If Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is not aiming to rewrite history, it is at least aiming to redress some of the grievances surrounding the representation of Asian Americans in film. It provides an opportunity for Asian Americans to reclaim and reframe some of the cultural narratives about them.
Edward Simon Cruz
Only four films from major Hollywood studios have featured majority-Asian casts. After decades of Asians being relegated to roles as martial arists, prostitutes, and caricatures, a 1993 adaptation of The Joy Luck Club was poised to break new ground. However, we had to wait twenty-five years for the next film with a predominantly-Asian cast, Crazy Rich Asians. The Disney machine then created the disappointing live-action version of Mulan, but it has thankfully found more success with the latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
If Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is not aiming to rewrite history, it is at least aiming to redress some of the grievances surrounding the representation of Asian Americans in film. While older Marvel comics and films alike have emphasized white characters, the MCU has also been known to make the few non-white characters they do have problematic—including supervillain Fu Manchu, the original father of Shang-Chi himself who was was created by a white man, Sax Rohmer, to represent the idea that Asian people would be dangerous to Western society.
One hundred years after Rohmer created these negative narratives about Asian Americans, and almost forty years after these narratives first crept into Marvel’s comics, this film provides an opportunity for Asian Americans to reclaim and reframe some of the cultural narratives about them. Shang-Chi is quick to establish its style and voice. The first few minutes and many conversations throughout the film include Mandarin with English subtitles, and the action sequences are precisely crafted: an early scene in a forest is impressive in its seamless, ballet-like choreography that reveals the characters’ emotions while paying homage to classic wuxia films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and one fight scene in a moving bus is so riveting that I can easily call it the best fight scene in any Marvel film.
At its heart, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a family drama. Shang-Chi’s father, now named Wenwu and stripped of his problematic history from the comics, remains a supervillain in possession of the title objects. Shang-Chi must grapple with his roots and strays away from them by the start of the film; he creates a life in America with his friend Katy, played with a reasonable amount of levity by Awkwafina.
The second act introduces strong performances from Meng’er Zhang (who injects some spunk into her portrayal of Shang-Chi’s sister, Xialing) and Michelle Yeoh (who portrays Ying Nan, a kindly protector figure and aunt of Shang-Chi and Xialing). Tony Leung is especially compelling and vulnerable as Wenwu, continuing Marvel’s appreciated shift toward more three-dimensional villains. However, the film falters a bit in the middle: some themes are rushed through when they could have been explored in greater detail, and oddly enough for a film titled after him, the character of Shang-Chi is relatively underdeveloped beyond his relationships with others, which leaves plenty of room for actor Simu Liu to develop his character more in the inevitable sequel.
Shang-Chi must ultimately fit itself into the now-established mold of a Marvel movie, with the requisite plot beats, incorporations into the larger cinematic universe, and lighthearted jokes. To maintain the latter, there were some necessary tonal shifts between comedy and drama, some of which were more successful than others. Overall, however, the film maintains a decent balance between the formula and its own voice, taking the third-act action sequences — the weaker, more bloated sections of most Marvel films — and grounding them in the relationships that are central to the film.
Now Shang-Chi is part of a cinematic universe that once prioritized the voices of white characters. When films like Black Panther provided not just good role models for viewers but also good business for companies, they paved the way for even more inclusion through films like Shang-Chi and the upcoming Eternals. In a sense, these stories and the voices they represent are being assimilated into a franchise that is both more heterogeneous than before and still homogeneous in nature. When such a large platform is used to promote diversity, it has the potential to amplify more voices; at the same time, those voices can be diluted and the nuances in their stories removed in service of a larger, simpler story.
For the stories of characters like Shang-Chi, the challenge becomes creating stories that maintain both broad appeal and a unique voice. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is far from the best Marvel movie, but it proved that it has its own voice — and whatever happens next, no one can take that voice away.
Picture Source: NME.com