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‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ introduces a superhero Asian Americans can believe in

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I’ll be honest: up until recently, I wasn’t a Marvel fan. 

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021), directed by Destin Daniel Cretton.

I guess a part of it had to do with the fact that superhero movies existed in a realm outside of what I knew out here in suburban Asian American life. Those films didn’t seem to speak to me as an audience member, nor did they try to. They were for the others — people who could find that kinship within those flashy, often-white superheroes, frequently portrayed as the pinnacle of beauty and strength. But whatever the reason was for my averseness to these films, there seemed to be a strange lack of appreciation for Asian characters. Asian characters, or Asian American characters, simply didn’t exist as heroes, acting as great supporting characters at most (Benedict Wong as Wong, Pom Klementieff as Mantis and Randall Park as Jimmy Woo first come to mind) — or otherwise rewritten to roles that only esteemed Hollywood actresses could play. 

Try as I might, I couldn’t find myself fully falling in love with a universe where Asian characters didn’t exist on the same playing field as its leads. But when the news of Destin Daniel Cretton’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings finally broke online, there seemed to be a chance at redemption — however late it may be.

You can say then, that “experiment” or not, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is already one for the history books simply due to the fact that it exists. The media hype building up to the film seemed unreal, at least in my Asian American circles. Not only did Shang-Chi promise to offer a superhero that East Asian fans could relate to, but it did so with style. I found it especially alluring that when the Marvel universe decided to introduce their first Asian superhero, they did so in such an open-minded, laissez-faire kind of way.

Katy (Awkwafina) and Sean (Simu Liu).

Destin Daniel Cretton, the director of (one of my favorite films of all time) Short Term 12, was tapped as the director. Awkwafina, still buzzing off of her whirlwind of an early acting career, scored the role of an unnamed character, building up impressive hype. Legendary Asian film industry titans like Tony Leung, Michelle Yeoh, and countless others all joined the film. That all culminated with the announcement of Simu Liu as the titular Shang-Chi, a well-deserved breakthrough Hollywood role for an actor who caught the public eye as a frequent WongFu collaborator and Jung in the beloved Korean Canadian sitcom Kim’s Convenience. With every passing press release, Shang-Chi sounded more and more like it was built from a young Asian American film lover’s fantasy lineup, creating nonstop hype as the release date got closer. Eventually, it was enough to drag even a cautious moviegoer like me into theaters to see the spectacle firsthand.

And luckily, the film doesn’t disappoint. 

Here’s the general plot of the film. Sean (Simu Liu) is more or less a normal Asian American living in San Francisco, working as a valet with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina). One day, Sean gets sent a letter with a mysterious symbol on it, before he and Katy are attacked by a Ten Rings lackey (Florian Munteanu) on their morning commute. Realizing that his father, the terrorist gang leader Wenwu (Tony Leung) is up to something, Sean is forced to confront his family history and dig up some old demons. With the help of his younger, long-estranged sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) and Katy, it’s up to Sean (aka Shang-Chi) to stop his father from wreaking havoc on the world. 

As a big-screen blockbuster, especially one that belongs within the Marvel canon, Shang-Chi has it all. Epic, powerful fights that put the world at stake. Superhero shenanigans. Comical, contemporary pop culture referencing one-liners that occasionally break the tension. A looming threat that never goes deeper than empty platitudes like “the world is in danger” (this is the post-Thanos snap universe, after all… everything will get resolved eventually). Mythical Chinese creatures by way of qilins, phoenixes, and magical furry headless chickens create a fantasy world that turns an otherwise uninspired setting into a tapestry come to life. Shang-Chi does all of this beautifully, and its added Chinese-influenced texture brings a wonderfully inspired mystical air to the MCU.

But aside from the standard Marvel fare, Shang-Chi also offers moments of familial discord that give its audience smaller, more human moments to attach themselves to. Perhaps the most surprising is how Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings works just as well as a family drama as it does a superhero movie. Only this time, sub in the family patriarch for a world-renowned supervillain who has existed for hundreds of years (think Invincible) and who won’t take no for an answer. Yikes. The film carefully takes its time to introduce its characters and air out their traumatic family history, giving even more weight to the domestic drama and personal struggles happening on-screen. Just as much as this film kicks ass with its excellently powerful action/wuxia-inspired stunt choreography, its emotional center is impossible to ignore.

Wenwu (Tony Leung) and Li (Fala Chen).

Additionally, there are a number of references in the film that strategically mark Shang-Chi as a very Asian American story. Our heroes find a comfortable lane in-between cultures, normalizing a nuanced identity rarely seen in a Hollywood movie. Sean and Katy speak to their elders in occasionally choppy Mandarin and full-on English. A short scene in Katy’s home at the beginning of the film questions the cultural gap between first and second-generation Asian Americans, forming a central theme throughout the film. In its most direct, recognizably Asian American moment, Jon Jon (played by Ronny Chieng) speaks to our main characters in Mandarin before realizing that he’s talking to Americans. “That’s okay, I speak ABC,” Jon Jon says to the relief of his guests. Shang-Chi seems just as much an Asian American story as it is a fun romp of galactic, world-ripping superpowers and showcases of mind-blowing action choreo: a refreshing inclusion of minor recognizable conflicts that East Asian viewers can draw parallels to in their own lives. 

Xialing (Meng’er Zhang).

And while the star here is obviously Simu Liu’s Shang-Chi, Awkwafina’s and Zhang’s characters are equally strong characters who young Asians and Asian Americans can find kinship in — much in the vein of the previous generation’s Bruce Lees and Lucy Lius. It’ll be interesting to see how much the culture shifts within the next decade or so (especially with the release of already-announced Marvel ventures like Ms. Marvel and Eternals), with regards to Asian representation, thanks to films like these. Hopefully it’s the first step in abolishing the idea of who a superhero can and can’t be, giving everyone a chance to feel represented by movies that dictate the pop culture zeitgeist. 

Given that Shang-Chi is the first Marvel film to star a largely Asian/Asian American cast, there are already dozens of opinions floating around about how well it tackled the issue of representation. It may feel unfair to put all of those expectations on a fun, entertaining film like Shang-Chi (there are already a number of think-pieces that discuss whether it did enough as the first Asian superhero film), but that’s exactly what a great, pioneering film can do: fuel conversations and set a new benchmark for future Asian American films. Shang-Chi would’ve been a gamechanger no matter how it fared at the box office, but thankfully, Cretton and his team have put together a film that is downright impossible to ignore — and delightful for all audiences no matter their background. Shang-Chi has already infiltrated mainstream culture and it’s here to stay. One can only hope that other future major blockbusters can aspire to achieve this level of carefully representative storytelling.

If anything, it’s won this moviegoer over. Shang-Chi 2, when?

Rating: 4.5 / 5


This reviewer watched Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings in person at the theater on opening night. He recommends you do the same if it’s safe to do so to get the full experience!

Film pages: IMDb

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