A popular reading of superhero mania holds that it’s our era’s substitute for shared mythology; instead of Zeus shooting lightning bolts from Mount Olympus, we have Cyclops shooting beams from his eyeballs. So it’s fitting that the coming-of-age tale “American Born Chinese” streams on Disney+, the service that’s a one-stop shop for all things Marvel; Destin Daniel Cretton of “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” the first Marvel film to star an Asian American hero, even directs the pilot. But “American Born Chinese” flips the script: rather than use superheroes for modern-day mythmaking, it infuses centuries-old myths into genres (action, bildungsroman) now dominated by superheroes.
Loosely based on Gene Luen Yang’s 2006 graphic novel and created by Kelvin Yu of “Bob’s Burgers” and “Master of None,” “American Born Chinese” revolves around Jin Wang (Ben Wang), a rising sophomore desperate to fit into his majority-white high school — so much so that he’s ditched his nerdy friends who like comics and cosplay for some soccer jocks, and shoplifts a trendy jacket his mom deems too expensive to buy at full price. Every day, Jin deals with microaggressions that stop just short of explicit racism. His coach and classmates keep calling him “Jim.” A teammate quotes a catchphrase from an old sitcom that trades in ugly stereotypes. And when a new student named Wei-Chen (Jim Liu) shows up, Jin gets assigned to show him around, clearly because Wei-Chen is also Chinese.
But Wei-Chen is not what he seems. A prologue informs us he’s actually the son of Sun Wukong (Daniel Wu), also known as the Monkey King — a legendary figure and protagonist of the classic novel “Journey to the West.” With his father’s stolen staff in hand, Wei-Chen has come to Earth from Heaven in search of a MacGuffin he calls the Fourth Scroll, which he believes can help quell an uprising against Heaven’s Jade Emperor. The details of this cosmology and the show’s particular take on it are never explained in full, partly because it’s not important. The gist is clear enough: Wei-Chen wants to prove himself apart from his parent, and that desire for independence puts him on a parallel track with Jin. Whether you’re a supernatural being or an ordinary high-schooler, everyone’s just trying to make it through adolescence in one piece.
This dichotomy of extraordinary and all-too-ordinary is responsible for both the highs and lows of “American Born Chinese.” The season strains to squeeze a lot into just eight episodes: on top of Jin’s Peter Parker-esque attempts to juggle belligerent demons and magical amulets with a crush on his biology partner, there are meditations on the immigrant experience and even evolving standards of Asian American representation. You could say it’s a bit of everything, everywhere, all at once — a comparison that’s all but invited with the presence of Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan and Stephanie Hsu among the ensemble cast. The actors, especially Quan and Hsu, are a peripheral presence, though one that positions “American Born Chinese” alongside a great Hollywood success story.
Like the Daniels’ Oscar-winning hit, “American Born Chinese” is often strongest on the older side of a generational divide. Wei-Chen and Sun Wukong are acting out an archetypal tug-of-war between patriarch and prodigal son. But here on Earth, Jin’s parents Simon (Chin Han) and Christine (Yeo Yann Yann) are quite literally more grounded. Simon struggles to assert himself at work or bond with colleagues over cultural mainstays, like fantasy football, he didn’t grow up with in Taiwan. Christine wants Simon to be more ambitious and entrepreneurial, advice she takes herself by investing in a new business. “American Born Chinese” is very much a kids’ show, yet it gives older viewers an accessible, empathetic entry point.
Simon and Christine’s subplot eventually merges into Wei-Chen’s quest, albeit abruptly. So does Quan’s arc as the erstwhile star of “Beyond Repair,” the dated TV show now weaponized to mock kids like Jin. But “American Born Chinese” is so sprawling that its efforts to tie everything together end up hasty and haphazard. The actual mechanics of the magic are also hazy. Why does Wei-Chen’s scheme require him to regularly attend a human junior high? Why does Yeoh’s goddess of compassion decide to pose as his aunt, complete with sharing an apartment? The latter sets up some jokes about IKEA assembly — amusing, but not so much so that they justify the entire storyline.
It’s admirable that “American Born Chinese” doesn’t feel the need to overly explain itself to viewers unfamiliar with the stories it’s referencing, nor is explanation always necessary. (You don’t need to know the specific context of “Spirited Away” to get swept up in the story.) Yet the show also passes up obvious opportunities to connect its various threads, as when Jin finally understands Wei-Chen’s true nature. Rather than take the organic chance to do some exposition or character work between the two friends, “American Born Chinese” simply moves on to the next scene. There’s just too much to do in too little time.
The maximalism of “American Born Chinese” is more beneficial to its visual style. The CGI and special effects can show the strain of an overextended industry, but the use of influences like wuxia and Hong Kong action films is a breath of fresh air when so many combat sequences across film and TV look identical. A midseason episode, a flashback set almost entirely in Heaven, is delightfully immersive; a divine awards show goes off the rails when the Monkey King shatters a peach like a simian Gallagher. The scene is “American Born Chinese” at its most confident and least confusing.
At the other end of the real/surreal spectrum, Wang and Liu give their characters a sweet, complex friendship that gives the show a center of gravity. Wei-Chen has all the confidence Jin lacks, and while Jin occasionally resents his new peer for calling attention to them both, he’s won over soon enough — maybe even too soon. The pairing is yet another aspect of “American Born Chinese” you’ll wish had more time to play out and breathe. That sounds like a complaint, but it’s ultimately a compliment. In 2023, it’s rare for a show to have more ideas than space, not the other way around.
All eight episodes of “American Born Chinese” are now streaming on Disney+.