that filmmakers frequently turn to the perceived box office security of fantasy, dipping into the archives for figures that can be repurposed as quasi-superheroes. League of Gods recently did just this, with the spirits and immortals of 16th century myth Fengshen Yanyi revamped amid spectacular blockbuster effects.

《封神传奇》对决海报横版带-logoCMKY-小League of Gods

US comic creators were riffing on Chinese mythology back in 2004 with Marvel’s Eight Immortals based on the legend of the same name. DC followed in 2006 with the Great Ten, based on the 14th century tale Ten Brothers, about a government-backed posse with excellent names like Accomplished Perfect Physician, Immortal Man-in-Darkness and Mother of Champions.

eightimmortalsMarvel’s Eight Immortals
GreatTen02DC’s Great Ten

Predicting what will work among China’s diverse masses is anyone’s guess. There is no tried and tested formula, though a glance at the most successful movies suggests that Chinese audiences favour escapism, fantasy and humor over the ever darker and more depressing stories told in US hero shows. So far, 2015’s super-silly Jianbing Man is China’s closest successful equivalent to a caped crusader.

Courtesy of Sohu VideoJianbing Man. Courtesy of Sohu Video

If the heroes of the past can teach us anything, it’s that their stories reflect the fears of the society in which they are created. The diverse concerns of China’s cinemagoers are different to those in the US, and transplanting an American genre onto another culture is more complex than simply casting a Mandarin speaking Chinese actor. If Hollywood must keep pushing superheroes, they face an unknown road ahead. Perhaps the most compelling solution is to leave the spandex at home, and focus on learning the true identity of the Chinese audience.

Sino Smackdown!

The Rise Of Chinese Pro Wrestling

“You SUCK, you SUCK!” The sparse crowd of seventy that has ventured to a repurposed gay nightclub on this stifling May evening is beginning to find its voice.   Middle Kingdom Wrestling World Champion Dalton Bragg prowls the ring, glaring through black eyeliner at the Chinese men abusing him in English. A few paces behind, The Selfie King’s blood-splattered chest heaves as man-mountain Big Sam hauls him into the air and dumps him on to the canvas.

Wrestling is Shakespeare for the modern age”, yells Nikk Mitchell over the chants and sporadic crashes of body on mat. The managing partner of Middle Kingdom Wrestling (MKW), the collective that has provided four fighters for tonight’s show, has just returned to his ringside seat after an altercation with the referee. “Nowadays theatre is so highfalutin”, he shouts, “Back in the day, it was super lowbrow. People would throw fruit at the actors. Wrestling is one of the few art forms left in the world where audience participation is a major aspect. That’s what makes it so special.”

mk2-2073mk2-2086Dalton Bragg handcuffs Sam to the post, pins Selfie King and wins the Triple Threat match to retain the MKW World Championship.  Images courtesy of Eric Garrison.

Build It And They Will Come

To be clear, Mitchell is talking about storyline-driven, scripted, and choreographed pro-wrestling, the entertainment art form combining athleticism with performance that the ill informed deride as ‘fake’. Originated in the US in the mid-20th century, Japan leads the Asian scene, albeit in a more legitimate sport-like form, while Singapore, Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong all boast leagues with some degree of popularity and pedigree.

Mainland China remains a sleeping giant, with a lineage going back only as far as 2004, the year that Guangdong wrestler, known as The Slam, left for Korea to hone his craft. On his return to Dongguan, he constructed a mobile professional ring and trained up a group of local Chinese talent that he would later formalize into Chinese Wrestling Entertainment. His traveling arena became the home of CWE’s semi-regular live shows and the shoot location for their online TV show.

mk2-2050Selfie King lays the smackdown on Big Sam.  Image courtesy of Eric Garrison

Chinese wrestling has endured stuttering beginnings, perhaps best exemplified by the events of October 2013, when Paul Wang, a wrestling super-fan with dreams of building a league to match America’s WWE, invited an assortment of local and international wrestlers to Chongqing for four live shows.  After promising big money investment and a glamorous future, Wang botched the operation, cancelled half the shows and disappeared, leaving the wrestlers to pay their own airfare home.

After multiple false starts and isolated shows, the past 18 months have seen a shift in gear. In early 2015, The Slam received a call from Adrian Gomez, an American expat launching a Chinese pro wrestling promotion and wanting to discuss a partnership. Gomez spent the proceeding months building a roster of talent to form the basis of Middle Kingdom Wrestling. MKW’s first show took place in Dongguan in July 2015, followed by a larger winter showcase featuring wrestlers from the US, UK, Hong Kong and Singapore.

Forming around the same time was China’s other main aspiring promotion, China Wrestling Federation (CWF), founded by Fei Wu Xing, the boss of China’s largest wrestling website ShuaiJiao.com.  CWF held its first show in Shanghai earlier this month featuring their own wrestlers and others hired from MKW.

     mk2-3017mk2-3019 mk2-3022 mk2-3046Japanese wrestlers Emi Sakura and Riho fight it out in CWF’s recent promotion in Shanghai.  Images courtesy of Eric Garrison

Wrestling With Chinese Characteristics

Despite commanding a massive online following, world leading US behemoth World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) had until recently been curiously inactive in China. That all changed this summer when the $650m corporation staged a major PR campaign in China, bringing over legends John Cena and Triple H, ostensibly to scout new Chinese talent, but mostly to generate buzz around a live event in Shanghai in September and to announce deals with online channel PPTV to screen its US shows in Mandarin.

WWE’s existing popularity provides a strong foundation upon which local pretenders can develop their own on and offline wrestling content. One of their many challenges will be attracting a local audience that has probably never attended a live show before and, once they are there, generating atmosphere among a small crowd that has never participated in the pantomime before.

1524820748Big Sam and Royal Stu.  Stu, the writer of Royal Ramble on wrestlezone.com, acted as Sam’s manager at the CWF Shanghai promotion.   Image courtesy of Big Sam

The key, says Gomez, is to develop characters to which fans can relate. “Emulating a WWE show for a Chinese audience will not make a successful promotion. Instead, his plan is to bring pro wrestling with “Chinese characteristics”. “China has 56 minority groups and iconic things that all make great gimmicks,” he says, “I watch Running Man and Baba Qu Na. Those elements can be incorporated into pro wrestling to catch a massive audience.”

Gomez doesn’t worry about competition – after all, many wrestlers are shared between promotions – but stresses his character-driven approach differentiates MKW from the rest, “[CWF] really prefer the Japanese style… It looks more like a traditional sport. [We] care more about telling stories.”

1572963715@chatroom_1463374904719_10MKW’s Selfie King with Nikk Mitchell (managing partner) overlooking the ring inside a converted Shanghai Stadium nightclub.  Images courtesy of Nikk Mitchell

A Yao Ming In The Ring

If domestic wrestling is to gain traction with the local audience, it will need its own superstars. Seeking to find a ‘Yao Ming in the ring’, Japanese federation IGF, run by WWE hall of famer Antonio Inoke, opened a dojo in Shanghai in 2013. IGF soon claimed it had found a future icon in the form of Wang Bin, a 20-year old gym coach from Anhui. Wang promptly left for Japan to receive a higher quality of training, just The Slam had done in Korea a decade earlier.

The move paid off. Wang recently became the first Chinese athlete to sign a development contract with the WWE and is currently training at the WWE’s Performance Center in Orlando, Florida, hoping to one day become the federation’s first fully-fledged Chinese star.

1572963715@chatroom_1463374633312_40

(l-r) Selfie King, Royal Stu, Emi Sakura, Dalton Bragg, Riho, Nikk Mitchell (MKW managing partner).   Images courtesy of Nikk Mitchell

Yet for all the marketing fanfare, WWE will struggle to find more Chinese wrestlers any time soon. Most estimates suggest there are currently only about 20 wrestlers in the entire country, and a shortage of training facilities or world-class coaches means little new talent is emerging.

The scarcity of resources is causing the quality of current shows to suffer.  MKW headliner Dalton Bragg explains, “If you see wrestlers who train three times a week and wrestle once a month, the matches are 100 times better than when they show up twice a year and haven’t trained at all.”

Chinese promoters are also having difficulty maintaining the presence needed to build a fan base. “The key to staying power is staying visible”, says Bragg, “Companies do a show and then drop off the face of the earth for 6 months. There’s no fan retention.”  Running regular shows is easier said than done though. Alongside the financial barriers, Gomez explains it is difficult to explain wrestling to the older generation and therefore difficult to find suitable venues.

The current crop of promoters faces a long and difficult road. CWF and MKW are seeking to keep up the momentum with live events in Shenzhen in September and Inner Mongolia in November respectively, while the WWE increased presence should help by inspiring more athletes, investors and entrepreneurs to get involved in the sport.

For now though, Chinese wrestling is fueled by the passion of its promoters. “The more matches we do, the more I come to love wrestling,” says MKW’s Nikk Mitchell, “I feel like I’m getting to the heart of what makes wrestling popular, and that’s so exciting.”

wrestlers3Chinese wrestlers & wrestlers in China: 9 key figures