How One Studio Is Pioneering the Martial Arts Version of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

·6-min read

Peter Shiao, founder and CEO of Immortal Studios, is bringing wuxia storytelling to Western audiences

You may not be familiar with the term wuxia, but the martial arts fantasy genre is the basis for such films like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “The Matrix” and even the recent “Mortal Kombat.” It’s derived from two Chinese words: wu (martial) and xia (hero). Wuxia stories have existed for hundreds of years in the Far East. Now, Los Angeles-based Immortal Studios seeks to bring the genre to the West (and globally), while preserving the authenticity of its classic stories.

Immortal’s founder and CEO Peter Shiao recently chatted with TheWrap’s Lawrence Yee about his studio’s mission and why wuxia stories are especially important now as anti-Asian violence surges in the United States.

Shiao has a deep personal connection to wuxia. Growing up in Taiwan, Shiao was told wuxia tales filled with flawed but courageous heroes embarking on mythical adventures. His father, Shiao Yi, was one of the best-known wuxia novelists. Shiao Yi continued to write after immigrating to the United States, where he established a foothold, while also gaining a strong following in China (his works were adapted in novels, radio and television shows). Shiao Yi even met legendary Marvel creator Stan Lee in Los Angeles, where they pledged to continue to write as much as they could.

Lee’s characters — Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Black Panther — have become the pillars of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has spawned 23 films to date and brought in over $22 billion at the box office. With intellectual properties being snapped up by individual studios (Marvel by Disney, DC by WarnerMedia), there’s a demand for new heroes and new tales, especially with diverse origins.

There’s already a huge wuxia universe out there; it just has to be brought together. That’s where Shiao Yi’s son Peter and his Immortal Studios come in.

“When my dad passed away two years ago, I knew that it was time for me to pick up the mantle where he left off,” Shiao explained. “I actually spent a few years putting together his complete library. That’s 130 movies and television shows already. I started to give voice to the stories I’ve always wanted to tell; I started to create my own titles. And then this universe was born, this interconnected hero universe.”

With a storyverse in place, Immortal’s next step was to create content. In spite, or because of, his experience in film production, Shiao decided to focus on comic books first.

“One of the reasons why I think Hollywood is really struggling with risk and cost is that there isn’t a good way to prototype stories,” he explained. “We settled upon this idea that we’re going to use comic books — which I love and grew up reading — as a minimum viable product to test and engage. And to kind of be as ambitious, as daring we want to be in this world.

“That’s how our whole model was born. And this year alone, we’re going to deliver five titles that are interconnected and lay this foundation for this interconnected wuxia storyverse that the world has never seen before,” he added.

Shiao recognizes that he’s in it for the long run. Lee founded Marvel Comics in 1961, and it took decades for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to come together. Shiao believes having a strong, scalable foundation is the key.

“We’re already developing multiple titles in motion-picture terms that would’ve cost hundreds of millions of dollars to get us to this point, but for us, we spent a fraction of that, and we think that really scales. [We] not only treat comics as a stepping stone but as a unique destination and [are] really making a commitment to the comic industry. We’re not just going to be an overnight group; we’re here to stay because I think comics are a great way to create an iterate IP, especially for our position where we have such a vast library that’s tapping into thousands of years of legends and storytelling. I don’t think Marvel or DC has anything on us, to tell you the truth. And that may sound a little bit crazy, but it’s really my point of view.”

Immortal is also offering artists from diverse backgrounds opportunities to break into the industry.

“The little-known secret is some of the best artists working in comics are Asian. They’ve been trained by Marvel and DC, [but] they haven’t really been given a chance to really go into the genre in such a huge way. So we’ve stepped up and offered some of these creatives a chance to do something that they are truly, truly passionate about.”

Immortal’s stories come at a time when greater Asian representation is needed in media to combat the anti-Asian violence that has surged in the last year.

“It’s been a very traumatic period,” Shiao agreed. “We, as a company, have this mandate to awaken the hero in everybody, and we’ve taken this moment to really take on this issue. One is to call attention to the fact that APIs have been living very, heroic lives, you know. Our heroism, culturally, may not be understood by other people who don’t understand Asian culture. But if you did, you will appreciate that. There’s so much that Asians and Pacific Islanders have already brought to this country. And it’s time that we take a different lens to it.”

“The other thing is to really own the fact that we are creators in Hollywood, and that we have a chance to, through storytelling, change the narrative. So, through a summit [AAPI Heroes] that we’re organizing in concert with many, many partners, we’re bringing together a who’s who of the entertainment industry, public sector, public leaders, community leaders and members in the news media to really examine how we can take all this energy and anxiety of the moment to be for the representation of Asians,” he continued.

“Not only in America — because I think in Hollywood — we have this idea that we are actually creating culture for the world. So in as much as Asians are a small percentage of a North American population, you know, six or 7%, depending on which stats you’d look at, but consider that the world is 60% Asian, and we’re not getting an accurate view of reality in commercial terms, which is the language of Hollywood, I think there is a huge missed opportunity to go to the public square and create something that is truly globally reflective.”

Click here to learn more about Immortal Studios, their AAPI Heroes initiative and check out Peter Shiao’s full interview with TheWrap, above.

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