Marvel Studios’ Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings brings Hong Kong martial arts action to the Marvel Cinematic Universe with an Asian American twist, creating a beautiful blend of East and West styles.
Shang-Chi has to be good. That’s the burden of representation and why it’s so hard to be “first.” As the first Marvel film starring Asian actors, directed by an Asian American, written by an Asian American, and full of Asian creatives in the cast and crew, Shang-Chi carries the hopes of the Asian American community. An analysis of Shang-Chi cannot simply view the film as another superhero story. There’s a cultural significance to it that has to be considered, and frankly that raises the bar for success.
There are those who question why Shang-Chi is so significant when there have been award winning Asian films (Best Picture winner Parasite) and hugely successful Asian American films (Crazy Rich Asians). While those films certainly have their well deserved places in the pantheon of impactful Asian cinema, there isn’t a more broadly powerful film brand right now than Marvel Studios. Of course, in many ways, Shang-Chi exists because of the success of films like Crazy Rich Asians and Parasite, but Shang-Chi will reach more viewers than either of those films…combined. Getting the Marvel Studios call up is simply another level.
With that kind of responsibility and scrutiny, Shang-Chi has to be more than just a good film. It has to be a really good film that authentically represents Asian and Asian American cultures, and establishes fully developed, emotionally layered Asian characters that stand shoulder-to-shoulder with icons like Thor, Captain Marvel and Black Panther.
With all that in mind, Shang-Chi is a triumph. Director Destin Daniel Cretton has created a film that is action packed, emotionally satisfying and surprisingly hilarious. Asian Americans can finally feel like a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings premieres only in theaters September 3rd, and will release on Disney+ 45 days later. Mild spoilers below!
Shang-Chi is a comic character created by Marvel Comics in 1973, just as the martial arts craze was taking over the United States. After Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon premiered in August 1973, martial arts dominated pop culture and Kung Fu schools popped up in seemingly every strip mall in the U.S. It’s easy to assume that Shang-Chi was based on Bruce Lee, and in many ways he was. However, co-creators Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin actually based their character off of the popular television series Kung Fu, starring David Carradine.
Of course, fans of Bruce Lee know the sordid history between the martial arts legend and the TV series. Regardless, Englehart and Starlin were fans of the show, and when Marvel acquired the rights to the racist character of Fu Manchu, created by English author Sax Rohmer, they needed a new hero. Thankfully, Englehart and Starlin actually made their hero Chinese, and though he was more of a caricature for the bulk of his decade-long, 125 issue run, Shang-Chi made a lasting impact in the minds of many Marvel Comics fans. Over the last few decades, Shang-Chi has been a spy, a street level fighter with the Heroes for Hire, a member of the Avengers, a senior member of the Agents of Atlas, and most recently he’s become the Supreme Leader of the Five Weapons Society.
It makes sense then that when Marvel Studios was looking to develop an Asian superhero film on the heels of the massive success of 2018’s Black Panther, they turned to Marvel’s most enduring Asian character.
Marvel Studios’ Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings stars Simu Liu as Shang-Chi, who must confront the past he thought he left behind when he is drawn into the web of the mysterious Ten Rings organization.
The film also stars Awkwafina as Shang-Chi’s friend Katy, with Michelle Yeoh as Ying Nan, and Tony Leung as Xu Wenwu, Shang-Chi’s father; as well as Meng’er Zhang, Fala Chen, Florian Munteanu, Benedict Wong, Yuen Wah, Ronny Chieng, Zach Cherry, and Dallas Liu.
Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings is directed by Destin Daniel Cretton and produced by Kevin Feige and Jonathan Schwartz, with Louis D’Esposito, Victoria Alonso and Charles Newirth serving as executive producers. Dave Callaham & Destin Daniel Cretton & Andrew Lanham wrote the screenplay for the film and the screen story is by Dave Callaham & Destin Daniel Cretton. The film opens in theaters on September 3, 2021.
Asian American Authenticity – It’s important to recognize that Shang-Chi is an Asian American character. In fact, in the comics, Shang-Chi’s mother is a blonde white American woman. Of course, that part of his origin has been conveniently ignored for years and is definitively removed in the MCU version, but his Americanness is preserved as a young man who immigrated from China. It’s critical to understand who the character is. Thus, possibly the single most important thing that Shang-Chi had to do well is authentically represent the Asian American community, and director Destin Daniel Cretton proved to be the perfect choice to do just that with this film.
The primary theme of the story is Shang-Chi’s (Simu Liu) struggle between wanting to move on from his family history and being forced to accept his father’s legacy. It’s the Marvel version of the Asian American experience. So many of us desire to ignore the seemingly archaic traditions of our parents and embrace the shiny modernness that America represents. For Shang-Chi, his family’s history is more complicated, considering his father Wenwu (Tony Leung) is an ageless warlord who wields one of the most powerful weapons in the world.
However, the ten rings represent more than just a weapon. They represent the family legacy that most immigrant parents desperately want their children to carry on. Wenwu tells Shang-Chi that he gave him 10 years to avoid his responsibility but now it’s time to “go home.” Shang-Chi’s response is one that every child wants to believe at some point – “I’m nothing like you.” Of course he, like many of us, eventually realizes that family legacy isn’t one that he can ignore forever.
Even more than Shang-Chi, the Asian American perspective in the film is primarily embodied by Awkwafina’s Katy. She serves as the Asian American audience’s proxy, experiencing the all-too-familiar feelings of awkwardness, inadequacy, and otherness that many of us feel when faced with traditional Asian culture.
Perhaps the most powerful moment in the film is when Wenwu brings Shang-Chi, Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) and Katy to his Ten Rings compound. The quartet sit around a table and discuss the power of names. Wenwu asks Katy what her name is…her real name, to which Katy shyly mumbles her Chinese name.
To someone who’s never experienced the stifling feeling of being caught between two cultures, this scene may barely be memorable. However, to most Asian Americans, what Katy experiences under the condescending gaze of Wenwu is something we’ve felt many times.
Cretton, along with Asian American scribe David Callaham, also does a masterful job crafting a story that deftly manages the messier elements of Shang-Chi’s background, including the historically racist concept of “The Mandarin.” From Wenwu’s dissection of the name, to the surprising way they integrated Sir Ben Kingsley’s Trevor Slattery into the story, Cretton and Callaham more than rose to the challenge.
Well Developed Characters – Shang-Chi succeeds in creating multiple well-rounded characters who experience their own arcs throughout the course of the film. Shang-Chi and Katy are a surprisingly lovable team full of heart and humor. Xialing is a brutally powerful fighter and leader who struggles with the anger of her brother’s abandonment. All three have their moments to shine during the film and are elevated as marquee characters in the MCU.
One area that Shang-Chi makes a concerted effort to focus on is featuring its women characters. Between Katy, Xialing, Jiang Li (Fala Chen) and Ying Nan (Michelle Yeoh), the film presents four distinct Asian women who overcome the traditionally patriarchal aspect of Asian culture. Xialing is the best example of this, as a character who is disregarded by her father. Wenwu is intent on training Shang-Chi to be a world class martial artist, while Xialing is left to teach herself in the shadows. She’s eventually abandoned even by Shang-Chi, which forces her to survive on her own. But Xialing is no damsel in distress. She’s a leader, entrepreneur and Shang-Chi’s equal.
As for Wenwu, he just might be the most sympathetic villain in the MCU. Yes he’s a warlord who used the ten rings to pillage and conquer. But he’s also a man who fell completely in love with a woman he admired. Jiang Li caused a conqueror to give up both his immortality and his power. Hong Kong film legend Tony Leung is perfectly cast as Wenwu, giving him an emotional weight and complexity not often seen in action films. Leung’s Wenwu is vulnerable, emotional and…regal.
In most films, when the villain tries to seduce the hero over to their side, it’s painfully obvious and not at all alluring. When Darth Vader demanded that Luke join him in The Empire Strikes Back, there wasn’t a single soul in the audience who thought, “That seems like something Luke should do.” However, Wenwu exudes a warmth and compassion that almost makes Shang-Chi, Xialing and the audience feel like joining him is the right choice. It takes a versatile talent like Leung, whose credits include classics like Infernal Affairs and In the Mood for Love, to make a warlord seem like a sympathetic victim. Leung is a master and audiences who aren’t familiar with his work are truly in for a revelation.
Surprising Hilarity – This movie doesn’t just have a few funny moments like every other MCU film; it’s genuinely hilarious. When Marvel announced that Awkwafina and comedian Ronny Chieng were joining Simu Liu in the film, many wondered if this was simply a case of a studio casting as many well known Asian actors as possible. Instead, it looks to have been a very intentional casting decision to surround the martial arts action with high level comedy. Liu, who was previously best known for his role as Jung in the hit Canadian sitcom Kim’s Convenience, is no stranger to comedy, and he carries the light moments well. He’s mastered the dismayed look with a furrowed brow. Awkwafina hits the comedic beats perfectly nearly every time, and gives the audience a voice in a consistently funny way. Chieng has a brief but memorable part in the film, highlighted by the laugh out loud moment when he starts speaking Mandarin to Shang-Chi and Katy, and fluidly switches to English, declaring “I speak ABC (American Born Chinese)!” Yet another authentic Asian American moment delivered with humor.
Hong Kong Style Comes to the MCU – It’s a testament to the other areas of strength in Shang-Chi that the martial arts action, which is exceptional, almost takes a back seat. Between films like Black Panther and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the MCU regularly does action well. However, Shang-Chi takes the fight sequences to another level, seamlessly blending MCU action with Hong Kong style martial arts, thanks in large part to stunt coordinator Brad Allan and the Jackie Chan Stunt Team. Allan, who recently passed away suddenly, was the first non-Asian member of the the Jackie Chan Stunt Team and Chan’s protege. He helped to ensure that the fight scenes and stunts in Shang-Chi stand apart from Marvel’s already high level of action. The fight between Shang-Chi and Razor Fist on the San Francisco bus, and the high wire act on the massive neon skyscraper in Macau, stand up to any action sequence in the MCU. Simu Liu has a strong background in parkour and it’s clear that the filmmakers properly leveraged his strengths.
Shang-Chi’s electric action is perhaps best embodied by one of the film’s coolest characters, the Death Dealer. After months of mystery, it was finally revealed that the Death Dealer is played by martial arts phenom Andy Le of Martial Club. Le made a name for himself over the last decade with viral videos displaying jaw-dropping martial arts stunts, and his Death Dealer is a kinetic jolt of energy in every scene he’s in.
World Building Exposition – Because Shang-Chi is very much an origin story of a character who did not previously appear in another MCU film, and who does not have a well known comic background, the story includes a fair amount of exposition and flashbacks to set up the world around the character. The film starts by telling Wenwu’s history, there are numerous flashbacks to further elaborate on Wenwu and Shang-Chi’s backstory, and in the third act, there’s another relatively lengthy moment of exposition to take the story into the climax. Each of those moments are beautifully done, but together over the course of over two hours, they slow down the pace of the film.
Need More Xialing – Xialing is Meng’er Zhang’s first major role in a feature film and she announces her arrival with undeniable charisma. I’m eager to see more of many of the characters introduced in Shang-Chi, but Xialing definitely stands at the top of my list. She’s an intriguing character with a lot of potential stories to tell, but while she has an interesting background, she fades as the story progresses into the third act. I wish she had been given more. However, where her character leaves off helps to make up for that disappointment.
Shang-Chi represents Asian Americans reclaiming a genre that has been taken away from us by white centered films that depict Asians as exotic foreigners. As groundbreaking as Enter the Dragon was, a substantial majority of American martial arts films that followed starred white protagonists, often taught by wise Asian teachers. From Karate Kid (and Cobra Kai), to Bloodsport, to Kill Bill, American cinema is full of white heroes adopting Asian aesthetics and characteristics. Here, finally, Asian Americans are given a seat at the biggest table in the room and afforded the opportunity to tell our story. Shang-Chi may have been created as a stereotypical martial arts character who talked like a fortune cookie, but Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a film with depth and layers from the Asian American perspective.
I can’t complete a review of Shang-Chi without mentioning Awkwafina’s controversial history with her “Blaccent.” Thankfully, her character does not use any kind of accent in the film, but the issue of her past appropriation of Black culture remains. Indeed, the issue has been raised again recently following the resurfacing of an old Vice interview where Awkwafina states that she refuses to do an Asian accent. While her position on that should be praised, it highlighted the fact that she hasn’t addressed the kind of accent she has used in the past. Simply put, I wish Awkwafina would address the issue. As one of the most prominent faces in the Asian American community, and considering the tumultuous past between the Asian and Black communities, these types of issues can’t be ignored.
THE RATING – 5/5 Pocky
Ron is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of POC Culture. He is a big believer in the power and impact of pop culture and the importance of representation in media.