John Woo takes first stab at superhero genre with Stan Lee's Monkey Master

Hong Kong-raised director John Woo has been quiet since his 2017 thriller Manhunt.
PHOTO: Venice International Film Festival

When news broke last week that John Woo was joining forces with the late, great Stan Lee, you could practically hear the internet salivating.

The director behind such Hong Kong cinema classics as Hard Boiled and Face/Off taking on a live-action version of Monkey Master, an unreleased 2016 comic series co-written by the Marvel supremo – the very thought of it is a hugely exciting prospect for any fan of the superhero genre.

Woo, who turns 75 in September, is earmarked to produce the project, alongside – among others – Lee’s co-writer on the series, Sharad Devarajan. There’s no word yet on whether Woo will return to the director’s chair too, though he would be a prime candidate to take the job.

His last effort was 2017’s breathless contemporary thriller Manhunt ; since then, he’s been quiet – both as producer and director.

The source material loosely deals with the Chinese legend of the Monkey King, a mythic figure featured in the 16th-century classic Chinese novel Journey to the West who gains supernatural powers through Taoist study.

Having already inspired numerous video games, manga, animations, and live-action film and TV adaptations, the character clearly intrigued Woo, who told industry paper Variety : “I have always wanted to make a film based on the Monkey King story of China but have struggled with a new way to present it.”

Lee and Devarajan’s comic series toys with the Chinese legend as New York City archaeologist Li Yong discovers an ancient prophecy about the Monkey King. He travels to India, where he encounters a hidden power and is transformed into a superhero, The Monkey Master.

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Woo praised the “unique” take on the ancient story for incorporating “the mythological character’s unexplored journey to India”, adding that it contained all the elements he loves in a project – “great characters, action and adventure”.

Intriguingly, it would not be Woo’s first attempt to delve into the world of comic books. He previously bought the rights to Radical Comics’ Caliber, a supernatural retelling of the legend of King Arthur relocated to a Wild West setting.

“It’ll be a Hollywood production,” Woo told this writer during the promotional rounds for his historical 2008 action-adventure Red Cliff . Set to be a co-production, with Woo joining forces with Johnny Depp’s outfit Infinitum Nihil, the project stalled.

Monkey Master , meanwhile, would be Woo’s first dip into the world of superheroes. After his early career, reinvigorating Hong Kong action cinema with films like The Killer and A Better Tomorrow , Woo enjoyed a fruitful decade in Hollywood, beginning with 1993’s Hard Target , starring Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Yet, ironically, his last Hollywood movie – 2003 sci-fi Paycheck , adapted from a short story by Philip K. Dick – came just at the time when the superhero genre was coming into vogue.

While Woo turned away from Hollywood, the studios were too busy embracing Lee-created characters like Spider-Man and the X-Men to notice. Still, it seems only right that the Hong Kong-raised director is given the chance to take a crack at a genre to which his own filmmaking skillset seems perfectly tailored.

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Moreover, rather than be recruited by Marvel or DC Comics to take on another Spandex-wearing do-gooder, this feels more in line with Woo’s recent fascination in exploring Chinese history in films like Red Cliff and The Crossing.

Even Lee himself saw Monkey Master as something different in his own oeuvre. Speaking in 2016 after finishing the series, he said: “I’ve written countless superheroes of every nationality and every part of the world before, I’ve even created many heroes from other planets and galaxies, but Monkey Master  will be unique in how it interweaves myth to create a modern-day hero.”

When I last met Woo, he enthusiastically talked up the idea of creating films that build bridges between Eastern and Western culture. “That’s what I always like to do and hope I can do more,” he said. “They can learn so much from each other – in business, culture, life.”

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This offers Woo exactly that: the chance to create a cross-over film that will appeal not only to Chinese and Western audiences but also to those on the Indian sub-continent – a huge market Hollywood has often failed to tap.

As it stands, there’s no word yet on casting – although it wouldn’t surprise this writer if someone like Crazy Rich Asians star Henry Golding comes into the picture. Whoever they go with, with Lee’s former company POW! Entertainment and Devarajan’s Graphic India outfit involved, Monkey Master may yet be the first major superhero project produced outside the Hollywood studio system.

Given the potential size of the project and Woo’s advancing years, it could also be the last huge-scale movie he takes on. If that’s the case, it feels like the perfect story to climax a career as compelling as his.  

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.