Transformative Ties: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings has a tricky balancing act it strives to achieve. As the first Marvel film with an Asian protagonist as well as having a majority Asian cast and creative team, it must consider the audience in the US, the audience in Asia, and the Asian diaspora around the world that sits in between and among the first two. As an American of Asian descent myself, I can only speak to two of the three, but I found myself really connecting with the film and its characters’ struggles, while also enjoying it as a high-quality mainstream superhero action film.

Shang-Chi puts a heavy emphasis on family. I think it’s because family is such a common thread that connects Asia to its diaspora, and thus the most surefire way to have a story that resonates across the divides that exist between the two, and even between Asian cultures. It’s the relationships of Shang-Chi—between spouses, parents and children, siblings, and friends—that really spoke to me on a personal level.

My father, who I’m pretty sure is not a thousand-year-old magical conqueror, is nothing like Xu Wenwu (aka the Mandarin)—and I am certainly no Shang-Chi. However, the story of a person chafing against the upbringing his father tried to instill in him feels incredibly real, especially the fact that the characters’ emotions regarding these experiences is so complex. Shang-Chi was raised to be the ultimate deadly martial artist by Wenwu after losing Shang-Chi’s mother, and the situation basically forces Shang-Chi to run away from his home and his family. In a way, Shang-Chi is both the story of an immigrant trying to start a new life and one of someone who has to reconnect with his estranged past, and this makes the character capable of connecting to multiple generations of Asian viewers. 

The fight scenes are probably the best we’ve ever seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, drawing from a long history of martial arts movies. Their execution is what tells me that the creators have the utmost respect for the films that paved the way and the actors in them, as they’re easy to appreciate on both storytelling and choreography levels. Shang-Chi is supposed to be the “master of kung fu,” and actor Simu Liu makes for a strong performance. 

But as solid as Liu is in the role of Shang-Chi, I’m in agreement with virtually everyone who saw the film that Hong Kong legend Tony Leung stole the show. One might even say that it was a very good Shang-Chi film but a fantastic Mandarin film. Leung is so utterly convincing as a multifaceted antagonist with conflicting emotions and a deep sense of pain that it strikes right at the soul. A common criticism of the Marvel films is that the villains tend not to be terribly memorable, but Shang-Chi is practically the opposite. If there’s one thing that lingers in the mind after the film is over, it’s Leung’s Wenwu. Much like Mr. Freeze from Batman: The Animated Series, I wouldn’t be surprised if he has permanently influenced all future portrayals of the Mandarin even in the comics. In other words, we’re quite removed from the entertainingly bombastic yet still kind of offensive Mandarin from the 1990s arcade game Captain America & the Avengers.

Having Wenwu/the Mandarin as Shang-Chi’s father is a significant change from the source material, where his father was Fu Manchu, the face of the highly racist Yellow Peril portrayals in American media. But the Mandarin was not exactly free of that racist tinge, and the steps taken by the film and by Leung go an incredibly long way towards freeing that character—and by extension many of the Asian characters in Marvel—from the stereotypes that plague them. The film even pokes fun at the clumsy results of how the Iron Man films attempted to tie in the Mandarin’s character, and it’s Leung’s delivery of the US’s fear of a pale imitation of the real deal (i.e. himself) that makes this self-referential mockery feel less like a halfhearted apology and more like a genuine understanding of Asian culture. 

Shang-Chi also gives a lot of attention to the women portrayed in the film, and while the push to show them as equals to the men of the story can be somewhat hamfisted, it’s still appreciated. Key to this being more than a shallow “girl power” demonstration is the degrees of difference each female characters have in comparison to one another—things that either hint at or reflect specific aspects of how and where they were brought up, and how they see the world.  

Overall, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings truly feels to me like a film that tried its very best to be a respectful representation of an Asian hero that celebrates Asian culture without overly burdening it with the need to show everything. The very personal stories that unfold between Shang-Chi, Wenwu, Katie, and all the others already captures so much of the Asian/Asian diaspora experience that it makes everything feel satisfyingly real. This is ultimately what helps make Shang-Chi, a B-tier hero in terms of the Marvel pantheon, feel like a worthy equal to those who came before him.

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