‘Shang-Chi’ hits theaters, showing how Marvel flipped the script on Hollywood

Analysis by Brian Lowry, CNN

(CNN)The Shang-Chi comics, titled “Master of Kung Fu,” were inspired by movies and TV in the 1970s — specifically, film star Bruce Lee and the series “Kung Fu.” As “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” hits theaters, it’s a stark illustration of how Marvel has flipped the script on the pop-culture equation.

In the 1970s, Marvel’s efforts to translate its characters to the screen were often tales of frustration. Today, comic books have become the life’s blood of movies and TV commercially, with Marvel emerging as the industry’s most reliable box-office draw, Warner Bros. throwing resources into DC and streaming services seemingly adapting one graphic novel after another.

Marvel introduced Shang-Chi as the son of the villainous Fu Manchu, after having sought to adapt “Kung Fu” into comic-book form. Unable to do so the company moved on, and when artist Paul Gulacy came aboard he rendered the central character as a striking likeness to Lee, who died in 1973.

At the time, the late Marvel patriarch Stan Lee faced regular setbacks and disappointments in his efforts to bring its characters to the screen, something he spoke about freely after Marvel scaled the heights of the movie business.

As former Marvel Productions head Margaret Loesch told Inverse in 2018, Lee even met with Bruce Lee’s son, Brandon Lee, about the prospect of portraying Shang-Chi, an idea that never got off the ground. (Brandon Lee died tragically as his acting career was taking off, in an accident on the set of the movie “The Crow” in 1993.)

Marvel enjoyed occasional breakthroughs — such as the Hulk and Spider-Man live-action TV shows that premiered in 1978 — but the company’s track record on screen was spotty at best, and awful at worst.

In TV, an animated version of Marvel’s flagship title “Fantastic Four” replaced the Human Torch (whose rights had been independently optioned) with a wisecracking robot named H.E.R.B.I.E. Ron Ely starred in a camped-up version of the pulp character “Doc Savage, The Man of Bronze.” “Conan the Barbarian” launched Arnold Schwarzenegger as an action star in the 1980s, but a few years later “Howard the Duck” became synonymous with box-office disaster.

As Stan Lee later noted, back then Marvel didn’t retain creative control over its properties in other media, resulting in “low-budget quickies” based on its titles, selling production options to “anyone who had $1.98 for the rights.”

Discussing the relationship then between comic books and Hollywood, Gerry Conway, a comic-book-turned-TV writer who left his stamp on such characters as Spider-Man and the Punisher, told the Los Angeles Times in 2003, “The people who were in a position to make decisions were generally ignorant as to what the material was, and there was an arrogance attendant to that ignorance.”

Those dynamics began to change thanks to Tim Burton’s darker “Batman” in 1989, from Marvel rival DC, followed by “X-Men” (a Marvel title whose rights had been sold off) in 2000. But plenty of hiccups and missteps remained.

Then in 2008, Marvel Studios sought to seize control of its cinematic destiny, producing “Iron Man” leading off a five-movie plan (including “Captain America: The First Avenger” and “Thor”) that culminated with the superhero team-up “Avengers.”

The rest, as they say, is history. Yet that doesn’t make the distance Marvel has traveled in that relatively short span — with “Eternals,” writer-artist Jack Kirby’s esoteric creation, up next — any less remarkable, especially for comic-book fans who lived through the bad old days of superheroes’ dysfunctional adventures in Hollywood.

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