Cretton: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) | poster excerpt

Asian Representation in ‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’

Marvel Studios’ Shang-Chi and the Legend of Ten Rings tries to recontextualize its stereotypical origins into a highly-entertaining film. Does it succeed?

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Destin Daniel Cretton
Marvel Studios
3 September 2021

Diversity and representation in media became major buzzwords and trends in the 2010s. Representation matters. Straight, white, cis men have been disproportionately represented in and behind major Hollywood films for the industry’s entire history, so any shift toward telling “new” (to Hollywood) stories from diverse people is a good thing. Specifically, a black kid seeing a major black superhero, a young girl seeing a major female superhero, or an Asian kid seeing a major Asian superhero is powerful, inspiring, and important. From that perspective, it matters not at all whether the representation is the result of pure artistic expression telling a personal story or cynical corporate strategy courting diverse audiences.

After Marvel Studios achieved massive success with Black Panther (Coogler, 2018), a wonderful large-scale yet personal blockbuster about black characters made by primarily black filmmakers, they developed a playbook for rolling out their big swings at representation. Captain Marvel (Boden and Fleck, 2019) was a female-led blockbuster slightly less successful than Black Panther but still massive. Next came Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (Cretton, 2021). This incredibly entertaining and well-made blockbuster aimed to bring strong Asian representation to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).

The representation playbook is less finely calibrated in this entry. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings seems more like a cynical grab at representation, less genuinely personal. Does it matter if the film succeeds as great entertainment? Does it matter to the Asian kid inspired by seeing someone like himself represented in a massive blockbuster superhero film?

The comic book origins of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings date back before Marvel Comics to the Dr. Fu Manchu stories by Sax Rohmer in 1913. Fu Manchu is a racist Chinese stereotype of a supervillain: a mad scientist, a criminal genius, and a cruel, mortal enemy of the West. He appeared in a series of novels, films, television, and comics over the years, licensed by DC Comics in the ‘40s and ‘50s, then by Marvel in the ‘70s. Marvel created a similarly-racist Iron Man villain in the ‘60s, the Mandarin, but in the ‘70s, they licensed the original.

Meanwhile, the early-‘70s saw a boom in martial arts stories, from cheap exploitation films to Bruce Lee films to the television series Kung Fu (1972-1975). Comic creators Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin pitched a comic book adaptation of Kung Fu to DC Comics, but it was rejected because martial arts stories were considered a fad. Marvel accepted the pitch as an original idea, rather than a Kung Fu adaptation, on the condition that the main character was half-white and that his father was Fu Manchu to make use of the newly-licensed character. Thus, Fu Manchu gained a son named Shang-Chi, and a long legacy of racist representation of the mysterious and threatening “yellow peril” was baked into the character from the very beginning.

Shang-Chi and Fu Manchu first appeared in Special Marvel Edition #15 (December 1973). Several issues later, the book was renamed The Hands of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu. In the book, Shang-Chi is raised to believe his father is benevolent, and he is trained in every form of martial arts. After attacking his father’s enemy, seemingly for the greater good, Shang-Chi discovers his father is an evil monster. He sets out to destroy Fu Manchu’s empire.

The series was fairly popular, running until issue #125 (June 1983). It ended because Marvel lost the rights to Fu Manchu. Over the next few decades, Shang-Chi appears sporadically in guest appearances which all tiptoe around the identity of his father. In 2010, Shang-Chi’s father was renamed Zheng Zu to overcome that copyright hurdle. A regular Shang-Chi book began publishing again in 2017, 34 years after the original ended.

Shang-Chi is unique in the Marvel pantheon due to his Asian heritage and lack of superpowers. This made him an easy choice for a potential television series in the early-‘80s. Marvel discussed a series starring Brandon Lee, Bruce’s son, but it never came to pass. In 2001, Stephen Norrington, director of Blade (1998), signed on to direct a Shang-Chi film. By 2003 the brilliant Chinese director and fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping, famous in America for choreographing the Matrix films, had taken over as director, with Ang Lee, director of Hulk (2003), producing.

This project fell through, however. The film rights to Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings reverted to Marvel, and Marvel soon launched their studio. Marvel Studios producers in the late-‘00s named Shang-Chi as a lesser-known character ripe for cinematic adaptation. However, there was no movement on the film until December 2018, after Black Panther made an enormous impact on the culture and made a case for diverse representation in blockbusters. The success of Crazy Rich Asians (Chu, 2018) also helped the case for Asian representation in Hollywood blockbusters.

Daniel Destin Cretton was hired in March 2019. He had made a splash with several smaller, character-focused films, beginning with the excellent Short Term 12 (2013), all starring Brie Larson, of Captain Marvel fame. Cretton and the other screenwriters wanted the film to focus on Shang-Chi’s family drama. They also felt free to alter the comic book origin at will, given that it is not well-known and is rooted in racial stereotypes. From an action standpoint, Cretton looked to the great Wuxia (“martial heroes”) films, such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Lee, 2000), and the films of Jackie Chan.

Awkwafina, who had become a go-to comedic supporting player in several films, including Crazy Rich Asians, was cast first. Simu Liu, a Chinese-Canadian actor best known for the Canadian sitcom Kim’s Convenience (2016-2021), was cast partly based on chemistry tests with Awkwafina. The full cast, including Chinese superstar Tony Leung, was announced in July 2019. Filming began in February 2020 but halted weeks later due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Production began without a solid plan for the ending (not ideal), but the filmmakers solidified the screenplay over the shooting break. Filming resumed in August 2020 and continued under restrictions until October. 

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings opens with the eponymous legend, as told by Ying Li (Fala Chen). It is narrated entirely in Mandarin, which is a bold choice for the opening of a Marvel film. A thousand years ago, Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung) came upon ten powerful bracelets of unknown origin. Besides extending his life indefinitely, the rings contain energy that can be used to make shields or attack. Wenwu spends centuries building his army, the Ten Rings, conquering, pillaging, and assassinating opponents secretly. In 1996, he sets his sights on the mystical, alternate dimension village of Ta Lo. Ying Li guards the entrance, and after a beautifully staged fight, Wenwu and Ying Li fall in love.

Ying Li convinces Wenwu to change his ways. He takes off his rings, dissolves his criminal organization, and settles down to have two children: Xu Shang-Chi and Xu Xialing. Unfortunately, Wenwu’s past comes for his family. A group of his enemies attacks while he is away, and Ying Li dies protecting her children. In his grief, Wenwu feels that he can’t change his ways. Also, on some level, he blames all of Ta Lo (for refusing to let them live there) and seven year-old Shang-Chi (for not protecting his mother).

He quickly rebuilds the Ten Rings to exact revenge and trains Shang-Chi as one of his assassins. Xialing is largely ignored and trains herself. The family suffers a trauma, fails to process it, and quickly passes around blame. When he is 14, Wenwu sends Shang-Chi on his first mission. Shang-Chi promises Xialing that he will return in three days, but after the murder, he feels so much anger and shame that he flees. He takes on a new name, Shaun, attends school in San Francisco, and becomes close friends with a girl named Katy.

Ten years later, “Shaun” (Simu Liu) and Katy (Awkwafina) are aimless, working as valets. Wenwu sends his men to recover a pendant given to Shang-Chi by his mother, then orchestrates Shang-Chi’s meeting with Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) in Macau. This is a great shock to Katy, unaware of “Shaun’s” background and tags along on the adventure. Xialing, who escaped from her father years ago, owns a highly-successful fight club in Macau, and holds a grudge against Shang-Chi for never returning. They are attacked by Wenwu’s men and eventually return to his fortress.

Wenwu reveals that Ying Li has been speaking to him from beyond the grave. She is imprisoned in Ta Lo behind a giant gate, and he intends to invade Ta Lo to free her. Then his family will be restored. Shang-Chi and Xialing are skeptical, so they escape the compound and travel to Ta Lo before Wenwu. They are embraced as family there, particularly by their aunt, Ying Nan (Michelle Yeoh). Nan reveals that the village of Ta Lo exists to protect the gate that imprisons the Dweller-in-Darkness, a giant soul-sucking creature. The creature reaches out to Wenwu through the ten rings, posing as Ying Li and preying on his grief-stricken mind to secure his escape. Shang-Chi, Xialing, Katy, and the people of Ta Lo must hold back Wenwu’s assault to prevent the Dweller-in-Darkness from being released.

Still, the attack comes, and Wenwu refuses to listen to reason. He uses the power of his rings to nearly kill Shang-Chi and breaks open the gate. Shang-Chi returns riding atop the Great Protector, a dragon. He fights his father in front of the gate until the Dweller-in-Darkness breaks free. In his last act, Wenwu saves Shang-Chi and gives him the ten rings. Shang-Chi and Xialing then work together with the Great Protector to kill the Dweller-in-Darkness.