What “Shang-Chi” and its success mean for the Asian American community

The first major Asian American superhero film represents how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go

Photo: Disney/Marvel

By Tiffany Chang

As the youngest sister of two brothers in a Taiwanese American family, I was the consummate tomboy. I did everything my brothers did growing up: watching action movies, gawking over video games, and loitering in comic book stores. My brother Ben was my best friend. As a kid, I’d often find him in his room sketching superheroes with a precocious eye for proportion, putting his action figures to work as art mannequins. My brother had dozens of these small plastic heroes; I don’t remember a single one of them being Asian.

In late August, I had the privilege of attending the New York City premiere of Shang-Chi and the Ten Rings, the newest installment in the Marvel superhero film saga. The event was understated as far as premieres go. Still, what it lacked in red-carpet flamboyance, it made up for in red-letter significance: Shang-Chi would be the first Asian American superhero featured eponymously in a major movie franchise. The movie would become the highest-performing domestic film released in theaters during the pandemic era, grossing more than $196.5 million at the box office, and is set to premiere on Disney+ on Nov. 12.

Now, if you had asked me at age nine when I was the only child of color cast in a Bay Area community theater production; or at twenty-two, when I was a music student studying in a mostly male department with zero women on faculty, I would have said that a movie like Shang-Chi expanded the possibilities I saw for my career as an Asian American woman in the performing arts. But If you had asked me at six years old, looking over Ben’s shoulder as he drew, I probably would have thought nothing of it at all. I would have simply taken for granted that Asian American superheroes did exist. And if you asked me now, as an Asian American activist and organizer, I could say a million things about what more needs to be done.

My point is that Shang-Chi faces the difficult task of being at once both advanced and remedial. On one hand, it was a film that should have existed ages ago, when my brothers and I were children. More than a decade since the first Iron Man movie that kicked off MCU Phase 1, some feel it’s high time that Asian Americans be included in the pantheon in a lead role (all due respect to the incredible Benedict Wong who plays Wong in Doctor Strange).

But the film meets the Asian American community now, at a dark and difficult time. Perhaps it serves as a welcome, albeit paltry, consolation prize to those, particularly of East Asian descent, for whom the jubilation of the Crazy Rich Asians era has since been eclipsed by images of violence against Asian Americans and immigrants amid the COVID-19 crisis. And it’s all the more reason activists expected the film to be not only well-executed and commercially successful, but meticulous and forward-thinking in the way it depicts our community in 2021.

On the purely aesthetic level, the movie features many folkloric elements familiar to audiences of East and/or Southeast Asian descent: in Ta Lo, we see gargantuan imperial guardian lions (known in Chinese as shíshī, s̄ingh̄̒ in Thai, singha in Khmer, chinthe in Burmese) that fight alongside the villagers. We also see the nine-tailed fox; the phoenix-like fènghuáng, the bizarre qílín, and even the dìjiāng, a strange creature best described as a fuzzy ottoman with wings, that was given the name Morris in the film and played a prominent role in the movie. Of course there are dragons. Ta Lo, more utopic than Asgard and more fantasy-based than the Afrofuturist Wakanda, is a world that MCU audiences will definitely want to revisit.

The fight scenes, choreographed by fight coordinator Andy Cheng, display the hallmarks of Jackie Chan-style acrobatics and athleticism, as in the MUNI bus scene in San Francisco that reveals Simu Liu’s character, Shaun the valet attendant, as being in fact, Shang-Chi, boy assassin. But there are also scenes like the meet-cute in Ta Lo between Tony Leung’s Wenwu and Fala Chen’s Jiang Li, in which a dual between opponents becomes a dance between lovers, evoking the powerful elasticity of Wing Chun, and the romance of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

One aspect I especially appreciated was that a significant part of the dialogue is in Mandarin, and quite unapologetically at that. And while Shang’s character is perfectly bilingual, Awkwafina’s character, Katie, a second-generation Chinese American, struggles to follow some of the dialogue, a relatable experience for second- and third-generation immigrant audiences that endears us to both characters.

In Simu Liu, we have the fresh-faced debutant who came to fame through the CBC series Kim’s Convenience. Liu’s performance at times lacks the depth of his more established peers like Michelle Yeoh who plays the majestic auntie who teaches Shang the rond de jambe that could save the world (and honestly, when is Michelle Yeoh anything short of divine?). But in some ways, his “newness” works well for this role. After all, we’re all a little nervous for him (and some of us are nervous about him, following several controversies over the actor’s previous comments about Black and queer individuals, the “rep sweats” are real). Still, for the purposes of this film, Liu’s comedic timing and performance in action sequences make clear that he is up to the task.

Meng’er Zhang, an actress born into a theater family in China, plays Shang’s sister Xu Xialing, also deserves high praise. Zhang’s character commands the scenes she’s in, hyper-asserting herself as an Asian woman in a male-dominated industry, and has the martial arts prowess to match her on-screen presence. (Zhang would note in the Q&A afterward that she had requested a red streak of color in her hair be removed to avoid playing into a trope that’s been scrutinized by cultural critics in the past.) It’s no wonder people are calling for Xialing to have a movie of her own.

Overall, the story follows the well-worn premise of a father-son power struggle, which comes to a head when Shang’s father Wenwu, better known by his nickname The Mandarin, embarks on a misguided mission to destroy Ta Lo, the village he believes is keeping his late wife hostage. Wenwu is masterfully played by Tony Leung Chiu-wai, no stranger to the big screen having long been a Hong Kong sex symbol and darling of many a Wang Kar-wai picture. Leung is both enigmatic and menacing as Wenwu, while at the same time painfully relatable: he’s a tortured family man, yearning for absolution, sublimating grief into rage. Leung’s interpretation of Wenwu complicates the Fu Manchu stereotype of yellow peril villainy that served as the original comic book persona of Wenwu’s character, which, along with his signature smolder, makes Leung’s performance doubly satisfying.

Structurally, the movie isn’t overly ambitious. Like many other origin movies, Shang-Chi and the Ten Rings is focused on introducing new characters and building blocks in the next phase of MCU world-building. You won’t find a lot of metal bodysuits, high-tech gadgets, interstellar travel, or Scarlett Johansson (who managed to keep herself out of this Asian movie for once) in this film. It accomplishes much with brilliant martial arts choreography, breathtaking set design, and strong casting.

However, it may be that the formulaic nature of the plot creates a backdrop against which negative stereotypes about East Asians can be isolated and clearly redressed. The movie’s creators have taken pains to send a message that not all Asian Americans are model minorities, Asian American women are not to be messed with, and yes, Asian men are sexy as hell. And, that there are many aspects of our culture and experiences as Asian Americans that we should be proud of, and that contribute to American popular culture and media dialectic in important ways.

Shang-Chi is as much a story about father-child and sibling relationships as it is about defeating an infestation of soul-sucking squid-dactyls. The movie shows each character grappling with their own guilt, anger, and shame, and the ways their actions affect those closest to them: “We needed you, and you chose those damn rings over us,” Shang cries out vulnerably in the heat of combat against Wenwu. It’s almost uncomfortably familiar — this yearning for connection with a loved one who seems all-powerful, yet is somehow barely present.

Will this movie address the myriad of social ills that faces the Asian American community today? No. Does it reflect all Asian American experiences? Surely not, but is it one of Marvel’s best origin movies yet? And does it open the doors for even more groundbreaking, challenging, and diverse work by and for Asian Americans to be made? Yes and yes. And that is a feeling that those of us who remember watching Saturday morning cartoons on an analog TV set should pause and celebrate, if only for a few moments, before continuing to fight the battles in our own lives. Who knows? We might even get a few Asian American action figures out of this too.

Tiffany Chang is the Director of Community Engagement at Asian Americans Advancing Justice — AAJC.

This blog is part of our “Milestones and Missed Cues” blog series.

To combat misperceptions about our incredibly multifaceted community, Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC advocates for fair and equal representation of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) behind and in front of the camera. Historically, AAPIs have been depicted in one-dimensional and often dehumanizing ways, but we have seen significant strides in recent years. We are delighted to introduce our blog series entitled, “Milestones and Missed Cues,” which examines movies and television shows featuring AAPI characters by asking a few important questions: Does the movie or show move the perception of AAPIs in a positive direction? Does the movie or show challenge the notion of what it means to be a “mainstream” movie instead of an “ethnic” movie? How do media platforms and outlets discuss the movie or show? How do social media users talk about the movie or show?

Advancing Justice | AAJC