Crazy Rich Asians comparisons to Black Panther not quite fair

Commentary: The stakes are high in making sure Crazy Rich Asians isn’t just a blip.

Roger Cheng Former Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
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Roger Cheng
5 min read

Constance Wu plays Rachel Chu, an Asian American NYU professor who discovers her boyfriend is part of one of the richest families in Asia. 

Warner Bros Entertainment

Mission: Impossible - Fallout gave us Tom Cruise hanging from a helicopter. Avengers: Infinity War gave us an unprecedented collection of superheroes battling a purple god (and that snap!). But the most exciting thing I've seen on screen this summer? A cast of fully developed characters played by Asian actors. 

After watching Crazy Rich Asians, I walked out of the theater with extra pep in my step.

With Asian actors so often forced into roles where they either serve as the butt of a joke or a sexualized object of desire, seeing a more glamorous, sophisticated take on Asians was nothing short of groundbreaking.

How long has it been since a film like this hit a movie theater with mainstream American audiences? The last contemporary Hollywood studio film with an Asian cast, the Joy Luck Club, premiered 25 years ago.

So it's no surprise that the Asian-American community is rallying behind this film, which reportedly is getting a sequel directed by Jon M. Chu. Asian representation in American pop culture has been, well, terrible, and we understand the stakes of this film -- its success could open the door to a demographic that hasn't always gotten a fair shake in media. That includes the whitewashing of Asian characters like Ghost in the Shell's Major Motoko Kusanagi, played by Scarlett Johansson.

Just as the black community supported Black Panther by renting out entire theaters to broaden the film's reach, prominent Asians did the same with Crazy Rich Asians. I talked with friends and families about our commitment to watching the film and contributing to its success, a broad push encapsulated by the Twitter hashtag #GoldOpen. My cousins made it a big family outing with children and grandparents alike. My wife and I couldn't get a babysitter, so we took turns with the kid while the other watched the film. 

Fortunately, while Crazy Rich Asians marks a cultural touchstone, it's also a fantastic film.

The movie stars Constance Wu as Rachel Chu, an Asian-American professor at New York University who visits Singapore to meet her boyfriend's relatives, only to realize they make up one of the wealthiest families in Asia. The movie follows her struggles to win the approval of the family's matriarch and fit in with the crazy rich folk.


Michelle Yeoh (center) plays the matriarch of the crazy rich Young family. She's more than just a "tiger mom." 

Warner Bros. Entertainment

While the film offers a glimpse into the world of the super rich, it never forgets to ground itself with relatable, likable characters. Wu offers a strong, sympathetic portrayal of an outsider trying to fit in, while newcomer Henry Golding's Nick Young exudes charisma. Michelle Yeoh plays the matriarch of the Young family as less of an archetypal "tiger mom," and more a woman with a history and understandable motivations. Its humor comes in some of the weird antics rich people get up to. (Firing a rocket launcher at a party?)

And with food playing such an important role in Asian culture, it's no surprise you'll leave the theater hankering for some Singaporean cuisine.

Crazy Rich Asians depicts its share of familiar rom-com tropes, from a quirky sidekick to a fashion montage to the leading man's climactic grand gesture. Chinese takes on popular, recognizable songs like Madonna's Material Girl drive the narrative with an appropriate pop, although it's Katherine Ho's Mandarin take on Coldplay's Yellow, an appropriation of a term with racist connotations for Asians, that leaves you tingling during the big finale. 

It's that explicit intent to apply an Asian lens to a genre so familiar to mainstream audiences that makes Crazy Rich Asians so culturally significant. It's also why the comparisons to Black Panther are so easy to make.

The comic book epic, which starred a predominantly black cast and featured a black director, sparked a wave of black pride. For months after the film premiered, you saw fans performing the Wakanda Forever salute.

But some of the comparisons aren't fair. For instance, Black Panther was the latest in a long-standing series of hit Marvel movies using a winning formula of action, comedy and wit that's been there since the original Iron Man.

Crazy Rich Asians is based on a best-selling novel published in 2013 by Kevin Kwan. While it was a hit by literary standards, it doesn't have the benefit of a legacy of 17 hit movies preceding it.


Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians show diversity pays off. 

Marvel Studios

Rom-coms, meanwhile, aren't exactly raking it in. Crazy Rich Asians is the first film in this genre to top the weekend domestic box office in more than three years.

That's why its box office take -- $34 million since it opened on Wednesday -- may be more significant than the $192 million Black Panther collected over its debut weekend.  It also helps that Crazy Rich Asians scored a 74 on Metacritic and a 93 on Rotten Tomatoes.

I'm not taking away anything from the success of Black Panther, which both entertained the masses and energized the black community. Both films are proof that diversity isn't only good socially, but good from a business perspective too.

But my hope is Crazy Rich Asians' success sparks a new level of acceptance for Asians in Hollywood. Searching, the first thriller starring an Asian-American actor (John Cho), debuts this week. Netflix's To All the Boys I've Loved Before stars Lana Condor, who was born in Vietnam, and hit the service earlier this month. (You may have recognized her as Jubilee from X-Men: Apocalypse.) And Crazy Rich Asians star Wu is best known for the ABC comedy Fresh off the Boat, which features an Asian-American family.

Watch this: How Marvel made 'Black Panther' look so amazing

But keep in mind that a year after The Joy Luck Club premiered to much acclaim, there was a similar wave of optimism for Asian-Americans. A prime-time network sitcom, All-American Girl, starring Margaret Cho, aired a year later. Action series Vanishing Son arrived the same year, while Jackie Chan's Rush Hour and Sammo Hung's Martial Law arrived a few years later.

And just like that, it all faded away. All-American Girl, Martial Law and Vanishing Son swiftly got the ax, and Hollywood never capitalized on Joy Luck Club's box office win, with only Rush Hour proving to be a bonafide franchise.

So will Crazy Rich Asians mark the beginning of a trend, or turn into another blip in the history of pop culture? Watching smart, beautiful Asians in a movie theater made for a nice novelty. I'm hoping it won't take another 25 years for the next film to get made. 

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