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Why Shang-Chi’s success matters — and why it shouldn’t

Shang-Chi is a victory for representation. Quantifying what that means is complicated.

Simu Liu in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
Marvel Studios
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

It’s been two years since Marvel introduced a new hero on the big screen. The most recent addition was the cosmic powerhouse Captain Marvel, the first woman superhero to get her own Marvel movie. Before Captain Marvel was Black Panther, the first Black superhero to get his own Marvel Studios movie. Because they were the first of their kind, each film came with not only the burden of being good but the added weight of being financially strong and moving Marvel’s sociopolitical needle.

Now, amid a world-changing (and film-delaying) pandemic — and as the MCU moves on from its own world-changing events post-Avengers: Endgame — we have Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Shang-Chi is the first Asian American superhero to get a Marvel movie of his own, which inevitably means the character faces questions similar to his barrier-breaking predecessors: What does it mean that he’s Asian American? What makes him different from the other superheroes he’ll be linking up with? And will his movie make enough money to convince Marvel to keep him around?

The last question is going to be up to audiences, many of whom in the US will have to go to a movie theater to see Shang-Chi while Covid-19’s highly contagious delta variant surges. (Shang-Chi will play exclusively in theaters for 45 days, then hit Disney+.)

As with its fellow Marvel films that boasted notable “firsts,” Shang-Chi’s theatrical release has become part of a frustrating conversation linking ideas like justice, equality, and representation to box office sales and the value of any given story. The idea is that a massive box office haul for Shang-Chi would mean that Asian American stories are worth investing in, that audiences want to see Asian American faces on the big screen, and that Asian American superheroes are just as valid as their white counterparts.

But when the dust settles, I’m not sure how much a Shang-Chi box office bonanza will move the needle for Asian Americans or be a social justice game changer. To hoist lofty goals upon a movie is unfair, as no movie is going to solve problems like racism or inequality in two hours. Making a lot of money will primarily benefit the studio and lead actors involved; believing that a big payday could simultaneously spur measurable social change is capitalist idealism.

That said, Shang-Chi itself is solid if not spectacular. It answers questions about Shang-Chi’s role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and why he matters, beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Laced into this hero’s world-saving mission against a universe-threatening, soul-sucking force of evil is a rich and nimble commentary about identity, masculinity, and assimilation, punctuated by beautiful martial arts sequences. It’s also an homage to the Chinese wuxia genre, and a movie that speaks to the Asian American experience in a compassionate way.

Heroism doesn’t come as naturally to Shang-Chi as it did to Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America, or as unapologetically as it did to Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man. Even though there’s great power rumbling in Shang-Chi’s bones that’s similar to Thor’s, there’s no sense of duty anchoring him to it.

Being a hero is an alien concept to someone who’s spent a lifetime ashamed of who he is, let alone who he’s meant to be.

Within the first 15 minutes of the movie, you can see Shang-Chi’s path taking shape and start to identify what it will take for Shang-Chi to become an Avenger. It’s a path that comes with finding himself, figuring out what’s made him who he is, and then deciding what kind of person, what kind of hero, he wants to be.

Perhaps his hero’s journey is as predictable as any other Marvel movie, and it carries the added weight of being the first superhero film with an Asian American lead. That doesn’t take away from the joy of watching Shang-Chi finally arrive, no matter how tenuous the “representation matters” conversation can feel.

Shang-Chi is a superhero movie powered by themes of assimilation and identity

Simu Liu and Awkwafina pretending to be Shang-Chi and Katy, who are quasi-pretending to be valet drivers in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
Jasin Boland

The core of Shang-Chi’s story is about a hero honoring the people who came before him. Shawn, an allegedly everyman valet driver in San Francisco, is actually Shang-Chi, the son of immortal warlord Wenwu (Tony Leung) and his majestic wife Jiang Li (Fala Chen). Jiang Li’s death and the grief that followed broke her family — husband, son, and daughter (Meng’er Zhang) — in irreparable ways.

Shang-Chi carries with him the herculean tension of being a superpowered, meticulously trained killing machine who presents himself as an average American underachiever. He does this to protect his best friend Katy (Awkwafina). Having an immortal warlord dad who’s mad that you haven’t come home — Shang-Chi’s father has the legendary 10 rings of power and created an army with the same name — isn’t a good situation to be in, and it’s not good for your friends who could be held hostage and used as bargaining chips.

Shang-Chi’s approach to heroism is markedly different from that of Avengers like Tony Stark or Steve Rogers, who never shy away from acting as the superheroes they are. Titles like Iron Man and Captain America mean something to them — they indicate heroism and legacy. They never turn off being Iron Man or Captain America.

That prospect of never being able to separate yourself from the person you’re meant to be is frightening for someone like Shang-Chi, who wants nothing more than to be able to escape who he really is. Unfortunately for Shang-Chi, due to extenuating circumstances stemming from his father’s thirst for power, maintaining his secret identity is no longer possible.

Simu Liu’s performance as Shang-Chi works well enough, particularly in the comedic beats. But portraying a pensive character with a deep, dark secret (see: Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel) stifles what an actor can do. Harboring that secret, which Shang-Chi does for a lot of the movie, becomes his personality.

What sets Shang-Chi apart is how director Destin Daniel Cretton and his co-writers Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham take Shang-Chi’s superheroic conundrum and slyly create an allegory about identity, assimilation, and culture.

In Wenwu’s mind, his son accepted a life in America pretending to be average instead of embracing the greatness he’s destined to have. That greatness stems from his family’s possession of the most well-trained and feared crime syndicate across the world. If Wenwu wanted, he could bring the US, and the world, to its knees. The world exists because he allows it.

So in his mind, why would his children eschew all that power? Why act like someone you’re not? Why not search for even more power, instead of contently living with the bare minimum?

At one point, Wenwu asks Shang-Chi’s friend Katy about her real Chinese name. It comes out in mumbles. She can’t even say it. Katy’s struggle with speaking Chinese is a subtle but important part of the movie. She’s not only an outsider because she’s a normal human in a world full of superpowered, magical people, but she’s also an outsider to real-world China (Macau is one of the real-life destinations she and Shang-Chi travel to). It drives home the unique Asian-American experience of not quite fitting into American life and not quite fitting into the culture and land your parents or ancestors are from.

In Wenwu’s eyes, Katy’s loss of her culture proves his point. He believes Katy has forgotten where she comes from and the power her name has. Wenwu thinks she’s assumed an American identity to make the people around her comfortable instead of living with the identity her parents dignified her with.

On the same side of that argument but with a more compassionate worldview is Shang-Chi’s aunt Ying Nan (Michelle Yeoh). She sees how Shang-Chi has rejected his past and forgotten where he comes from. Of course he’d love to forget his father’s bloody past, but in doing so, also forgets the majesty, magic, and power that his mother’s bloodline has given him. Seeing that hurts her heart.

The sting and frustration of Asian American parent disappointment is something I didn’t expect to see represented in a Marvel movie, but here we are. It’s 2021. Perhaps parental disappointment and its many flavors — Asgardian, Wakandan, and now seemingly Asian (via Ta-Lo) and Asian American — is a sign of burgeoning equality.

Cretton’s movie also embraces Chinese American culture in its meticulous fight scenes. Prior to its release, Cretton said he was inspired by the surreal elements of wuxia (a genre of Chinese storytelling that mixes fantasy and martial arts) and the physicality of Jackie Chan’s career, and it’s evident how much effort he has made to honor those influences.

Cretton deliberately slows down the motion in the fury of kicks and punches to allow viewers to find the harmony in the choreography. The opening sequence is tightly orchestrated down to the actors’ fingertips and toes; Cretton’s camera never loses track of or obscures the action while anchoring its actors in the space of a scene. And while there are some rock-’em sock-’em sequences, there are also a few marital arts duels that suspend the rules of physics and slip into something more magical, an element that often appears in wuxia.

Shang-Chi shines in its smaller, more intimate moments — fight scenes included. It shines as a musing on the fantasy of thrilling power and identity placed in the hands of people who rarely ever get it in American movies. What a gleeful combination that is when Shang-Chi finds its groove.

What it means for Shang-Chi to be a box office smash

A mother kneels in front of her young son and holds her forehead to his.
Shang-Chi is representation for Asian American men who really love their moms.
Jasin Boland/Marvel Studios

Quantifying the importance of joy is an impossible task. A movie’s ability to lift your spirit isn’t a math problem or some kind of currency to trade. Yet, when it comes to certain movies, and often when it comes to superhero movies since they’re the biggest and most visible of the bunch, there’s a tendency to squeeze the way a movie makes you feel into a desire for life-changing results.

The box office discourse surrounding Shang-Chi erupted earlier in August, weeks before the movie’s opening, when Disney CEO Bob Chapek described Shang-Chi‘s release strategy as an “experiment” — Marvel’s first Asian American superhero movie will only be in theaters for 45 days before heading to streaming.

Lead actor Liu took offense at Chapek’s word choice. In a tweet on August 14, Liu rebuked Chapek’s use of “experiment” and took it to mean that Asian American representation, not the streaming strategy, was seen as the trial balloon. Framing this as an offense, Liu said that Asian Americans have historically been underestimated and undervalued and that Shang-Chi, by way of its box office, was an opportunity to change “history.”

This statement being on Twitter and available for everyone to read meant that it was not only Liu showing his displeasure in Chapek’s words but also an encouragement for fans to buy tickets early (ticket sales for Shang-Chi began two days later on August 16).

Like Captain Marvel or Black Panther before it, or even reaching across the comic book aisle to 2017’s Wonder Woman from DC Comics and Warner Bros., Shang-Chi represents the first of its kind. Like those forerunners, Shang-Chi is burdened with needing to succeed to show that committing to this kind of progress is worth it.

The entire reason we frame cinematic success as some kind of justice is that Hollywood has rarely made room for big-budget, blockbuster fantasies in which Asian, Black, Latin, female, and queer people are the heroes of their own stories.

In the past, refrains like “Black films don’t travel” and “no one wants to watch female superheroes” have been used as ammunition to shoot down projects about Black and women superheroes. When it came to Black Panther and Wonder Woman, the fear was that if these movies were box office clunkers, they would be used by studio executives as justification to never make any more Black superhero movies or women-centric superhero movies. Looming, then, is the unspoken threat that if Shang-Chi doesn’t make money, Chapek and Disney will be reluctant to greenlight more movies where Asian faces aren’t a minority.

The frustrating part isn’t just that Hollywood tends to conflate equality or some net social good with box office sales. It’s also the lingering feeling that the immediate and real winners in this battle to prove that representation matters are Disney’s, Chapek’s, Marvel’s, and ostensibly Liu’s paychecks. Even though they’ve bickered, they’re all working for the same company and they all want Shang-Chi to make tons of money (especially in the global box office superpower that is China).

Success for Shang-Chi primarily means a greater chance of seeing more movies featuring Liu and his character. At best, it’s buying a seat at a table that everyday people aren’t ever going to eat at.

While I do think the movie is great and worth seeing, I’m far too cynical to believe that Shang-Chi’s box office success or Liu’s stardom will make my or any Asian person’s life ostensibly better. It’d be wonderful if that happened. I’d love to believe that after a terrible year of watching grandparents who look like mine get beat up, that something as simple as throwing money at a movie could fix racism.

It’d be easier to accept if everyone was honest enough to acknowledge that Shang-Chi isn’t going to change history. The movie simply exists to provide entertainment and maybe nourishment to viewers who are too young to understand the reality around us all. It’s fantastic at touching upon the Asian American experience, and it’s so buoyant in how it celebrates Asian American culture.

I, like Liu, would love if we could change the world and smash ceilings and persevere against the nasty stuff — racism, prejudice, hopelessness — that keeps us pinned down. If only it were as simple as buying a movie ticket.

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