As the Marvel Comic Universe marches on like an unstoppable army across pop mediascape, box office charts, internet discussions, and global playing field made for Hollywood production, Asia is next. That stop is Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Light spoilers ahead.
I don’t really know anything about the comic books related to Shang-Chi, but I am also thinking like, if you weren’t an African-American, can you really fully appreciate, say, Black Panther? I mean, you can enjoy it–it’s a fine movie and quite good, for most people. Same can be said of Shang-Chi.
But Shang-Chi is more than just Asian representation, it crystalizes a lot of East Asian-American “if Hollywood wasn’t a racist POS they would have made X more like Y” kind of thinking. For starters they did have someone who is Asian-American make the movie, and you can tell the difference between meaningful homage and just dropping bait. It’s the difference between General Tso’s Chicken and White Macha. (Who knew White Macha is such a great way to explain racism and racial appropriation?)
Which is also to say, I feel a bit torn in that ultimately Shang-Chi is also a Hollywood film. It’s squarely targeting Asian-Americans and I’m really curious how non-American Asians feels. Like, plenty of Chinese people would enjoy General Tso’s Chicken, especially when it’s done so well like most top-tier MCU flicks. But this isn’t Crazy Rich Asian, this is ultimately still a superheroes fantasy film that has to slot in a new origin and reoccurring cast like another rock on the infinity gauntlet. I’m concerned about authenticity, but it’s at least here in some measurable dosage. It isn’t performative, at least to people to can tell the fake stuff from the real stuff–which is unfortunately probably not a lot of white people, at least if you surf Metacritic or RT’s criticisms from pro critics.
The real test would be how Shang-Chi’s character and themes survive the collision with the MCU. If Captain American can, and to an extent, Black Panther can, will it happen for the rest of them? At this point I’m just glad the film is so succinctly pandering to Asian Americans that the CG kirins is both a superficial weeb kind of thing, and a reminder to myself that I don’t know my Chinese history and culture lore well enough to pick everything else out. Or perhaps, calling Shang-Chi out for the things it didn’t do is probably the right take. Like unable to go all the way with all those argument-ending Chinese proverbs, there were so many occasions for them. They went pretty far with the raw Mandarin, I was hoping for more to be honest–but I guess the cast has some limits LOL. That in itself is a reflection of Asian-Americans. I think the 3rd Q&A in this short video with the actress of Xialing nails an example of That Problem With Tokenism.
As for the actual film, it’s definitely my second favorite after Captain America, and at the same time it’s probably the one I would rep the most since of all the East Asian-ness. At the very least it didn’t copy some blatantly Asian thing. Making Black Panther just like Lion King lost some respect for me, but at times while watching Shang-Chi it felt like it tries to ring home those familial-friendly themes a tad too hard, in a Disney kind of way. Well, see above about Chinese proverbs. Which is just to say this is a billion light years better than the new Mulan. Maybe Disney princesses are toxic from an intersectionality POV? Just saying.
As far as the cast go, I dig that new face they found for Xialing, who is a Chinese actress who studied internationally but somehow made it, and got married to one of the action directors while making the movie. Shang-Chi is her first mainstream work. Simu is a good fit, and Awkwafina came off properly and she has just the right amount of spotlight on her to fit her outsized personality without taking away from the main story. I think in CRA she definitely was too big for her role, for example.
Speaking of too big, though, I think all the classic stars are too big. Tony Leung, Michelle Yeoh, and others are in their classic form. They overshadow Simu, but in a good way, kind of like you got superpower parents and relatives, so they should take more of the spotlight than the main guy, who’s going to inherit that and make it his own. The film gave Simu a bit of that towards the end–and it’s my favorite part of the movie. It’s both thematically appropriate and in parallel with the acting. The bigger question is if Simu Liu has acted enough to own that. I’m not sure he did, but time will tell once, again, when Shang-Chi collides with MCU Phase 4.
And yeah, I think the story is really why this isn’t my favorite MCU movie–Cap’n gets to fight Nazis. Shangchi and the gang get to stop Dad from being fooled by ghost voices trying to open the jail door? Seriously? That makes Lion King look good.
PS. This is all a great set up for that Indian subcontinental MCU bandwagon stop, whenever they get to it. You are Asians, but we know, it’s not the same.