Shang-Chi becomes first Asian American character to star in Marvel movie


Promotional material courtesy of Walt Disney Studios/Marvel Studios

Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), Katy (Awkwafina) and Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) star in Shang-Chi, the latest movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the first featuring an almost entirely Asian-American cast.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was officially released on Sept. 3, 2021 as the second Marvel movie to come out since the beginning of the pandemic. This cinematic franchise has redefined the limits of superhero movies when it has historically been dominated by white, male characters. While characters in Marvel comic books are typically more diverse, the films have taken a while to catch up. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) takes a long overdue step forward in introducing Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) as the first Asian American superhero. 

The movie starts in San Francisco where Shang-Chi is living a normal life with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina). This all changes when his father, Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung), whom he isolated himself from when he was younger, finds him and attempts to recruit him in his mission to find his dead wife. Katy finds out that Shang-Chi has hidden his true identity from her. 

Shang-Chi explains that his mother died when he was a child and his father ended up falling apart in his grief. He decided to train Shang-Chi as an assassin because he thought they were too weak to protect themselves. With his father back in his life, Shang-Chi and Katy search for his sister, Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), to protect her from their father’s destructive and delusional antics. 

Most Marvel films focus on plot but in this case, the relationships between characters and the emotions they experienced were prioritized. The characters all have faults and individual motivations that make them more interesting than the typical good guy who never makes mistakes and the bad guy with no humanity. Shang-Chi is a compelling protagonist because he admits when he has made a mistake and is motivated to help the people that suffered from it. His father, the antagonist in the movie, is a man who lets his grief consume him and doesn’t realize that other people are hurting too. To create a depth to the characters with imperfect, human traits was a good choice and made them easy to empathize with.  

Unlike other Marvel movies, Shang-Chi uses Hong Kong action styles which were first featured in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, among other revolutionary films. Actors Michelle Yeoh and Tony Leung, who are known for such movies, join the cast and participate in beautiful fight scenes which are artfully crafted. Along with the choreography of the fight scenes being extremely elaborate, the use of leaves, dust, and water as visuals connected their surroundings to the event itself, bringing the scenes to life. 

In one scene, the characters used a fight as a way to bond on an emotional level and the fighting was less about hurting one another and more about connecting with each other’s power. The characters were able to interact without speech. Connecting fight scenes with emotions that normally aren’t associated with violence was a surprisingly offbeat move for Marvel.

Shang-Chi has been noted as the first cast in the MCU consisting almost entirely of actors of Asian descent. While it is important for the characters to reflect the diversity this world has, it is equally important to accurately represent the cultures that come with them. While this movie still has the energy of a Marvel film and fits in with the rest of the franchise, it is styled to fit the characters and their setting better than Marvel has done before. In the past, Marvel movies have felt strongly Americanized despite being set in different parts of the world. This movie provides hope for the upcoming phases because it honors Marvel and Asian movie history without compromising its integrity.