Shang-Chi Spoiler Free Review: Marvel’s First Asian-Led Superhero Movie Is A Celebration Of Representation And Asian American Identity
When news first broke that Marvel Studios was bringing Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings at SDCC 2019, fans were thrilled, especially those in the Asian-American community. The movie is the first to have an Asian-led superhero protagonist and the excitement has been palpable as we’ve learned more about the cast and plot. Unfortunately, there’s always a lot of pressure for movies with diverse casts to do well lest Hollywood deems them not worth releasing (e.g. some of the drama surrounding Simu Liu slamming Disney’s CEO). Despite the success of movies like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians, there’s still a resistance to create more media that doesn’t star a white lead, which is why I went into the early preview of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings with some trepidation. What if it’s terribly stereotypical and not done well? What if it “fails” to pass Hollywood’s standard of success and we’re back to more Chris-led Marvel movies? Would I have to write a half-hearted Shang-Chi spoiler free review? Two and a half hours later, I left the theater already thinking about when I could see it again. Below is my Shang-Chi spoiler free review, and you’d better believe I have some thoughts.
Elements Of Asian Culture Were Handled In A Thoughtful Way
Image via Marvel Entertainment
The history of the Shang-Chi comics has been problematic, to say the least. His backstory is closely tied to the racist yellow peril movement in the 19th and 20th centuries, which portrayed Chinese, Korean, and Japanese people as sub-human. His father was Dr. Fu Manchu, depicted with a demon-like face, long nails, and a mustache. Despite this regrettable origin, the Shang-Chi stories were fantastically exciting. It’s why this character has survived for nearly 50 years! With this in mind, many hoped that Shang-Chi would represent an important step in portraying Asian Americans in a respectful light, and the movie did not disappoint.
Director Destin Daniel Cretton (Just Mercy) and screenplay writer David Callaham (Mortal Kombat) are both Asian American, and they created a movie that not only celebrated Asian culture but was also mindful of small cultural nuances, something that I don’t think a non-Asian director could do without a ton of research. For example, I was a little worried that Shang-Chi would just reaffirm the idea that Asian people, particularly Asian men, are good at martial arts, but not much else. As Awkwafina, who plays Shang-Chi’s best friend Katy, told Entertainment Weekly:
“(Acting in a martial arts movie) is a red alert, especially for Asian American performers. It’s like, I’m not going to do that. But I do believe we need to understand martial arts in a way that’s not being lectured to us by a guy who’s seen 50 Bruce Lee movies in a college class. And we need to discover a relationship where we find pride in it.”
Liu agreed, saying that “kung fu is objectively super f*cking cool.” But how to do this without reinforcing stereotypes or having more “Hey Bruce Lee!” jeers thrown out? Both Cretton and Callaham understood the importance of creating multi-dimensional characters and it shows, not only with Shang-Chi, but with the rest of the supporting cast. While there is no single Asian American narrative, the movie does a great job of showing how Shang-Chi’s life is informed by his martial arts training and the role it has played in his family life. The movie was also a nice homage to wuxia films, which are a specific genre of martial arts films set in ancient China with fantastical elements and often feature gorgeous cinematography with sweeping landscape shots. There were several action sequences that seemed like they were pulled straight from a wuxia movie. Even better? Michelle Yeoh, who plays a character named Jiang Nan, has starred in several well-known wuxia films (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Reign of Assassins, for example), so having her felt like a tribute to the genre as well.
Throughout the movie, I also noticed that the clothing, animals, and even the way that the deceased are honored all had elements of Asian culture, which again, speaks volumes as to what bringing on other Asian Americans to a film set can do for a movie like Shang-Chi. So often, diverse stories are filtered through a white lens, which can lead to stiff and inaccurate depictions of characters of color; Shang-Chi, on the other hand, is full of heart and emotion.
A Celebration Of Asian/Asian American Identity
Image via Marvel Studios
As a Chinese-American that was raised in San Francisco, I grew up straddling two different cultures. When my grandparents immigrated from China, they brought bits of their culture with them that I picked up too, which is why I was thrilled to see instances of the characters doing some of those same things. Scenes like Shang-Chi taking off his shoes before going inside someone’s home or eating congee (rice porridge) for breakfast are moments that, while small, resonated with me.
I also loved Shang-Chi and Katy together, not just as best friends but because they acted as foils for one another. As the resident ABC (American-Born Chinese), Katy is trying to navigate her Chinese heritage when she’s thrown into Shang-Chi’s world. Meanwhile, Shang-Chi had to create a new identity for himself when he was in the USA, but when he returns to his father, he finds himself struggling a bit to reconcile his childhood growing up in China and his life in San Francisco. It’s something that I think a lot of people whose families immigrated to a new country experience (of course without the superhero aspects), and it was refreshing to see that in the MCU.
Anti-Asian sentiment has always been around (the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Japanese internment camps during World War II), but with the increased publicity of hate crimes against the Asian American community during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s heartening to see a movie that shows different sides to the Asian American experience. As Cretton and Callaham had said, there’s no single narrative that can fully encompass every Asian person’s life, and Shang-Chi is just one perspective. The only way to get a more well-rounded understanding of the Asian American community (and other communities as well) is to have a variety of voices out there telling their stories.
Shang-Chi Has Some Damn Good Storytelling
Image by Jasin Boland via Marvel Studios
Speaking of stories, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is, at its core, an origin story, and it’s a fantastic one at that. Marvel has always done a great job of giving their characters depth and dimension, and this movie was no exception. In terms of pacing, it did a great job of balancing backstory and action. Tony Leung, who is one of Hong Kong’s most gifted actors, brought a stellar performance as Wenwu/Mandarin, the father of Shang-Chi and the movie’s antagonist. Wenwu is a complex character though; he’s experienced major loss as well as unparalleled power, making his villainy more of a gray area and a major reason for Shang-Chi’s identity struggle. Similarly, Shang-Chi’s sister, Xialing (played by Meng’er Zhang) also shares in the family’s complicated past and adds an additional layer of family drama. You would think that things could get convoluted plot-wise, but Cretton does a pretty amazing job of framing the Marvel Universe within Shang-Chi’s history. Katy was also helpful as a character because she acted as the voice of the viewer, asking questions and basically demanding Shang-Chi explain all those WTF moments (she’s pretty much in the same boat as the audience, after all).
Shang-Chi is a compelling and relatable story because it’s ultimately about who you’ve been told to be versus who you want to become. I imagine that growing up, many people were told, “Do this. Do that. Don’t try that because you’ll fail.” Shang-Chi is going through the same things: trying to please his parents, figuring out what he wants from life, and attempting to understand where he comes from.
Also Hot Asian Men? Hell Yeah!
Image via Marvel Studios
In case you didn’t know from the trailers, Simu Liu and his abs make an appearance in the movie. Several appearances, actually. And that smile! Tony Leung, while several years older than me, shows that he still has a way with the opposite sex in Shang-Chi. If you haven’t seen him In the Mood for Love, please do.
In the mood for love vibes!
Of course, the plot and action sequences are what make the movie, but I would be lying if I said the handsome dudes weren’t the cherry on top.
Connections To The MCU And The Multiverse
Abomination versus Wong/Image via screengrab
Technically, Black Widow kicked off the MCU’s Phase 4, but Shang-Chi is the first movie to take place after Avengers: Endgame. I imagine this put a lot of stress on the Shang-Chi team as they had to continue a timeline that not only has characters that are known and loved but also introduces new ones as the MCU expands. This is a Shang-Chi spoiler free review, but I’ll say that Cretton and the rest of the crew have fit Shang-Chi into the multiverse perfectly.
I think a lot of fans already have an idea of how this could all be connected to the MCU after it was announced that Benedict Wong (who plays Wong) was going to be in the movie, and then he later appeared in the Shang-Chi trailer facing off against Abomination. Wong first appeared in Doctor Strange in 2016 and it’s already been announced that he’ll be returning in Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness. And that’s all I will say.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings comes out in theaters everywhere on September 3, 2021.
Are you excited to watch Shang-Chi in theaters? Let us know what you thought of this Shang-Chi spoiler free review in the comments below!
Featured image via Marvel Studios
Keilin Huang is a freelance writer that likes the Oxford comma, reading from her neverending pile of books from the library, and Reeses peanut butter cups. She thanks her Dad for introducing her to his Superman comics and probably majored in Journalism because of Lois Lane.