In case you hadn’t heard, the first Asian American superhero movie from the Marvel Cinematic Universe came out this weekend. Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is kinda a big deal, given the mega-franchise of it all. And as someone who loves both the MCU and Asian America, I was actually quite apathetic to it ever since its announcement. I thought it was cool, I was unhappy with who “our” leading man was: Chinese Canadian actor and sad boi™️ Simu Liu. I was never really feeling the movie, right up until its release Friday night.
It’s a very good movie. I hate to make the comparison because it feels l like I’m pitting two marginalized heroes against one another, but-I think it’s closest to Captain Marvel. Both movies are momentous for what they did, definitely have their faults, but are good movies. I enjoyed watching Shang Chi, I will probably pay to watch it a few more times in theaters. As I’ve already shared, I love some good ol’ fashioned Vaguely Old Oriental Aesthetic, especially some Chinese shit. I’d say it was one of the stronger MCU origin stories and give it a solid 7/10.
But what made me actually look forward to it was 1) the soundtrack, and 2) this article series from Inverse.com exploring the history of Shang Chi, both the comics and character. There’s plenty of reading out there right now about Shang Chi, but I’d start with this series to get the best context on the characters’ history instead of reactions to the movie’s representation. Because most people, myself included, hadn’t ever heard of Shang chi until Marvel announced it was making this movie and didn’t know about the character’s racist origins. The same goes for the Mandarin, a villain story the MCU reworked in Iron Man 3 (very well, imo), because that character was clearly based on Yellow Peril stereotypes. So Eric Francisco, who wrote the Inverse series, went really in-depth to break down the history of both Asian American mainstream identity, and the two characters Marvel was about to introduce.
Inverse explores the origins, rise, fall, and rebirth of Marvel's Shang-Chi in a three-part series.
Having this context helped me understand and enjoy the movie more because it explained why so much of the story focused on Wenwu. (Side note: if his name is Shang [space] Chi, why is the dad Wenwu [no space]?) There’s a lot of flashbacks in the movie to Shang chi’s childhood and how his father treated him, and it worked to document Wenwu’s descent into villainy even though what he wants is…kinda…to protect his family. By focusing on Wenwu’s motivations and life as a father & husband, the writers grounded and humanized him instead of giving into caricatures of Weird Oriental Magic. Tony Leung-an absolutely legendary Hong Kong actor-was the best actor for that job, I think any lesser actor wouldn’t have been able to convey those layers and depth Wenwu needed.
“I think he’s more of a failed father,” Tony Leung describing Wenwu in the GQ Iconic Character interview. “He wanted to love his children but didn’t know how to love.”
There’s plenty of other really good and interesting think pieces and reviews to read about Shang Chi before you go see it. Which I do recommend seeing, because at the very least it’s an incredible action film. But this article series stuck with me the most because this is what reclaiming our pop culture actually looks like. It’s not only digging up old characters and giving them iPhones, or retelling an old story with better CGI; it’s thinking about it in a new context with the people who it reflects. Shang Chi, unlike the 2020 Mulan, was co-written and directed by Asian and Asian American (men.) Even though flawed, I respect how they were able to look at all of this old problematic shit and think of a way to really reclaim and create something new for the community. I think they did a pretty good job, too.
PS: If you want to hear more of my thoughts on Shang Chi (or any Marvel product) then listen to my podcast, Earth’s Mightiest Fangirls.
Originally published on Tiny Letter on September 8, 2021.