‘Shang-Chi’ Director Destin Daniel Cretton Deserves His Victory Lap After What It Took To Make This Marvel Movie

For a minute, put yourself in the shoes of Destin Daniel Cretton. For the most part, his films have been critical hits and usually, like Short Term 12 and Just Mercy, revolve around the emotional bonds between human beings. None of his films come close to being anything that would ever be described as “action.” When he tells the story of how he even came to be the director of a Marvel movie, he admits he wasn’t sure this was the right time in his career to take on such a big movie like Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (which is arriving in theaters on September 3). But after what sounds like some informal meetings with Marvel turned into very serious formal meetings where this might actually happen, he decided, alright, it’s time to do this.

Then a couple things happened. Cretton’s wife, Nikki, told him they were going to have their second child only two months into production. And then a month after that, the pandemic hit. So, now, here’s this huge movie that Cretton debated about doing under normal circumstances, and he’s making it under some of the most unusual circumstances in the history of cinema. Anyway, yes, for our whole interview, Cretton had this kind of smile on his face. It’s the kind of smile that you only really get to have after something like this particular situational feat is accomplished.

In Shang-Chi, the title character (Simu Liu) most cope with his past and one again face his father, Wenwu (Tony Leung), who happens to be the leader of an international crime syndicate called the Ten Rings and, also, he is the owner of the mystical Ten Rings, which gives him unbelievable powers. It’s also important to note that Wenwu is a new character, not from the comics. (In the comics Shang-Chi’s father is, well, complicated and bad and too much to get into right here.) Wenwu, at times, has also gone by the name The Mandarin, among many other names. Yes, it’s all potentially confusing.

What’s interesting here is what Cretton is doing is trying to take the parts of The Mandarin from the comics that are interesting, then disposing of the parts that are dated or stereotypes or all around awful. And, no, the movie does not forget how Iron Man 3 dealt with The Mandarin, and Cretton explains why he decided to salvage certain aspects. Cretton also talked to us about an almost forgotten 2014 Marvel One-Shot, in which Trevor (Ben Kingsley) from Iron Man 3 learns that The Mandarin may not be made up after all.

This is my joke: as someone who has seen your past movies, there’s something just a little different going on in this one. At least, there are a lot more fights.

Could you find any similarities between them?

Your movies deal with the bonds of friendship and family, which I think run through a lot of your movies and certainly this one. Even Glass Castle, that is a fraught family.

Right. Yeah. It’s funny, because, I mean, obviously I’ve never done anything like this before. But what I found throughout the process was how familiar it felt. Yes, it was daunting to step into making the decision to do this movie. But, throughout the process, it really didn’t feel like a creative process that I was not used to. It was actually very fun.

You say “step in the decision.” What does that mean? Do you pitch Marvel? Do they come to you? Because I could see that going either way.

I mean, there’s a point, sometimes, it starts with a conversation. In this case, it started with a conversation. Where I went in to just kind of chat with Jonathan Schwartz, the producer of this movie, and find out what they’re up to. But I wasn’t thinking that I would even get to a pitching point. But there’s a point when that conversation turned into two and then three. And then he asked me to come in and pitch what I would do for the movie, if I wanted to direct it.

Why did you not think it would get to a pitching point?

I wasn’t sure I wanted to get to a pitching point. I honestly didn’t think at this point in my career that I wanted to go and do a giant movie like this. But my conversations with Jonathan and the team at Marvel was actually very inspiring and really fun. And so, it kind of got me excited to go in and actually try to get the job. So that’s when I put together the pitch of what I would actually do in the movie. And I mean, I didn’t think I would land it, but I did. But I was very happy that I did.

So you weren’t sure you wanted to make a giant movie. Then you go for it, then the pandemic happens, and I know you had your own scare. This seems like an extraordinarily difficult situation.

Yeah. It was like so many things were piled onto my plate that it just became laughable. And my wife, Nikki, we would just sit and laugh sometimes at the number of things that we were juggling. After I actually got the job for Marvel and knew when we were going to go shoot, my wife started laughing when she told me, “Surprise! We’re pregnant! And we’re going to be having a baby two months into production.” And that child, our second child, was born one month before the pandemic hit. And we all found ourselves together in a house in Sydney for three months when production shut down. And it was like everyone in the world were just shifting their lives to push through it. And it actually, coming out the other side of this movie, I felt in a lot of very aligned with the emotional ride of Shang-Chi and his journey of learning to redefine the hard parts of his life: The pain of his life, the difficulties. And redefine them and refocus them and turn them into his super powers. And that, I think, is something we’re all kind of striving to do right now.

I remember interviewing Jon Favreau for Iron Man 2 and him saying The Mandarin wouldn’t work at that point and, “The Mandarin would probably need to be interpreted with a large degree of creative license because it will not look like what’s in the comics.” Then Iron Man 3 turned a version of that character upside down. In Shang-Chi, it feels like you took parts of that character, like the Ten Rings, and forged it into something that can work.

Yes. I mean, that was the number one challenge of this creative process, was redefining and giving a clear context to the questions that were posed in previous movies around the Ten Rings and this idea of “The Mandarin.” As soon as we decided to go out to an actor like Tony Leung, I think that was the tone setter for what we wanted to do. And the caliber of the character that we needed to create, in order to get somebody like Tony, needed to be a character that was breaking stereotypes, not contributing to them. Showing people a version of this character that they have heard of and surprising them, in a way, with how human they are – how much they might actually relate to this villain of our movie. And I’m so excited for people to see what Tony brought to this character.

I’m curious how much the One-Shot All Hail the King fed into Shang-Chi. In that, “we can really play off this and do some interesting stuff,” just based on that short they set up seven years ago?

We definitely. … I mean, I know Drew [Pearce] and I love that One Shot that he wrote and directed. And it was a sharp film and that’s part of the MCU. And so, we want to be true to that story as well. And including that storyline in this movie I think was not only just really fun, I think it’s essential to hear that character admit how ridiculous that whole situation was.

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