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Filmmaker Spotlight: Destin Daniel Cretton

The first Asian-led superhero film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, has been racking up some impressive box office numbers, making its writer and director a timely choice for this installment of Filmmaker Spotlight. Destin Daniel Cretton worked extensively in the indie world before helming the Marvel tentpole, sharing a similar career trajectory with names like Taika Waititi, Ryan Coogler and Chloé Zhao. 

Cretton grew up in Hawaii before leaving for the mainland at the age of 19 to attend Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. While he figured out his next steps after graduation, Cretton worked at a short-term care facility in the area that helped at-risk teenagers. He eventually attended film school at San Diego State University, but the experience stuck with him and inspired his thesis project entitled “Short Term 12.” The short film made it into the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Jury Prize in the U.S. short filmmaking category. 

Then in 2013 came the feature-length version of Short Term 12, which Cretton also wrote and directed. It put the budding filmmaker on the map and also featured an impressive roster of name actors who were relatively unknown at the time, such as Rami Malek, LaKeith Stanfield, John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, and Brie Larson. The latter would go on to star in his next feature, The Glass Castle, a film he co-adapted from Jeannette Walls’ memoir, as well as directed. The Larson/Cretton collaboration continued with his following film, Just Mercy, in which she starred opposite Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx, who respectively played the real life public interest lawyer Bryan Stevenson and the wrongfully convicted death row inmate Walter McMillian. 

Then came Shang-Chi. During an interview for the San Diego Union Tribune with his former journalism professor, Cretton recalled how he’d previously told his agent that he never wanted to do a Marvel movie. But when it came to light that the studio would be making its first-ever Asian superhero feature in the MCU, Cretton revisited the matter with his agent. “I told him, ‘I take it all back,’” he recalled with a laugh. “I asked if he could get me a meeting.”

Cretton, of course, landed the tentpole film and helped develop it from the ground up. “When I came on, I was writing in the room with Dave Callaham and our producer, Jonathan Schwartz; we were kind of starting from a blank page and deciding what this movie was going to be,” the filmmaker told Screen Rant. He shared with Variety one of the ways they overcame tropes that had surrounded the Shang-Chi characters in the film’s comic book source material. “There is a way to break stereotypes just through casting,” Cretton asserted. “One big reason why we chose the people that we chose was because they were playing these characters differently, and they weren’t playing the cliché version of them or the expected version of them.”

The Shang-Chi cast included Simu Liu as the titular superhero, along with names like Awkwafina, Michelle Yeoh, and Tony Leung. Cretton told The Hollywood Reporter that Yeoh and Leung were his “childhood legends,” and the experience of working with them only increased that viewpoint. “When I met and worked with Tony and Michelle, it’s like they became more legendary,” he noted. “They are so classy, fun, open, silly and able to really tap into the childlike creativity that we all need in order to remember that we’re really just playing make-believe in front of a camera.”

As for working with Larson again, we won’t give away any spoilers and say if Cretton continued his streak of working with the Captain Marvel actor via an appearance in Shang-Chi or not. But we can tell you that with his work helming the first Asian-led superhero film in the MCU, we think Cretton has certainly earned his own place in the spotlight.