For the past 13 years, the MCU has experimented with all kinds of sci-fi and fantasy tropes, from Infinity Stones and multiverses to the decades-old idea of a little nerdy lad getting bit by a radioactive arachnid and suddenly being able to do whatever a spider can – although, actually, it never really has been explained why Spidey is Spidey in the MCU. Odd. Anyway, while this usually culminates in relatively enticing plot points and occasionally imaginative trajectories, it’s often a bit… uninspired. I’m not sure how much I care about the universe’s biggest boxing glove, and if not for Thor: Ragnarok being one of the funniest films in years, I’d likely have raised a few points about how Marvel’s Asgard misses an astonishing number of tricks despite having mythology’s greatest trickster at its fingertips.
It would be remiss to write this piece without formally acknowledging that I am not a huge MCU fan. I have seen the vast majority of the films and like most of them well enough – on top of the aforementioned Ragnarok, I also love Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America: Civil War, and Black Panther, although I could take or leave most of the rest. Last week, however, my entire perspective of Marvel changed when my brother and I went to see Shang-Chi and Legend of the Ten Rings. I honestly never expected to write this sentence, and yet here we are: I cannot wait to see where the MCU goes from here. Thanks to the brilliant performances of Simu Liu, Awkwafina, and Michelle Yeoh – as well as the comedic genius that is oh-so-typical of the ever-impressive Ben Kingsley – I am, for the first time in my life, a huge fan of a Marvel story. If you read the headline of this piece, there’s a good chance you’ll have an idea as to why that is now the case.
While Marvel regularly indulges in sci-fi and fantasy, it’s usually pretty surface-level. There’s a big difference between inventing jargon and standardising a fictional lexicon that is consistent across an entire world or worlds – “Infinity Stone” isn’t quite the same thing as a palantir or doublethink. With Shang-Chi, the entire tide has shifted rapidly and violently, to the point where Marvel now has an opportunity to convert itself from what many people see as conveyor belt popcorn flicks – I am not saying I see it that way, just that a lot of people I’ve spoken to do – to an imaginative, cohesive, and courageous universe worth investing in. The witty skits and balletic fight scenes play a role in this, of course, but for me, it mostly boils down to the fact Shang-Chi has its own distinct mythological ethos.
After Shang-Chi Movie Online– who goes by “Shaun” for the first part of the film – finally embraces his true identity and returns home to confront his father, we are introduced to Ta Lo, a mystical world that is detached from our own and is only accessible via a magical forest that, er… eats you. This dimension is where Shang-Chi’s mother, Ying Li, originally comes from, which sets the precedent for why Wenwu – Shang-Chi’s father and the current holder of the all-powerful Ten Rings – wants to invade her family’s village and unknowingly unleash the Dweller in Darkness. Already we have a mythos that extends far beyond “bad guys bad” – the only other MCU antagonist this compelling is probably Black Panther’s Killmonger or Captain America’s Zemo. Don’t get me wrong, Thanos is pretty decent too – Wenwu and Killmonger don’t have crustacean chins, though, and again, I don’t give a rats about the world’s biggest boxing glove.
It’s not just that Wenwu – or the Mandarin, as he is known by his enemies – is a fascinating villain. It’s everything to do with Ta Lo itself – the people, the architecture, the nature, and the magical creatures derived from Chinese mythology. We’ve got shishi (guardian lions), huli jing (nine-tailed foxes, who also inspired a beloved Pokemon), fenghuang (phoenixes), dragons (er… dragons), and so much more.
All of these animals cement Ta Lo as its own distinct place, filled with wonder and awe that is now retroactively, conspicuously absent from previous entries in the MCU. As a result, all fantasy efforts up to this point have been drastically outshone. While other Marvel films have made an effort to introduce intriguing spins on real-life logic – again, Black Panter’s Wakanda is the best example here – no one film (except Black Panther) has succeeded half as well as Shang-Chi. It has set a new benchmark for what the MCU can accomplish with fantasy, and if the kind of innovative, imaginative, and inventive creativity we see in Ta Lo isn’t retained from here on out… Well, let’s just say the MCU will likely end up getting crustacean chin-snapped.
Even Shang-Chi’s final fight scene is in a league of its own. Our editor-in-chief, Stacey Henley, has previously written about how disappointing it is that all Marvel films end with boom boom bang bang punch punch bomb! bomb! although I personally reckon Shang-Chi – while it does technically end with a massive battle – is exempt from this critique due to how inspired it is. The wuxia-style fight between Shang-Chi and Wenwu is one thing, but the war of attrition between the Great Protector and the Dweller in Darkness? It’s visual poetry. The fluidity with which they move, the harmony in how they interlink, and the majesty of the conflicting magic they manifest all combine into one brilliantly cohesive piece of wonderfully choreographed cinematic spectacle. I spent about ten minutes after the film ended looking for my jaw because, despite dropping it on the floor in the final third of the film, I’d have rather lost it than miss a single frame while attempting to pick it up.
I enjoy most MCU films as much as the next person, although I’m not super invested in lore or theories or ensuring I see the next one at the inevitable midnight launch. Shang-Chi, though… Shang-Chi hits different. As a massive fan of fantasy, I’ve always found the MCU’s sporadic indulgences in it to be fairly surface-level and tame, if not uninspired and – occasionally – borderline juvenile. Shang-Chi has convinced me that this doesn’t need to be the case anymore, and given its post-credits nod towards The Eternals… Well, let’s just say that against my better judgement, I have somehow, some way, almost entirely unbeknownst to myself, become that guy who won’t shut up about the next MCU film.
Marvel’s underdog ‘Shang-Chi’ (2021) speaks to underrepresented communities
“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” opened in theaters Sept. 3 to a flood of moviegoers, many of whom were stepping foot into a theatre for the first time in over a year. The 25th installation in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, “Shang-Chi” was much-anticipated not only for comic buffs and cinephiles but also for Asian audiences across the country. Although today the film boasts a revenue of over $320 million and a collection of overwhelmingly positive reviews, the journey from production to premiere for Marvel’s first Asian-led film was not paved without difficulty.
The film industry harbors a long history of excluding Asian stories and Asian creatives from its productions, with little more than a slew of racist caricatures to show for the handful of instances when Hollywood has invited Asian influences into its studios.
“In 2010, the ‘Last Airbender’ movie came out. Eight-year-old me was so psyched for this movie. I watched it, and I realized, ‘No one in this movie looks like how they’re supposed to,’” said Luke Liu, a second-year business administration major. “That was my first experience with white-washing, and it was done so glaringly. They had the money to cast it correctly, but they just chose not to.”
Exclusion and misrepresentation of Asians and Asian Americans runs so rampant in filmmaking that “Shang-Chi” is only the third major Asian-led film, after 1993’s “Joy Luck Club” and 2018’s “Crazy Rich Asians,” to come from the American film industry. Other supposedly “Asian” films, such as 2020’s live-action “Mulan” remake and the aforementioned “Avatar: The Last Airbender” adaptation, hide the executive power of white directors, writers and producers behind their pitches for diversity.
In the weeks leading up to the film’s premiere, fans voiced concerns over Disney and Marvel Studios’ apparent lack of official promotion for the film, even crediting “Shang-Chi” actor Simu Liu and other cast members with sharing a bulk of the film’s promotional content themselves.
Adding fire to the flames of frustrated fans, Disney CEO Bob Chapek referred to “Shang-Chi” as “an interesting experiment” during the Disney quarterly earnings call. Liu himself took to Twitter and Instagram in response.
“We are not an experiment. We are the underdog; the underestimated,” he wrote. “We are the ceiling-breakers. We are the celebration of culture and joy that will persevere after an embattled year.”
“Shang-Chi” and Asian audiences encounter an unimpressive track record within the Marvel film catalogue as well. White western characters, storylines and storytellers have dominated the superhero franchise, and fans are eager for more diversity both on screen and behind the camera.
“I’m thinking of that one scene in ‘Avengers’ when they’re circling around the whole team, and it’s just literally white people,” said Kelsey Zhen, a second-year combined media and screen studies and communications major.
Starring an all-Asian leading cast, Japanese-American Destin Daniel Cretton in the director’s chair and Chinese American David Callaham and Cretton in the writers’ room, many fans see “Shang-Chi” as a step in the right direction toward achieving greater diversity both on and off-screen, where it has long been absent.
“I really wanted to be a film major,” said Deefah He, a second-year combined business administration and design major. “But my dad said, ‘You have to see that in society you’re an East Asian woman. It would be very hard for you to make it big as a director.’”
As Marvel’s first Asian-led film and fully theatrical release since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, “Shang-Chi” is paving the way for the studio’s much-anticipated “Eternals,” directed by the Oscar-winning Chloé Zhao and starring Gemma Chan. For Asian viewers like Zhen, this momentum is not only a good omen for the future of diverse representation but also for the expansion of opportunities for Asian filmmakers in an industry that has historically excluded them.
“Seeing people that you can relate to because they’re also Asian gives you encouragement to consider film as something you could enter in the future — not just as an actor but also behind-the-scenes,” Zhen said.
Emerging from an adverse year of racist scapegoating that has tried the spirit of Asian Americans, “Shang-Chi” is a testament to the community’s resilience and promise. The care and respect with which “Shang-Chi’s” filmmakers incorporate Asian, specifically Chinese, culture and history into all levels of its storytelling and worldbuilding is a breath of fresh air for Asian fans.
“They spoke in Mandarin for a good portion of the movie. I didn’t think a franchise like Marvel would take that risk,” He said. “I felt very proud.”
“Shang-Chi” is a pioneer, setting a precedent for Hollywood to produce more stories that reflect Asian culture and voices with depth and integrity. Entrenched in a history of denying Asian audiences the right to see themselves reflected in film, major studios often overlook the significance of diverse storytelling. But in a post-“Shang-Chi” world, Asian American audiences cannot help but reflect upon the identity-affirming shock of Marvel’s latest film.
“If I could’ve seen “Shang-Chi” when I was 10 or 12 years old, seeing someone like yourself on the big-screen means a lot more than you would think,” Liu said. “Superheroes represent such a great aspect of humanity, and they show what you can do and what you can achieve.”
Storytelling is the articulation of the human experience. As “Shang-Chi” joins the ranks of Marvel’s superhero lineup, the herald of the franchise’s increasingly diverse future, Asian Americans look to the beginnings of an industry and a world beyond it that are ready to embrace their identities, their history and their potential.