What we know as the Marvel Cinematic Universe today started over a decade ago and ushered in a new age of superhero storytelling. Comic book characters are stars in their own right and cultivated fan bases beyond their print pages and animated series.
During the ‘70s, the same held true for Bruce Lee, whose own legend turned him into an icon. There was a moment when Lee’s world—and his son Brandon—intersected with Marvel and spawned the possibility of bringing his presence into the MCU before an official MCU existed.
Stan Lee acknowledged Bruce Lee’s impact
Lee is revered as the person who brought martial arts into Hollywood cinema as he was known as a fight coordinator for television and film. After The Green Hornet ended, Lee devoted much of his time to training celebrities and teaching in his martial arts school in Los Angeles.
He left for Hong Kong for a few years where he turned into a kung fu film star and then came back to the US to try and get film projects off the ground.
By the early ‘70s, kung fu and martial arts were starting to gain steam, and after Lee’s death in 1973, his movies and star power soared into popularity.
According to writer Nigel Clarke, in 1974 Stan Lee published a special Marvel black-and-white comic magazine titled The Deadly Hands of Kung Fu. The publication revolved around martial arts and Bruce Lee. One issue even laid out his life story in comic form.
Clarke reached out to Stan Lee to discuss Bruce Lee’s influence and how some Marvel characters embody him. Lee told Clarke, “What made Bruce Lee special was the fact that he was a human who did extraordinary things! He was believable, he was a superhero, but the attraction was that he was real! You felt like you could be him.”
He went on, “Bruce Lee was a man of peace, he was a man of philosophy, he encouraged people to be the best they could be. He wasn’t violent. In fact, that was the similarity between Bruce and many of the characters at Marvel. They weren’t looking for a fight, they did their best not to get into fights .”
Marvel’s Shang-Chi is inspired by Bruce Lee
Marvel’s extensive cache of heroes and villains are gleaned from the imaginations of their creators and the lives of real people. In the case of Shang-Chi, Bruce Lee was the template. The character was originally created by Jim Starlin and Steve Englehart and appeared in the comics in 1973.
Clarke caught up with Stan Lee’s successor, Marvel writer and editor Roy Thomas, and he told him that Shang-Chi’s design was based on Bruce Lee. “Shang-Chi was often drawn to look a lot like him.”
In an interview for Comic Book Artist Collection, Volume 3, Shang-Chi/Man of Kung Fu artist Paul Gulacy spoke about the kung fu era in film and the hole that Bruce Lee’s death left. He wanted to bring his essence to the character.
“What I tried to do at that time was bring Bruce Lee back in a sense. When Bruce died, I felt that Man of Kung Fu was the only outlet for a Bruce Lee-type guy—that’s how I saw Shang-Chi. It was a continuation of all that fun stuff.”
Stan Lee wanted to cast Brandon Lee as Shang-Chi
Years before Marvel laid out its Phase 4 and 5 plans and the upcoming Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Stan Lee was on it. He had a vision for Shang-Chi that included Bruce Lee’s son, Brandon Lee.
Margaret Loesch, former CEO and President of Marvel Productions told Inverse that Stan Lee wanted to cast Brandon Lee for the special project.
“Stan introduced me to Linda, the widow of the great Bruce Lee, and Brandon Lee, his son. They came to our Marvel offices. They talked about the kinds of comics that Stan had done, and he mentioned that comic,” she said.
Stan had great belief that those movies and TV shows based on those types of characters could be very popular. I can’t remember what happened, I think maybe we felt out the networks and they weren’t interested because of the violence. But that’s how I recall that property, because I had not been familiar with it until then.
Sadly, Brandon passed away in 1993 before he had the chance to work on any Marvel-related superhero projects. The upcoming Shang-Chi film is still among Marvel’s most anticipated and will feature the talented Simu Liu in the lead role.