Looking for Asian superheroes in movies and on television and finding almost nothing? You are not alone in your disappointment. The call from Asian actors and actresses including Constance Wu, DB Wong, Daniel Dae Kim, and the fans that love them, is coming through louder than ever. We want them in leading superhero roles! Marvel has seemingly always been at the forefront of embracing diversity, creating and employing characters of all races, religions, sexual orientations, and abilities in their comic books. In the ever-growing world of comic book films, progress is being made to live up to the precedent set by Marvel's source material. There is certainly room for improvement.
When thinking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films, the only Asian characters that come to mind are Dr. Cho from Avengers: Age of Ultron, Hogun from Thor, and Jim Morita from Captain America: The First Avenger. At least Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is prominently sporting the badass Agent May as second in command to the white male lead. On Fox's side, Bryan Singer included Jubilee in a few X-Men films, and actually let her speak in X-Men: Apocalypse (no powers, though). Chinese superstar Fan Bing Bing was a great addition to X-Men: Days of Future Past as Blink. Kelley Hu was a force to be reckoned with as Lady Deathstrike (despite being a watered downed version of herself) in X2: X-Men United. Ken Leung appeared in X-Men: The Last Stand as Kid Omega or Quill (seriously, they couldn't even name him correctly... just forget it, forget the whole film). These characters are important and nothing to sneeze at, but they were all reduced to supporting roles and cameos.
We have few Asian characters represented on the silver screen and none in lead roles to speak of. Let the record show that Asian characters are not in short supply in the Marvel universe, especially in the world of the X-Men. If you (or Fox or the MCU) are looking for some inspiration, here are seven Asian superheroes from X-Men lore that you should know about (though, there are so, so many others!):
1. Xi’an Chi Xan
Xi’an Chi Xan (alias: Desert Ghost; Controller X) is a Vietnamese American mutant that first appeared in X-Men 2099, a series based in the future of a “what if” alternate Marvel Universe in the year 2099. Xi’an was born into prominence, but was soon growing up on the streets in Vietnam. His parents were not happy after he first showed signs of his mutation— the ability to break down the molecular structure of anything he touches. They abandon him, by way of giving him to a genetics lab, securing their honor and respect in society sans one mutant son. Xi’an escaped, badass that he is, and lived life under the alias of the Desert Ghost until he was chased out of Saigon and moved to the United States. Xi’an’s life gets even more exciting as he becomes an ally and supporter of genetic equality, develops the secondary mutation of healing (while also developing a second, not so nice personality), and becomes the founder and leader of the X-Men of his time. Xi'an is a truly complex character and revolutionary who inspired change in his world, but also gave in to his darker side at the great expense of others.
Here is a person with unique talent that left a lasting mark on the X-Men. Xorn was born in China as Kuan-Yin Xorn and spent his childhood with an iron skull-like mask around his head while imprisoned to keep the population safe. Why? For starters, his head contained a miniature star. A star! The star emitted light so strong that it was capable of incineration. Beyond that, it could be turned into a black hole and was also capable of magnetism like qualities. Also, just to make him an overachiever, Xorn can heal people and survive without air and sustenance. Xorn has been the subject of more than one incarnation and he is a character that has appeared in different timelines. He also has some identity issues with both Magneto and Jean Grey (well, the young Jean Grey brought to the future in All New X-Men). It turns out Xorn’s identity and mask are marketable and needed by other mutants for various plots, schemes, and control tactics. Xorn taught at the Xavier Institute for a time; he worked with students more on the fringe of mutant society, but even they shunned him. Eventually he went out and killed a bunch of people. Xorn’s plot is pretty thick with mystery, intrigue, and surprise. His is certainly a name to be known in the X-Universe.
Suzanne Chen, code name Sway, is an Asian American mutant with awesome abilities and a tragic life. Born to immigrants from Hong Kong, Suzanne was 17 when her mutant powers manifested as her parents were murdered in front of her. Taken in by Moira MacTaggert, Sway began learning to master her gifts. These include chronokinesis (basically, being able to slow down and even stop time around her) and post-cognition (replaying and watching events in time). Sway and a few other mutants, including Vulcan and Darwin, were asked by Charles Xavier to rescue his original X-Men who were trapped on the mutant island; the island itself is a mutant named Krakoa. Things got really messy from there with Xavier doing some questionable things with his powers, including altering and erasing memories. Sadly, tragedy followed Sway to Krakoa and she was not able to have the future with the X-Men that we would have hoped for. Despite having a very short story arc, the downfall of Sway and her forgotten team ushered in the “official” second class of X-Men.
Sunfire (no, not Sunspot), aka Shiro Yoshida, is a tragic character born into a post bombing of Hiroshima world that inspired his hatred of the United States. His mother was exposed to the radiation from the bombing and, in turn, Shiro was born with his mutant super hot abilities. Early in his childhood radiation poisoning eventually killed his mother, leaving him with a lot of hostility towards the United States. In the comics he was born out of disaster; in our reality he was born out of Marvel writer Roy Thomas’ desire for greater diversity among characters in the X-Men. Thomas had said that Sunfire was created because the X-Men should not all be "white Americans". Thomas was clearly a man ahead of his time. Making his first appearance in X-Men issue 64, Sunfire illuminated the X-Universe with his abilities: generating superheated plasma, viewing his surroundings in infrared, flying, and harnessing and storing the sun’s energy. While he worked with the X-Men for a time, Sunfire also found himself in the employ of other groups and leaders including Big Hero 6, Apocalypse, and X-Corporation. Also, Mariko Yashida (Wolverine’s former fiancée) is Shiro’s cousin Because, why not? Small world, isn’t it?
Karma was a thrilling addition to the X-Men with more history than can be expressed here. Before taking on the name Karma, Xi’an Coy Manh was born in Vietnam where she manifested her mutant ability to possess the minds of others. During the fall of Saigon Karma’s father was killed while she and her remaining family escaped. While living as boat people, Karma’s family was attacked by Thai pirates. She and her mother were raped; her mother died shortly after. Arriving in New York City, Karma’s life gets really intense with story arcs that include fighting her twin brother, Tran, who shares the same mutation but uses it for evil. Their family quarreling soon involved Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four. Professor X shows up eventually paving the path for Karma to become the first recruited for the New Mutants. Karma has since become a long-standing member of the X-Men and its affiliations, worked at the Xavier Institute as a librarian and French teacher, and joined the Utopians. In 2003, Karma came out and expressed her romantic feelings for Kitty Pryde, making her one of the first comic book universe lesbian characters. Calling Constance Wu: I'd start advocating for this character to come to life in the next X-Men film; you would totally own this role!
6. Red Lotus
Red Lotus was born of Chinese and American heritage in Australia. His mutations include superhuman strength, speed, agility, coordination, balance, and endurance... making him sound almost like an Asian Captain America (#starringjohncho). Unlike Cap, his gifts are natural. Red Lotus first appeared when he went after some of the X-Men for the murder of his grandfather, who ran the Sydney Chinese Triad. Manipulated by the Examiner (who wanted the Sydney crime industry for Sebastian Shaw and himself!) into thinking Gambit was behind the murder, Red Lotus confronted the X-Men who were kickin’ it around Australia looking into high profile murders. Eventually things got sorted out, but not before Red Lotus took Rogue and Gambit down in battle and delivered them to the Examiner. The Examiner and Red Lotus had a falling out, and Rogue saved the day (because this is not Bryan Singer’s version). Red Lotus made nice with the X-Men and went on to become a member of the X-Treme X-Men, gets involved the with Hell Fire Club, and helps save Earth from an interdimensional invasion.
7. Namor the Sub-Mariner
Namor the Sub-Mariner is a character that invites debate: Is he a mutant? Is he Asian? Of these two questions we can say for sure that Namor is not only a mutant (he was previously considered a hybrid because he is half American and half Atlantean), but he is also Marvel’s “first” mutant. This is justified because he exhibits abilities that neither race does, like flight and super strength. Namor was the first mutant created by Marvel, showcasing in 1939’s Marvel Comics #1! So, there is that.
As for his being Asian, technically he isn’t as his mother is Atlantean and his father is white. Still, he is almost always depicted with Asiatic features. For several years, Asian actors have expressed interest in portraying Namor on the big screen. In 2010, Lost alumni Daniel Dae Kim said he would take the part if it was offered. As recently as this week Brian Tee (The Wolverine, TMNT) said that he would love to play Namor, especially as Marvel has recently (allegedly) secured the movie rights to the character. So, for our purposes, Namor qualifies and he is the most likely character to get some Asian representation on the big screen. Shouldn’t someone be calling Kim and Tee for auditions?
Now, back to the mutant at hand: Namor grew up with strong anti-“land-dweller” sentiments after humans nearly exterminated the Atlantean race. Eventually he got past this and fought in World War II against the Axis Powers. Skipping ahead in his many years of adventures, we get to his involvement with the X-Men. As early as X-Men issue 6, Professor Xavier and Magneto both try to recruit Namor. This led to him contemplating membership as a part of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, even leading him to fight against the X-Men before opting out. Since then, Namor has gone on to fight alongside the X-Men, get tangled up with the Hellfire Club, and help recover Jean Grey cocooned at the bottom of the Hudson Bay after her encounter with the Phoenix Force. While he is certainly a free agent, there is no denying Namor is a notable character in X-Men folklore.