Racist Tropes in Shang-Chi and
the Legend of the Ten Rings and Balanced Praise
Black Panther was released in February 2018 to widespread acclaim. It was the highest-grossing film in North America that year and was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It is a film that uses the mythology of Marvel’s most significant black character to tell a personal story about blackness and the African diaspora. It centers on the black experience, both in front of and behind the camera. Indeed, blackness is baked into every aspect of Black Panther, and it was an enormous, zeitgeist-defining success.
Of course, Marvel Studios wanted to chase that success. It sounds cynical, but Hollywood is a business. It chases money. If diverse representation in a superhero blockbuster earns mountains of money and prestige, they will look to repeat the success with other forms of representation. In March 2019, they released Captain Marvel, which similarly unpacked the female experience through a superhero blockbuster. It also succeeded, though not as wildly as Black Panther.
Sometimes overtly and sometimes subtly, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was promoted as “Black Panther for Asians and Asian-Americans.” A big superhero blockbuster that centers on the Asian experience and comments on the Asian diaspora but also hopefully crosses over to non-Asian audiences. Asian members of the cast and crew were hired. The filmmakers insisted that an actor of Chinese descent play Shang-Chi, as Hollywood films often blindly cast Asian roles with actors from Japan, China, Korea, Vietnam, etc., without properly considering the character’s ethnicity. Director and co-writer Cretton felt it was important to depict characters that could be looked up to by Asian kids. He views Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings as one about “Asian-ness”, that it tells a story that could not be recast with a white lead. Cretton even included some of his own experiences in the film to give it a personal feel, but he also noted that there is no singular Asian-American voice.
Of course, no one person or film can speak for the entire diaspora. That is true and important for Cretton to acknowledge. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is full of well-choreographed martial arts action that is nicely shot and staged. There is imagery typically associated with Asian films, from the opening sun-streaked forest glade to a traditional Chinese village on a lake to a distinctly Asian type of dragon. As mentioned, much of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings features Mandarin with subtitles, something a business-minded studio might fear is uncommercial. It includes the right elements, the filmmakers said the right things, and everything is here. But the Asian representation seems a bit shallow, and that idea came more into focus for me upon reading a particular article.
In his article for the Washington Post, “‘Shang-Chi’ Doesn’t Resist Racist Tropes. It Just Repackages Them” (15 September 2021), film critic Walter Chaw breaks down his feelings about Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings as an Asian-American. He first calls out the assumption that he would be grateful to have Marvel Studios finally center Asian characters in one of their blockbusters. He then proceeds to make some very salient points about how Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings falls short of truly portraying the Asian experience and mostly just presents tired stereotypes in new ways.
At its core, Chaw’s article asserts that simply having the involvement of Asian filmmakers is not enough. The film needs to have something to say. Asians are typically portrayed on film as highly-intelligent overachievers. “Shaun” and Katy, by contrast, are depicted as aimless slackers. At least until they mention that Katy graduated from Berkeley and “Shaun” speaks four languages. In life and on film, Asian men are always assumed to know martial arts. Katy is horrified when Wenwu’s men first attack them, saying, “does it look like [Shaun] can fight?” But then, of course, he can fight. He is a martial arts master. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings subverts or calls out stereotypes, but then affirms them.
Chaw also points out that Western films often depict Asian society in one of two ways: a static, unchanging society held back from the progress of the West by traditions or in the grip of secret, dangerous criminal organizations. As Chaw writes, “Asia is the home of backward mystics or obscure organized crime triads.” Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings manages to include both. Wenwu operates the Ten Rings, an immensely powerful criminal organization that has been shaping world events for a thousand years. Ta Lo is a magical, medieval Chinese village that has not felt the need to progress.
Black Panther combined progressive Afrofuturism, present-day African-American social issues, and superhero mythology into a story both deeply rooted in African tradition and highly advanced. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings simply sticks worn-out kung-fu clichés into a superhero adventure. The filmmakers had the opportunity to use their platform, a major blockbuster from a highly-successful studio with a built-in audience, to fight the clichés or at least say something meaningful. Instead, as Chaw puts it, they produced an “orientalist fantasia”.
As a white man, I am certainly in no position to validate the level of Asian representation in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Chaw’s article resonates because it makes me question whether I give the film unearned credit for its diversity. It further resonates because of how much I enjoy Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the most breezily entertaining film of this era of the MCU. Recent MCU films have carried the weight of character history (Shotland’s 2021 film Black Widow), the weight of continuity (Raimi’s 2022 Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness), or both (Watts’ Spider-Man: No Way Home 2021). Or they have pushed the boundaries of Marvel Studios’ visuals and storytelling (Zhao’s 2021 Eternals).
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings has none of those burdens. It is a well-made, likable, highly-entertaining superhero romp with well-drawn characters. Honestly, that is enough. It was especially enough when released a year and a half into the pandemic. So, separated from the cynicism with which Marvel celebrated the diversity play, I think Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a successful film. Representation done well or not, Asian kids now have these characters to look up to, and that counts for something. Given all of that, I cannot condemn Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings I can merely balance my praise.
That praise begins with the film’s greatest strength: the exploration of a broken family dynamic. Wenwu, played soulfully by the always-excellent Tony Leung, becomes a surprisingly sympathetic villain. He spends a thousand years as a terrible conqueror before Ying Li shows him that he can be better. He settles down, has a family, and is willing to grow old. But her death shatters that image of himself. He returns to his old ways and is unable to show his children love. He attempts to mold Shang-Chi into a killer and completely neglects Xialing, as she reminds him of his wife.
In sum, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings portrays how a death in the family can tear the remaining family apart. The family issues could be almost directly adapted to a smaller-scale drama and still play beautifully. In his grief at the loss of his wife and estrangement from his children, Wenwu is an easy target for the Dweller-in-Darkness to manipulate. In the small-scale drama, maybe this would be some kind of addiction. Here, it’s a giant, winged, soul-sucking creature. Same difference.
Shang-Chi gets a lot of attention from his father, but it is in the service of violence and revenge. He runs away, abandoning his sister to save himself. In their final confrontation, Shang-Chi prepares to use all his father taught him to kill Wenwu. He blames his mother’s death on his father’s sins, while Wenwu feels Shang-Chi should have saved her. Each blames the other for the tragedy. Grief is poison. But arriving in Ta Lo and meeting his aunt, Ying Nan, teaches Shang-Chi that he is the product of both of his parents. He overcomes Wenwu, and taps into the ten rings by channeling his mother. His last fight with Wenwu purposefully mirrors the first encounter between Wenwu and Ying Li.
Meanwhile, Xialing wants to be trained like Shang-Chi; she wants to prove herself. When Shang-Chi fails to return for her, she escapes and starts her empire like her father. She wants to prove that she is good enough and that her father should not have overlooked her. These dynamics are doled out in the first two acts through flashbacks and exposition. The third act, while ostensibly all soul-suckers and riding dragons, is about the father and children coming to terms with each other. Shang-Chi first learns to embrace his mother’s influence, then he reconciles with his father (as his father dies), then he refuses to lose his sister in the final battle. The third act is family therapy and self-actualization through spectacle, which works wonders.
The spectacle is generally well-staged. I stated that the opening fight between Wenwu and Ying Li is gorgeously shot. But the real highlight is the bus fight, in which Shang-Chi reveals to Katy (and the audience) that he is a master martial artist when attacked in an articulated San Francisco city bus. The sequence is perfect: it is small-scale, well-suited to the hero’s specific skills, and makes use of the unique setting for fun action gags. Similarly, a later fight on a bamboo scaffold in Macau uses the verticality of the setting in fun and interesting ways.
Supervising Stunt Coordinator Brad Allen, who died a month before the film’s release and to whom the film is dedicated, learned his trade as part of the Jackie Chan Stunt Team, and that influence shows. The fights are dynamic and tailored specifically to the characters. Unfortunately, the third act looks too polished and generic, despite the strong character work. The drive into Ta Lo genuinely looks like a car commercial (BMW iX3, BMW’s first electric SUV, can survive magical shifting forests and interdimensional travel, on sale now!!) MCU films have a reputation for devolving into CGI smashfests in their final acts, sacrificing interesting visuals or characterization for spectacle. That is not a fair characterization, but Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings‘ visuals diminish towards the end.
The final successful aspect of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is best summed up as Katy, Shang-Chi’s best friend, played by Awkwafina. The first half of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a two-hander between its central character and Katy. Katy is the audience surrogate and the comic relief, a role that Awkwafina perfected. Her banter with Simu Liu is warm, funny and genuine. They are believable at the beginning as two friends failing to reach their potential, staying out too late to drink and sing karaoke. Katy grounds the fantastical reality, and jokingly undercuts it when called for. However, much like the visuals, she is diminished in a final act that does not have any use for her.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was positioned as a major move forward in Asian representation in the MCU. On that front, it falls short. It has little depth about the Asian experience or the Asian diaspora, and it simply repackages worn-out Asian stereotypes. But as a breezy, entertaining superhero film, it succeeds. Anchored by a strong, credible fractured-family drama, well-staged action, and nice character comedy, most of the film soars. The third act is more of a mess, but it resolves the family dynamics beautifully. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s so much fun.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was originally scheduled for release in February 2021, the same weekend as Black Panther three years earlier. The Covid-19 pandemic necessitated a shift to September, where it caught fire just as cinemas were truly reopening. It was the number one film at the box office for four weeks, becoming the highest-grossing film of the pandemic up to that point and the first pandemic-released film to earn over $200 million in North America.
Disney committed across the board to greater Asian representation right before the pandemic, but that was unfortunate timing. The live-action remake Mulan (Caro, 2020) just missed theatrical release in March 2020 and was released to streaming later that year. Raya and the Last Dragon (Hall & Estrada, 2021) was released simultaneously in theatres and on streaming in March 2021, lessening its impact. But Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was released at just the right time. In December 2021, a sequel was announced with Cretton and Liu returning. One can only hope that with a successful, well-liked first film behind them, the sequel does better to eschew the tired, shallow old tropes and give the world a wholly Asian superhero.
In a mid-credits scene, Wong (Benedict Wong) examines the ten rings with Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo). They deduce that they are of unknown origin but are sending some kind of signal. Wong warns Shang-Chi and Katy that their lives are about to change. They take Wong to karaoke.
In the post-credits scene, Xialing takes control of her father’s criminal organization, and we are promised “The Ten Rings Will Return”
Director and co-writer Daniel Destin Cretton and star Simu Liu are confirmed to return for the sequel. In July 2022, Marvel Studios announced that the fifth Avengers film, Avengers: The Kang Dynasty, would release in 2025 and be directed by Cretton. That is an enormous vote of confidence and likely points to a major role for Shang-Chi in the MCU.
Marvel Cinematic Universe Viewing Order
Shang-Chi is very loosely connected to the rest of the MCU, which is very refreshing. It also means that I am placing it after a lot of other MCU projects that are more closely related to earlier events. It may shift as “Phase Four of the MCU” comes into focus, but for now, it lives at the end.
28. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier
31. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Next Time: A short break from the MCU to check in with our favourite black alien goo.