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Simu Liu Cast in Surprisingly Promising Barbie Adaptation from Gretta Gerwig

A few weeks back I wrote an article titled ‘What’s Next for Simu Liu, where I noted his rise from stock image stand-in to a worldwide star in 2021 after playing the title character in one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s freshest origin stories to date, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. It’s been quite a wild ride for the young actor, who no doubt has a long, bright career ahead of him, but you wouldn’t have necessarily thought that mere weeks ago.

Liu seemingly had sparing upcoming projects, which comes off as unusual for a budding star who had a career year in 2021, but it is also quite misleading. The actor is entrenched in the MCU as one of its newest, brightest stars, and will likely be a driving force for the new generation of heroes being steadily introduced into the universe. If that ain’t worth consideration right off the bat, then I don’t know what is. However, developments over the weekend suggest that Liu is busier than we thought, as he has been sought out by one of the most talented young writer/directors in Hollywood for an adaptation that, admittedly, has left many scratching their heads….at first.

For a significant portion of her career, Greta Gerwig was largely known as an indie ‘mumblecore’ darling with some writing credits under her belt, as well a solid co-directorial effort with Joe Swanberg, Nights and Weekends, which released all the way back in 2008. Since then, Gerwig has proven herself a creative force to be reckoned with. Her first solo directorial outing, 2017’s Ladybird, which she also wrote, released to universal acclaim. ‘How universal?’, you ask. Well, it went on to become the highest rated film with 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, beating out Toy Story 2 which had 163 reviews, and this is a record Ladybird held until the 197th review, which was its first negative write-up, downgrading the film to 99% where it sits to this day with 398 reviews, only four of which are “Rotten”. Gerwig subsequently earned nominations for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars (in addition to a Best Picture nod and acting nominations for Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf). While she failed to land any statues, Gerwig’s next project, an adaptation of Little Women, earned her similar acclaim and another nomination at the Oscars, this time for Best Adapted screenplay, while Saoirse Ronan once again earned a Best Actress nod alongside Florence Pugh for Best Supporting Actress, with another Best Picture nomination to boot. 

Any lingering questions surrounding Gerwig, if there were any to begin with, were silenced with Little Women, which made the revelation that she was writing a live action Barbie adaptation with her creative and domestic partner, Noah Baumbach, an easier one to swallow given that it was announced several months prior to Little Women’s release in 2019. The mixed emotions brought on by this announcement by no means question the significant talents of Gerwig and Baumbach, but rather the source itself. Mattel’s Barbie is a cultural icon and arguably the best-known children’s doll in the world, but it is also a source of controversy for how the doll depicts a slender body image that is wholly impossible to achieve but longed for by many.

Once you take a moment to consider the project, Gerwig’s participation makes a whole lot of sense, a sentiment shared by the studio producing the adaptation as the filmmaker also officially signed on to direct last year. Gerwig’s brand of feminist cinema is exactly what a property like Barbie needs, and there is immense potential to toy with the material (pun intended) and frame things in unexpectedly positive ways that can combat the inherent issues behind the doll, with Gerwig herself acknowledging “People generally hear ‘Barbie’ and think, ‘I know what that movie is going to be,’ and then they hear that Greta Gerwig is writing and directing it, and they’re like, ’Oh, well, maybe I don’t…’”. There is good reason to anticipate an adaptation more akin to the ingenious creative flourishes of The Lego Movie rather than the artistic massacre that is Tom Hooper’s Cats.

The talent the project has attracted thus far only solidifies the promising direction that Gerwig is taking with the material, as Margot Robbie has been in line to play Barbie since 2019 – already a perfect piece of casting – while Ryan Gosling was cast as the movie’s Ken last year. At the same time Simu Liu’s involvement was announced (or at least that he is in talks for an undisclosed role), it was revealed that Emmy-winner America Ferrera has also been cast. The reason why both actors are significant additions to the movie is that Ferrera has been a proponent of positive body image for years, which is reflected in some of her most notable roles, such as Ugly Betty and Real Women Have Curves. Liu, then, has been outspoken in his views toward representation in film and television, especially Asians. For these reasons, it’s difficult to imagine either actor agreeing to a project that would betray either of their ideals.

This time last week, I honestly didn’t expect to be covering the Barbie adaptation, but here we are, and for good reason. Almost any other interpretation of the doll would aim to be superficial and schlocky, but it seems those involved with this project will instead look to subvert expectations and bring more positive messaging to the institution that is Barbie.

Barbie is set to film this year, and while an exact release date has yet to be announced, it is expected to come out some time in 2023.

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