IN 2018, WHEN MARVEL STUDIOS was “fast-tracking” development of the new movie Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the outlet prominently mentioned another hit from that same year: Black Panther.
Deadline reported Marvel was looking at Asian filmmakers to do “something as potentially monumental” as its hit Black Panther, which made it all the way to the Oscars. “The goal here is to do a similar thing: introduce a new hero who blends Asian and Asian American themes, crafted by Asian and Asian American filmmakers,” said Deadline.
That’s probably where the comparisons should end.
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It’s hard, but not impossible, to state how different Black Panther actually is from Shang-Chi without diving into spoiler-y specifics. Yes, despite the uniformity of Marvel’s storytelling, the films explore themes like parentage, legacy, and tradition in different ways.
With the film is set to arrive in theaters on September 3, journalists (like yours truly) have seen it for coverage purposes. I’ll do my best to stay quiet on juicy bits. like in my spoiler-free review of Shang-Chi. (Which, I’ll say again: Shang-Chi is very good.) Luckily, it’s possible to speak in broad strokes.
But it’s critical to say something now for a reason: expectations. Comparisons to Black Panther are still being made with Shang-Chi, and for reasons that might not be so savory. In the lead-up to Shang-Chi’s release, a schism within fandom has centered around tweets that ask audiences to “better hype up” Shang-Chi as they did “for Black Panther.”
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The tweets have caused a stir online, primarily among fans, regarding perceived obligations that the Black and Asian communities “owe” each other. The history of Asian-Black solidarity, and the limits that solidarity has pushed to, is too big for an essay on superhero movies. But that tension exists here even in a realm as innocuous as MCU stan fandom.
But it is safe to say the conflict exists because of the capitalist system within which Hollywood and Marvel operate. Baked into the conversation is a fundamental understanding that strong windfall for any movie means more like-minded movies are released. That’s the story of the MCU, even. The strong $585 million worldwide box office for Marvel’s Iron Man in 2008 gave Marvel (and the loan it had from bank Merrill Lynch) confidence to continue making movies. Fast forward 13 years, and here we are, still talking about this very franchise.
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Audiences, especially Asian American audiences, are hoping Shang-Chi makes bank because to do so would open the door to more Asian movie superheroes. (Never mind that Ms. Marvel, about a Muslim-Pakistani superhero, is already on its way to Disney+.) Black Panther was a billion-dollar hit, and a sequel, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, is in production (plus a Disney+ spinoff series).
In the face of a pandemic that has seen a spike in anti-Asian discrimination, a Marvel blockbuster making as much money as Black Panther would feel like a cathartic, soft power victory. It might also guarantee Disney/Marvel doesn’t ignore Asian audiences moving forward. But a resurgent Covid-19 and Marvel’s decision to limit the film to theaters could pose a threat to those plans.
Its financials are perhaps the main talking point of these comparisons. CNBC mentioned Black Panther when discussing Shang-Chi in an article dated May 30, and more recently, on August 5, Bloomberg spoke of Black Panther to speculate the pandemic box office. (It should be said that the uncertainty of the Covid-19 pandemic makes projections difficult to predict.)
Another regular point of comparison is the fact it’s another ethnic minority superhero. Marvel itself has perpetuated similarities. In an interview with Empire, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige compared Shang-Chi to Black Panther on the basis of representation.
“I remember seeing a viral video when the Black Panther poster first came out,” Feige told the magazine, mentioning a video of Black men affectionately reacting to a theater lobby display of Black Panther. A man recording the video can be heard saying: “This is what white people get to feel all the time. Since the beginning of cinema! You get to feel empowered like this!”
Feige described the video as “moving” and also “a harsh realization that they were reacting that way because they had not seen it before.” Feige said that Black Panther “really coalesced the notion of, ‘Everybody deserves to see themselves portrayed in these larger-than-life ways.’”
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But let’s consider these two movies as movies. Yes, there are surface similarities. Both films star a non-white superhero who originates from a place unimaginable to those who exist in the “normal” world of the MCU. T’Challa, as played by the late Chadwick Boseman, hailed from Wakanda, an isolationist African nation that rests atop an endless supply of alien metal. Shang-Chi, played by Simu Liu, is the runaway son of a terrorist cult leader, Wenwu (the handsome Tony Leung).