In Everything Everywhere All at Once, the new genre-defying, multiverse-traversing film from directing duo the Daniels (Swiss Army Man), there are many Waymond Wangs (all played by Ke Huy Quan). There is the ass-kicking “Alpha” Waymond, who jumps through dimensions and tries to save the multiverse; there is the smokily hot, straight-out-of-a-Wong-Kar-wai-film Waymond, who is the one that got away; and then there is the distractible, incompetent yet lovable Waymond, doting husband to Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh).
Michelle Yeoh’s Evelyn is undeniably the hero of Everything Everywhere All at Once—it’s her impeccably performed emotional and physical journey through many parallel timelines simultaneously that the story hinges around. But in a film that’s full of kung-fu action, slapstick comedy, and philosophical meditation, Ke Huy Quan’s role(s) as the many different Waymond Wangs are what I am still thinking about. It’s a rare depiction of an Asian male lead that not only rejects and deconstructs Hollywood’s stereotypes of them but also serves as a necessary evolution for Asian representation in cinema.
Quan, best known for his roles in The Goonies and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom as a preteen, left retirement to appear in the film—his second appearance since 2002. Despite his early success, as he got older, Quan found that there were fewer and fewer worthwhile roles for Asian actors in Hollywood, leading him to step away from the industry. “I struggled for a long, long time,” he said in a recent interview with GQ. “ I was just hoping that phone would ring with an amazing offer to be in a movie like Indiana Jones or The Goonies, or a great role for an Asian actor, and it never came. I was so dispirited and disheartened.”
In the 1990s, as Quan aged out of his child star days, meaningful roles for Asian men were few and far between—as they have been throughout the history of Hollywood. The roles available to Asian men on screen have often riffed on one of a few modes: the action star, at once stoic and unemotional like Jet Li in The One; or the action star, both submissive and effeminate like Jackie Chan in the Rush Hour series. There’s also the unattractive and creepy Asian male character, like (non-Asian actor) Mickey Rooney in yellowface in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Very rarely the hero or romantic lead, Asian men are often shunted into the parts of the loyal sidekick, friend, or butt of the joke (think Sixteen Candles’ Long Duk Dong). That is, when they’re not typecast as mysterious highly skilled martial arts villains (Fu Manchu, Mortal Kombat’s Scorpion).
Over the last decade-and-a-half, filmmakers and critics have made more concerted efforts to draw attention to these damaging, stereotypical portrayals and their impacts. In the documentary The Slanted Screen (2006), Asian American male actors and filmmakers describe being dispirited and demeaned through the impact of stereotypes on the limited roles and stories available for Asian men in Hollywood. In the last decade, more Asian men have begun appearing in acclaimed roles with depth and dimension in American media than ever before. On TV, shows like Master of None and The Walking Dead have won acclaim for starring Asian and Asian American men as romantic leads and action heroes. But such portrayals are still rare. More recently, big-budget films such as Crazy Rich Asians and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings have responded to these stereotypes by placing their handsome, ripped leads front and center. Both movies portray Asian men as viable sex symbols, a rarity in Hollywood cinema. (In fact, Crazy Rich Asians is what inspired Quan to step back in front of the camera, telling GQ that watching the film gave him “major FOMO.”) These films attempt to break down Hollywood’s stereotypes of Asian men by creating characters who directly contradict them: Strength replaces weakness; sex appeal replaces unattractiveness; virility replaces femininity.
While these mainstream examples of reconceiving the Asian male lead are important, they are an imperfect solution. Mimicking the types of opportunities that white male Hollywood actors get and filling them with men of Asian descent might be a form of representation, but it can often just lead to reiterating chauvinism with Asian skin. Instead of repackaging sexism, Asian men should aspire to do much more.
Asian Marvel heroes and flawless romantic leads are tropes that still follow myopic understandings of masculinity—a perspective that no movie until Everything Everywhere All at Once has satisfyingly subverted. Quan’s performance doesn’t buy into the common binaries to combat Hollywood’s representation problem. Instead, the many Waymond Wangs Quan plays offer a rebuttal to both Hollywood’s myriad stereotypes for Asian men and recent, limited attempts at undoing them. Developing American film’s portrayal of Asian masculinity can’t just mean making men strong. When we first meet Waymond, he is the traditional picture of a middle-aged immigrant dad: He has a bowl haircut, thin wireframe glasses, and a fanny pack (which, later, Alpha Waymond uses to great effect in a fight scene for the ages). He cuts a slight figure, more of a string bean than the Dorito-triangle torso of many of Hollywood’s heroes. Not only is he the antithesis of the typical leading man, but he’s also the opposite of much more outspoken, strong-willed Evelyn.
The film makes this explicit when, instead of asking the man to leave as his wife would prefer, Waymond ends up singing and dancing with him around the family’s laundromat. By allowing himself to be twirled around by another man in front of his wife, he embraces the role of the “female” dance partner, subverting the “effeminate Asian man” stereotype by portraying it as a sign of cunning, not weakness. He takes advantage of the perception the audience may have that he will be weak and defenseless to surprise us and the characters within the film. His wife is no longer harassed by this man; he’s enamored of her husband, his behavior diffused.
In one of the alternate universes that Evelyn and Waymond drop into during the movie, we meet a sophisticated, debonair version of Waymond, who is the polar opposite of Evelyn’s dorky husband. His character oozes romance in a way that isn’t typical for Asian men in American film; he doesn’t have a gimmick, he’s simply kempt, friendly, and classy. But even then, the character flips our expectations of a romantic lead from the type of sensual Chinese drama that Everything Everywhere All at Once is aping from in this moment. When Evelyn moves to kiss him, he turns her away. Instead of making this Waymond swoop Evelyn off her feet and “get the girl,” we see this version of Waymond actively refuse the chance at romance—getting the girl is not a requirement for him to feel self-worth, especially when this girl doesn’t quite know what universe she belongs in.
Quan’s role is most pointedly subversive when Waymond’s deference to Evelyn is portrayed as a positive trait, not a character flaw. Alpha Waymond is a martial arts master and expert in navigating the multiverse’s blurry boundaries. Initially, he protects and trains Evelyn, showing her how to tap into her various talents from other dimensions. But when she hatches a (seemingly ludicrous) plan to defeat the inter-dimensional being that’s hunting her and threatening the entire multiverse, Alpha Waymond lets her take charge. Instead of acting as the all-knowing “alpha” with a bullish insistence on leading alone, he trusts Evelyn and facilitates her half-baked, but ultimately successful, idea.
At the end of the movie, Evelyn’s Waymond—the one that we met at the film’s start—offers another counterbalance to the all-action support of Alpha Waymond. He arrives and begs Evelyn’s antagonists for empathy: He saves the laundromat from the feds’ attempted seizure after the couple fails their tax audit. When an outraged, discombobulated Evelyn swings a baseball bat through the window of the laundromat and is arrested by the police, Waymond quietly sweeps up the broken glass, a sweet moment that, at the same time, might betray his utility here. But we find out later that Waymond wasn’t just cleaning up inside; he also has spoken with the IRS agent trying to reclaim the family’s assets and convinced her to give them another chance at submitting their audit. As Evelyn is released from custody, the couple shares a genuine embrace: Waymond’s gentle persuasion has saved the day in the face of Evelyn’s aggression.
The earnest goodness of Evelyn’s Waymond is best shown in the movie’s big conflict. Waymond is stabbed by the movie’s main antagonist, but he gets up to stand between the antagonist and Evelyn. In the ensuing stand-off, he pleads for the violence to end. He doesn’t understand the interdimensional war. Unlike Alpha Waymond, the dreamer Waymond has no idea what’s going on, but he does understand that aggression only begets more harm. He is a fighter as well, he says, but instead of asserting his strength with his fists, he fights with kindness. Portraying yet another challenge of stereotypical masculinity, this Waymond doesn’t have to comprehend the situation to do good in it.
Quan’s performance as Waymond is full of extremes, all of which he expertly handles. In his hands, the film is able to shine a light on stereotypical Hollywood roles for Asian men then constantly scramble them. What results is a complete reconception of the modern Asian male lead: Waymond, or any Asian character, doesn’t have to be reduced to any one thing—just like white male leads never have to be limited to one specific characteristic. He can be anything and everything all at once.
Correction, May 9, 2022: This article originally misspelled the protagonists’ surname. It is Wang, not Wong.