Prolific screenwriter Dave Callaham has had a hand in Godzilla, Wonder Woman 1984 and Mortal Kombat, and is currently working on Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse 2 and the live-action remake of Disney’s Hercules.
For Marvel, Callaham co-wrote Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings with director Destin Daniel Cretton, a task that involved reconstructing the character from his outdated origins and introducing him to modern audiences.
Dave spoke to me about resurrecting the relatively obscure character, and the significance of the first Asian-led entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
I found ‘Shang-Chi’ to be one of the stronger MCU origin stories. Are there any unique challenges to writing origin stories?
For sure. With something like Marvel, the good and the bad news is that a lot of the titles, or at least, a lot of the titles that came out in the first three phases, were already familiar – Spider-Man, Captain America, Doctor Strange – the origin stories of those characters are canonical, you wouldn’t want to change them drastically for a film, they’re important to the fans.
In our case, Shang-Chi was not particularly well-known to the modern audience, and the books that the character originated from are now widely recognized to be fairly problematic and full of stereotypes, so we, for both of those reasons, were never really in the same position as a “typical” Marvel movie, meaning we had a lot of creative abilities that not everyone gets to have when working on a Marvel movie.
But that also can be paralyzing, because sometimes it’s nice to have that direction. With us, at times, it was intimidating how many different options we had and we had to make decisions, but ultimately it was really fun – I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
What was your research process like?
When Marvel starts a project they put together a big packet of publication history that they think is relevant, about a couple of hundred pages of comic books. In our case, it was the first batch of comics, some stuff from the early eighties, and a more recent run that’s happening now. I went through it, and when [director] Destin [Daniel Cretton] came aboard he had gone through it, and we both talked about what we liked and didn’t like, and what we might be interested in utilizing, or at least, reformatting.
But then, because we weren’t really adapting any one comic book story, we turned our attention toward the full picture of Asian cinema and Asian influence. We watched a lot of movies, shared ideas we had, things that were important to us growing up.
What interested you about the character?
I love the MCU, I love Marvel movies. I find it exciting as a writer but also as a fan – I like interconnected storytelling, I like theorizing. So, the opportunity to work with them was exciting but ultimately I realized that this was an incredible opportunity to be part of something truly historic.
Because this movie is representative of a thing that has not happened, generally, in Western culture, which is a 200 million dollar investment in Asian faces. To be a part of that, to tell a bit of my own story for the first time in my writing career, how could I say no?
I’ve spent 19 years writing professionally as a screenwriter and every single one of those experiences has been me not necessarily being asked explicitly, but being asked, essentially, to step into a perspective I did not have.
Which was, imagine you’re a super-cool white guy who’s good at everything, or imagine you’re a heroic Amazonian woman – now that sounds great, I’d love to be that, but I’m not – I’m an Asian-American who has struggled with issues of identity and ancestry.
So, to be able to express that in the way we do has been very cathartic for me, very therapeutic, really emotional. It was an experience I don’t suspect I’ll have frequently in this job, so I really embraced and appreciated it.
To what extent were you able to draw upon your own life experiences while writing ‘Shang-Chi’?
Well, my father is not a terrorist, as far as I know, but I have had the emotional experience of wanting to hide from one half of who I am – I’m half Chinese, so that’s the half I’m referring to. I grew up in an area that was not predominantly Asian, so I oftentimes felt overlooked, or othered. There’s a lot of different stuff that went into my experience of Asianness that made me not want to embrace that, to try to not stick out, and to try to embrace my Caucasian side a bit more.
Now, Shang-Chi is not having that specific experience, he’s running away from his father who is a literal thousand-year-old warlord. But it’s all just a metaphor for identity, right? So, yeah, I was definitely able to draw quite a bit, emotionally, from my life. It was wonderful.
It was important to me that Asian audiences felt seen, so any references, or experiences that I had that I thought might be validating to an Asian audience member I wrote in, but the cool thing about our movie is that those things came from everywhere – it was this massive community of Asian people from all over, having had different experiences, and sharing them with us.
That’s really what led to all the Asian cultural references you see in the film, the experiences of our entire cast and crew, not just Destin and I putting the words on the page.
Was the rewriting of Marvel canon (The Mandarin and the Ten Rings organization) a goal from the beginning?
With the Mandarin, we knew that we were going to be rebuilding that character pretty significantly, going into the writing process. Because, culturally, it’s just not appropriate to depict that character in the way he’s been depicted in the comics. We also had the unique experience of being saddled with an MCU that had already introduced both the notion of that character and the organization, but they had made those movies during a different time.
We had to look at everything that came before, and write out a chart of everything they had done up to this moment, and go back and explain how those things could have happened inside of the world we were depicting.
So, it was always understood that that was part of the process. Actually doing it was … harder than it sounded. But it was a fun challenge for sure.
Wenwu is an unusually empathetic Marvel villain – how did that characterization come about?
Once we knew the core of Wenwu’s story, that he’d lost his wife and was delusional, willing to believe anything because he was grieving, Destin and I got very excited about what that character was going to become.
I think that unless you’re a small child, everyone has had their own experience with loss or grief. Might not have been your partner, but we all know what it is like to lose someone meaningful to us. If you really believed that you could get that person back, what would you do? I think that’s something people could really understand. Not necessarily forgive Wenwu’s actions, but understand them. That’s what made the character fun to write.
Because you’re not writing a character intent on destroying the world – all this guy cares about is getting his life back. He was totally wrong about everything, but the motivation was honest.
What was the biggest challenge in writing ‘Shang-Chi’?
There are always challenges. You’re always getting new notes or new ideas, or you’re not all agreeing creatively. But honestly, I found the entire process fun – easy is not the right word because once you’re in production, things are moving at a faster clip, and you have to come up with ideas quickly. But we always felt like we had a pretty good grip on things pretty early in terms of what the core story was, and that always allowed us to feel confident exploring around that story.
The internal pressure that I put on myself, to want to do right by my Asian family and the larger culture, and more specifically, to do great work at Marvel; all those internalized pressures were probably the biggest challenge.
Was it difficult to find a balance between humor, action, and serious family drama?
I have a lot of experience writing large-scale action movies and comedies, so I have a pretty solid understanding of the dangers you can get into when you try to do both. If you put too much comedy into your action scenes you’re just going to kill off your stakes immediately, because if the characters aren’t taking the moment seriously, then why should you? I’m always aware of that, but it doesn’t mean I always do it correctly.
I really enjoy writing comedy, and trying strange comedic bits, and the Marvel team and Destin really allowed me to go off the deep end with that and try a lot of strange things – most of which didn’t make it into the movie (laughs).
Trevor, as an example, Ben Kingsley’s character, who we inherited from Iron Man 3, was a pretty weird, fun character – so to try to encapsulate that very specific voice that Sir Ben has for the character, that was super fun, I loved every second of writing jokes for Trevor.
One benefit of Destin and I being paired together was that there were times where he was wanting to try some jokes and I would pull him back and say “this isn’t the time for this,” and vice-versa. We acted as checks and balances for each other.
What are you most proud of in ‘Shang-Chi’?
I’m proud to have been a part of it, but now, I’m very proud of the way it’s been received. To be making a movie of this scale, full of Asian faces, but also to be releasing it in a very uncertain time, in terms of theatrical distribution and how people feel about going to the movies … there were so many variables that made this moment nerve-wracking, and to see that people care enough to want to go see it, and to share it with their families and friends, it tells me that we’re living through a moment of change, of accessibility and visibility.
That’s what I’m most proud of, to have been a part of that moment, as Hollywood was changing.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity