Like it or not, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is one of the most dominant forces in pop culture. As a result, all those who have an interest in on-screen representation should care about the kind of characters that Marvel puts on screen. Their record to date has been spotty, at best, but in honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, it’s time to take a look at the best AAPI characters from across the MCU.
Edward ‘Ned’ Leeds
Peter’s best friend hasn’t gotten a ton of screen time outside of the Spider-Man trilogy, but he’s been core to each one of those movies. Ned is goofy, but he’s also kind and loyal, and he’s the first one who finds out who Peter really is. It’s a brilliant decision to bring Ned in on Peter’s identity early on because it gives him someone to talk to about everything he’s going through. Ned has never been a protagonist, but he’s been a remarkably good comic foil through three films.
Wong is a classic example of how Marvel can use and then re-use its actors. When he first shows up in Doctor Strange, Wong seems like just one small part of a broader picture, but he has since become the sorcerer who almost always appears alongside Benedict Cumberbatch’s Stephen Strange. In Multiverse of Madness, Benedict Wong has a great time in a clear supporting role, and he even gets moments to shine in movies like Avengers: Endgame. He’s become one of the most integrated AAPI members of the MCU, and seems happy to fill that role.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is going to take up quite a few spots on this list and given that it’s the only Marvel movie with a primarily Asian cast, that makes some sense. Although Shang-Chi has a wonderful roster of supporting actors, the movie wouldn’t work without Simu Liu as Shang-Chi. His work as a stuntman made him a perfect fit for the movie’s many well-choreographed action scenes, but Shang-Chi is also searching for his identity throughout Legend of the Ten Rings, and we’re thrilled to see him finally find some meaning by the end of the movie.
Perhaps the single best addition in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is Mantis, Pom Klementieff’s alien who is capable of reading emotions. She ingratiates seamlessly into the Guardians ensemble, and almost immediately becomes one of its funniest members. Not only does she get to say things like “kick names, take ass,” but she’s also crucial to the initial plan that the Guardians come up with alongside Tony and Dr. Strange to take on Thanos.
James ‘Jimmy’ Woo
Randall Park’s FBI agent is one of the many things that makes Ant-Man and the Wasp a delight, and his return in WandaVision only cemented his status as one of the funniest guys in the MCU. Few actors today are better at playing geeky bureaucrats, but Jimmy gets a few good moments in thanks in part to his bond with Scott Lang over their shared love of magic. Ant-Man and the Wasp works a bit like a magic trick, and Jimmy is one of that film’s central elements that made it successful.
One of the very best villains in the MCU, Xu Wenwu is a man driven not by a desire for power or revenge but a desire to see the love of his life again. Tony Leung is one of the great screen actors of his or any generation, and seeing him take on a role this meaty in the MCU is an incredible treat. Wenwu is thoroughly sympathetic, and he clearly has some love for his children. He may ultimately lose his battle with his son, but not before we see that he’s a better man than most of the MCU’s villains.
Eternals is one of the strangest movies Marvel has ever made, but Gemma Chan’s Sersi is undeniably its beating heart. Chan already had a small role in Captain Marvel, but they wisely decided to allow her to take on a more meaty part here, and she does so with aplomb. While all of the Eternals are wooden to one extent or another, Chan is such a naturally gifted screen presence that she’s able to transcend the limitations of the movie’s script. Here’s hoping that Sersi can return in future MCU installments and continue to radiate positive energy.
If you wanted Eternals to contain that typical MCU trademark snarky sense of humor, then look elsewhere. Fortunately, the movie did have the good sense to cast Kumail Nanjiani in a central role as Kingo, the member of the Eternals who took his time off to become a movie star. Kingo is by far the most charismatic of the Eternals, and he’s also the funniest. Do we totally understand why he decides to bail on the final battle? No, but that’s not Kingo’s fault. He’s a great character who we may or may not see again. If he does return, though, we’ll be ready for him.
If you didn’t already know that Michelle Yeoh was a legend, Everything Everywhere All at Once likely proved it to you. She may have a smaller role in Shang-Chi, but during her crucial interaction with Shang-Chi, she totally reorients how he thinks about battle. It’s the kind of pivotal scene you can only entrust to an actress of Yeoh’s caliber, and she pulls it off expertly. Ying Nan may show up in an eventual sequel, and if she does, here’s hoping she gets even more to do next time around.
Awkwafina is a delightful addition to the MCU, in part because her purely comedic energy gels so well with the general tone of the world. As Katy, she’s also effectively Shang-Chi‘s second lead, even though she doesn’t have any real powers to speak of. One of the movie’s great feats is the way it integrates Katy into the story without ever making it feel forced. Katy is a lot like Ned Leeds, a useful sidekick who can provide emotional support, but doesn’t hide from a fight when she figures out that one is coming her way.