A History of Asian Superheroes on Film

It’s been a long time since superheroes were solely on the pages of comics. In the 21st century, they’ve come to dominate film and television, with a torrent of new superhero movies and shows every year. With that increased volume of media has come a demand for greater representation and diversity among these heroes, including for Asian characters.

While these characters have been part of the superhero movie genre since the beginning, these depictions haven’t always been positive. Over the decades, Asian actors and creators have led a push for better representation, shifting away from stereotypes and towards authentic realities. Here’s a run-down of some of the genre’s most important Asian heroes and villains.

Before we get started, just a few points of clarification. First, this piece concerns superheroes as depicted on film and television. That means some iconic Asian heroes, from the Green Turtle to Kamala Khan, aren’t included here not because they aren’t important, but because they haven’t appeared in live action yet. Second, creators working in Asian countries have also created works with iconic superheroic characters, from Hong Kong martial arts cinema to Japanese animation, to Bollywood, and more. This piece is meant as a history of Asian characters, as they’ve appeared in the primarily American superhero genre, historically dominated by Marvel, DC and white superheroes. Finally, this is not an exhaustive list, but a history of major moments in Asian representation in the superhero genre. While I tried to include a wide selection of Asian characters from various superhero movies and shows, I will inevitably have missed one character or another. Now that that’s all clear, let’s start at the beginning. 

Kato: An Early Beacon of Representation

The 1943 “Batman” serial featured an early major Asian character in the form of the yellowface villain Dr. Daka, a World War II-era Japanese stereotype portrayed by the Irish American actor J. Carrol Naish, famous for his yellowface portrayal of Charlie Chan. At the same time, however, there was already a real Asian superhero gracing the silver screen. 

The character of the Green Hornet began as a popular radio serial in 1936. The titular character, a crime-fighting newspaper publisher, was always accompanied on his adventures by Kato, his hyper-capable assistant, first portrayed in live action in a 1940 serial by the pioneering Chinese American actor Keye Luke. Of course, the actor most associated with the character of Kato is Bruce Lee, a real-life Asian superhero in his own right.

Portraying Kato in the “Green Hornet” television series was Lee’s break into American stardom, with his charisma and impressive martial arts skills causing Kato to outshine his white partner in heroics. Even as the show was canceled after only one season in 1966, Kato quickly became an icon.  In Hong Kong, “The Green Hornet” was better known as the “Kato Show,” and jumpstarted Lee’s now-legendary career in martial arts cinema.

 In the 2011 “Green Hornet” film, in which Seth Rogen put a comedic spin on the titular hero, Taiwanese multihyphenate and “King of Mandopop” Jay Chou portrayed Kato, further reflecting the star power associated with the character.

 Kato was not the most nuanced portrait of an Asian character. His full name is never given, and his nationality and culture is vague. Originally depicted as Japanese, and voiced by Japanese American actor Raymond Hayashi in the radio series, Kato was later rebranded as alternatively Filipino and Korean in the wake of World War II, and is Chinese in the 2011 film. 

Nevertheless, Kato was also a breakthrough character for Asian representation. He is consistently depicted as strong, intelligent, and competent, often more so than his ostensible boss, in strong contrast to the negative stereotypes many other Asian characters of the era embodied. At a time when it was commonplace to have white actors in yellowface portray Asian characters, a la Dr. Fu Manchu or Charlie Chan, Kato was only portrayed by Asian performers. 

DC, The X-Men, and the Modern Era

The following decades saw a relative lack of superhero media overall, but in 1993, another Asian hero came to the small screen. “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” was a fairly traditional take on its titular hero, but was notable in its casting of Dean Cain, who is of Japanese and British descent, as the Man of Steel, a character traditionally portrayed as white. While Cain’s heritage didn’t factor into the show’s depiction of Superman, it nevertheless marked an exciting moment for Asian superheroes, and a new method of increasing representation: casting Asian actors as traditionally white characters. 

This would later be seen in the character of Blink in the X-Men film franchise. Traditionally depicted as a dimension-bending mutant named Clarice Ferguson, Chinese actor Fan Bingbing and Korean American actor Jamie Chung both took on the role of a new version of the character renamed Clarice Fong in 2014’s “X-Men Days of Future Past” and the 2017 television series “The Gifted,” respectively. 

The X-Men franchise, known for its themes of diversity, has incorporated some minor Asian characters into its live-action lineups. In 2003’s “X2,” Chinese Hawaiian actor Kelly Hu portrayed Lady Deathstrike, a Japanese assassin with metal talons and the strength to go toe-to-toe with Wolverine. Jubilee, a Chinese American member of the X-Men with the power to form energy blasts, appeared in the background of the 2000s X-Men films, played by Chinese Canadian actor Kea Wong, before getting a small supporting role in 2016’s “X-Men: Apocalypse,” portrayed by Vietnamese American actor Lana Condor. 

2013’s “The Wolverine,” which features the titular character in Japan, has, logically, a largely Japanese supporting cast, including Rila Fukushima as Yukio, an assassin with the ability to see the future, and Haruhiko Yamanouchi and Ken Yamamura as the older and younger incarnations of the supervillain Silver Samurai, respectively. 

After Superman, DC Comics adaptations have featured only a few Asian characters. On the television front, “Legends of Tomorrow” has an ensemble which currently includes Chinese American actor Ramona Young as the werewolf-esque Mona Wu, and “Black Lightning” features Vietnamese Canadian actor Chantal Thuy as the shapeshifting Grace Choi. In film, the ensemble of 2016’s “Suicide Squad” included Japanese American actor Karen Fukuhara as Katana, a samurai-inspired warrior previously played by Rila Fukushima in the series “Arrow.” Fukuhara has continued to work in the superhero genre, also playing Kimiko Miyashiro, also known as the Female, in the superhero satire series “The Boys.” 

In 2019, “Shazam”’s ensemble of superpowered foster children included Eugene Choi, played in child form by Taiwanese American actor Ian Chen and in adult superhero form by Ross Butler, who is of Chinese Malaysian and Dutch-English heritage. Zack Snyder’s upcoming director’s cut of “Justice League,” released theatrically in 2017, is set to feature Chinese actor Zheng Kai, also known as Ryan Zheng, as Ryan Choi, the secret identity of the size-changing character the Atom, a role that was left on the cutting room floor in the film’s theatrical cut. 

“Aquaman,” in addition to being the biggest hit to come from DC’s recent slate of films, featured a radical reinvention of its titular character. Jason Momoa, who is of Hawaiian and Irish-German heritage, is a far cry from the blond, blue-eyed Aquaman of the comics, but he, alongside director James Wan, who is of Malaysian Chinese descent, added an emotional racial component to the story of the half-human Arthur Curry struggling to be accepted by the aquatic people of Atlantis, all portrayed by white actors. 

This year’s “Birds of Prey” featured Ella Jay Basco, who is of Filipino and Korean heritage, and the niece of Filipino American actor Dante Basco, as Cassandra Cain in its diverse all-female ensemble. Behind the scenes, the film was also written by Christina Hodson, who is of Taiwanese and British descent, and directed by Cathy Yan, who is Chinese American, a milestone that serves as an important reminder that representation is both behind and in front of the camera. 

The MCU and Trouble Behind the Scenes

The Marvel Cinematic Universe, the mega-franchise on top of the superhero genre, has featured an array of Asian characters across film and television. In many of its entries, Asian characters were relegated to bit parts, like Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano as the Asgardian Hogun in “Thor,” and Korean American actor Kenneth Choi as Japanese American soldier Jim Morita in “Captain America: The First Avenger” (both 2011).

 The “Spider-Man” series’ Ned Leeds, a friend of Peter Parker played by Filipino American actor Jacob Batalon, and FBI Agent Jimmy Woo, played by Korean American actor Randall Park in 2018’s “Ant-Man and the Wasp” are more examples of this phenomenon. Wong, as played by Chinese English actor Benedict Wong in the “Doctor Strange” films, is at least a far cry from the stereotypical manservant he was in the early comics, but is left with not much to do beyond make quips. 

Ironically, the one Marvel franchise to center Asian characters is the one that takes place the farthest from Asia, or even Earth. The titular team in the “Guardians of the Galaxy” series features both the straightforward warrior Drax, played by Dave Bautista, who is of Filipino and Greek heritage, and the empathetic Mantis, portrayed by Pom Klementieff, whose parents are Korean and French-Russian. Although both Drax and Mantis are aliens, and thus have little in the way of representing Asian cultures in their characters, they nevertheless represent the growing diversity of the genre. 

In Marvel television, Asian characters took center stage from the beginning. “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” which ran from 2013 to 2020, featured two Chinese American characters in lead roles, as the titular team featured both Ming-Na Wen as weapons expert Melinda May and Chloe Bennet as the troubled superhuman vigilante Quake. Other Marvel television projects also featured Asian heroes, such as the gothic Japanese American Wiccan, Nico Minoru, played by Lyrica Okano in “Runaways,” which ran from 2017 to 2019. 

“Iron Fist,” the Marvel Netflix series which ran from 2018 to 2019, featured the character of Colleen Wing, portrayed by Jessica Henwick, an English actor of Chinese Singaporean and English heritage, in a supporting role, but also attracted controversy for its stereotypical portrayal of East Asian culture and characters. In particular, many viewers objected to the show’s centering of Danny Rand, a white character, in a series centered around East Asian martial arts and Buddhist practices. 

In July, Japanese Canadian actor Peter Shinkoda, who played Japanese crime boss Nobu Yoshioka in “Daredevil,” another Marvel Netflix series, accused Jeph Loeb, a prolific writer in comics, film, and television, and the former head of Marvel TV, of purposefully cutting down the roles of Asian characters in Marvel series. Shinkoda alleges that Loeb told the writers of “Daredevil,” “nobody cares about Chinese people and Asian people” in film and television, and instructed them to cut storylines between his character and Madame Gao, played by Hong Kong actor Wai Ching Ho. 

2021 and The Future of Asian Superheroes

Two Marvel films, both scheduled for release in 2021, feature both Asian stars and writer-director pairs. “Eternals,” scheduled for November, is directed by Chloé Zhao, who is Chinese American, and written by Kaz and Ryan Firpo, who are Japanese American. Among the titular ensemble of immortal space beings are three Asian actors: Chinese English actor Gemma Chan as Sersi, an Eternal with a love for humanity (this is actually Chan’s second MCU outing, as she had a minor role as Minn-Erva in 2019’s “Captain Marvel”), Pakistani American actor Kumail Nanjiani as Kingo, an Eternal who blends in on Earth as a Bollywood actor, and Korean American actor Ma Dong-seok, also known as Don Lee, as Gilgamesh, a powerful Eternal. 

While very little is known about “Eternals” other than that its plot concerns the titular characters uniting to protect the Earth, its combination of talent behind and in front of the camera promises a unique opportunity for representation of a diverse range of Asian characters. 

The higher-profile, and more controversial, of these two films is “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, an American of Japanese and Irish-Slovak heritage, written by Chinese American screenwriter David Callaham, and starring Chinese Canadian actor Simu Liu in the titular role. The film is scheduled for release in July 2021, but a project involving the character, a Bruce Lee-inspired martial artist, has been in development for decades, with Lee’s son, Brandon, originally considered for the part in the 1980s. 

While an exciting opportunity for Asians in the superhero genre, Shang-Chi is a character with roots in older, more stereotypical depictions of Asian characters. In the original comics canon, he is the son of Fu Manchu, a character whose very name has become synonymous with caricatured depictions of Chinese culture. In the film, Fu Manchu is replaced with the Mandarin, a comic book character who has also been the subject of controversy.

The Mandarin was the ostensible villain of 2013’s “Iron Man 3,” where a false Mandarin was portrayed by the Indian English actor Ben Kingsley, while the “true” Mandarin was revealed to be mad scientist Aldrich Killian, played by Guy Pearce. While the recasting of the Mandarin to be white was intended to avoid playing into Asian stereotypes (something Marvel also did by casting Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One in “Doctor Strange,”) it was met with less-than-unanimous praise. In the case of the Mandarin, Marvel replied to fans with the 2014 short “All Hail the King,” which reveals that the “true” Mandarin remains out there in the Marvel Universe, and is upset that his identity was appropriated. 

In “Shang-Chi,” Hong Kong film legend Tony Leung Chiu-wai is set to play the Mandarin. Cretton seems to be aiming for a different approach than earlier films, saying in a September 2019 interview that Leung “brings a humanity that we need for that character. We are not looking to contribute anymore to the Asian stereotypes that we have seen both in cinema and pop culture… I’m excited to have (Leung) help us break some of those stereotypes.” Anticipation is high for “Shang-Chi,” as is anxiety. With an all-Asian lead cast that also features Awkwafina, Ronny Chieng, and Michelle Yeoh, the film could be for many Asian viewers what 2018’s “Black Panther” was for Black ones. But the specter of Shang-Chi’s stereotypical roots looms over the project, and only time will tell if the “Shang-Chi” team is able to dispel stereotypes in favor of authentic representation. If they succeed, they very well may start a new era for Asian superheroes on film.

Written by Oscar Kim Bauman

Illustrated by Thumy Phan

Edited by Carla Matsue