Arts & Entertainment Editor
Warning: This article contains major spoilers for Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings!
Run, don’t walk, to go see Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings right now. I’ve been looking forward to this movie since Simu Liu was announced to have been cast as Shang-Chi at San Diego Comic-Con 2019. This was the first time I heard about Shang-Chi. Where had this Asian-led superhero comic been all my life? Destin Daniel Cretton, the director, and Simu Liu, the actor playing Shang-Chi, hadn’t heard of this character until they became involved with the production. Maybe that was for good reason, as the comic was extremely problematic.
The Hands of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu was published in 1974 and it’s, as the New York Times calls it, “one of Marvel’s most racially problematic, with Asian faces rendered in garish oranges and yellows unseen in nature . . .” and goes on to describe the multiple racist characters. The most problematic character in the comic-verse was Shang-Chi’s dad, Fu Manchu. In an article by Inverse (which I highly recommend reading, it goes into a lot of depth on how Shang-Chi had to destroy its racist origins), Fu Manchu is described as “yellow peril incarnate.” Yikes, right? He was an Asian mystical man who dreamt of world domination and was created by British novelist Sax Rohmer.
In 1913, Rohmer published The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu, and he wasn’t subtle in his use of racism at all. The first description of Fu Manchu is something horrible: “imagine a person, tall, lean, and feline, high shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes [ . . . ] Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present [ . . . ] Imagine that awful being, and you have a picture of Dr. Fu Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man.” Fu Manchu was the epitome of ‘yellow peril’ propaganda and, unfortunately, became quite popular in American culture.
From 1923 – ’80, Fu Manchu was everywhere in the media. There were radio dramas, comics, and films all involving the problematic character. In the films, the actors playing Fu Manchu were all played by White men who did yellowface. In the 1932 film, The Mask of Fu Manchu, Boris Karloff did yellowface, and there was a line where he orders his followers to “kill White men and take his women.” Fu Manchu became so popular that Marvel acquired the rights in order to add heft to Shang-Chi. So, how does Marvel move forward with a modern-day version of Shang-Chi with the weight of its racist past?
Well . . . they had to address another racist caricature that was present in some of their earlier movies. The Mandarin was a character that lurked in the background until he made his appearance in Iron Man 3. The Mandarin was like Fu Manchu’s copy; he first appeared in Tales of Suspense #50 in 1959 and sported a very similar look to Fu Manchu. Iron Man 3’s Mandarin was a very aggressive reinvention of the 1959 Mandarin. In an article by Slate, they describe Mandarin as, “with his long, grizzled beard, the character is styled like a radical Islamic jihadi. He releases elaborately edited propaganda videos like al-Qaeda and even appears to murder an American captive during a live broadcast. He speaks with a strong, almost comically nasal American accent, suggesting he’s spent time in the U.S.—a faint echo of the 9/11 hijackers, but one that also contributes to the feeling that the movie is drawing characteristics at random from a bag marked “scary foreign bad guy.” The plot twist, in the end, is that the Mandarin was actually just a paid actor, named Trevor Slattery (played by Ben Kingsley), who was used to prolong the war on terror for the actual bad guy, Aldrich Killian, and he eventually ends up in jail.
Phew, okay, that was a lot to go over. What does this all have to do with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings? Well, Fu Manchu was removed and replaced by Xu Wenwu (played by Tony Leung). The movie opens with Shang-Chi’s mother, Jiang Li (played by Fala Chen) explaining in Mandarin how Xu Wenwu was a power-hungry man with the Ten Rings, a weapon that grants its wielder immortality and power. With his army, also named the Ten Rings, they toppled governments and conquered kingdoms, but that wasn’t enough. In order for him to obtain more power, he had to go to Ta Lo, the village of mythical creatures. However, the village’s entrance is guarded by Jiang Li, who stops Wenwu from entering. The two fall in love and have children. Li gives up the powers that came with protecting the village and Wenwu locks away the ten rings. Li gives her son a jade pendant to protect them and to serve as a reminder of her. The audience later learns that Li died shortly after.
We then jump to the present day, where we see Shang-Chi, who changed his name to Shaun, and his friend Katy (played by Awkwafina) as valets. They’re best friends, as Katy befriended him when Shaun moved to the USA. Katy’s family tensions are high, as they want her to have a better job than a valet, but Shaun backs her up by saying that Katy’s doing just fine where she is. I loved the realistic family dynamics within the film, and especially in this scene. This scene establishes what it’s like to be Asian-American. Katy’s mother comments on being Chinese, but Katy corrects her by saying that she’s technically an American. This tension is present throughout the film, and I can’t tell you how it felt being seen. Being Asian-American, this struggle isn’t something that is talked about in modern popular media, but it was embraced throughout the movie.
Katy says that she and Shaun are going to be late for work, so they leave for their bus. On the bus, Shaun is jumped by assassins who are trying to take the pendant that was given to him by his mother. I absolutely loved the fight choreography in the film. I was worried that it may not have been great as Marvel doesn’t have a great track record with martial art choreography (cough, Iron Fist, cough), but I wasn’t disappointed. Simu Liu said, in an interview with Yahoo, “I injured myself grievously on almost every appendage that stuck out in that bus.” His counterpart for that scene was Florian Munteanu — Razer Fist in the film — and he said, in the same interview, “the space in that bus was so tight, both of us, we were sent to [ . . . ] the hospital multiple times. . . .” After seeing the scene, it’s quite obvious why. During the scene, the two fight in and on almost every part of the bus. People were thrown out of windows and kicked in the face, but it was one of the best action sequences I’ve seen in a while.
The assassins succeed in taking Shaun’s pendant and he immediately worries that they’re after his sister next. He says that they were sent by his dad, to which Katy responds with confusion. Who was this guy that she’s known for so long? Since when can he do martial arts? And he has a sister? They hop on a plane to go to Shaun’s sister, who gave him her address on a postcard. All these questions are answered on the plane ride, in which Shaun reveals that his actual name is Shang-Chi (pronounced Sh-ah-ng Ch-ee). When his mother died, his father started Shang-Chi’s training. He was seven years old when he began his arduous training of becoming a killer. When he was fourteen, he was sent on a hit mission. He says that he wasn’t able to follow through with it and, instead of going back, he went to the USA.
They track his sister, Xu Xialing (played by Meng’er Zhang), to an underground fight club in Macau. There’s a ton of fun little easter eggs for Marvel fans, such as a soldier who was injected with EXTREMIS (as seen in Iron Man 3) and Wong (from Doctor Strange) fighting Abomination (from The Incredible Hulk). Shang-Chi gets recognized by someone because the bus fight was posted on the Internet, and he gets thrown into the fighting ring. His opponent? His sister! The two fight it out — well, really, it was just Xialing taking out her anger on her brother, but, in the end, she wins.
Shang-Chi and Katy follow Xialing to an office, where they learn that she owns the fight club. She says, “If my father won’t let me into his empire, then I created my own.” She recounts how their father wouldn’t allow her to train, so she taught herself. She also recounts how her brother left her, and, after six years, she realized she didn’t need him. Their conversation is interrupted when the assassins break into the club, searching for Xialing and electrocuting people who get in their way. Xialing flees through a back door, leaving Shang-Chi and Katy alone. Shang-Chi breaks a window, leaving the two to climb on the scaffolding. Now, here’s the crazy part: a whole fight sequence takes place on the scaffolding. This allowed for some crazy cool stunts to be performed. One of the assassins used their curved electrocuting baton to swing towards Shang-Chi. It was stressful, but also super fun to watch. Xialing comes back and saves the two, but, by doing that, her pendant gets stolen. Shang-Chi interferes with the person who took it, almost killing the man until his father suddenly appears, whipping the dagger out of his hand. He says that he’s missed him, and they go “home.”
They are taken back to the Ten Rings compound, where Wenwu addresses the Mandarin that was portrayed in Iron Man 3. Here, the importance of names is discussed. He thought it was offensive that they would create a villain, only to name him after an orange. Names define who we are, and then he asks what Katy’s Chinese name is. Many Asian-Americans change their names to something more palatable to the American tongue. My grandparents had to change their Japanese names to assimilate into a society that saw Japanese-Americans as the enemy. I often have to prepare myself to correct people on pronouncing my last name, even though I’ve been told by others that it’s easy to get right. However, Wenwu’s mentality was refreshing — something that isn’t really spoken about.
After the name conversation, Wenwu reveals that he believes Li is still alive on Ta Lo and needs to be rescued. He has been hearing her voice saying to save her, which is why he was after the pendants. He uses the pendants to place them into a stone dragon’s eyes. A beautiful visual water sequence begins. Water pours out of the walls in slow motion to form a map of the maze to get into Ta Lo. He was going to find his wife, or destroy Ta Lo trying. Shang-Chi and Xialing object to his plan, and Wenwu locks his children in the dungeon.
Remember Trevor Slattery from earlier? Well, the three find him as they’re locked away. They learn that Wenwu broke him out of prison and that his punishment for impersonating the Mandarin is for him to perform Shakespeare plays, Slattery’s passion. During all of this, Slattery’s companion, Morris, comes out of the shadows. Morris is my favorite character in Shang-Chi. He’s a mystical creature with no face; he’s basically a fuzzy square with purple wings, but I must say that I fell in love with him super fast. Morris tells Slattery that he can guide them to Ta Lo, as that used to be his home. So, the three escape on their quest to find Ta Lo.
Morris guides them through a bamboo forest in a car that has “Razer Fist” graffitied on the side. After the forest almost eats them, they come to the mouth of a waterfall. They slowly drive through it, and a water sequence similar to earlier occurs. They enter this beautifully lush land, the feeling similar to the entrance to Jurassic Park and certain Star Wars planets. They see many mystical creatures such as the Huli Jing and Shishi until they get to the main village.
They are greeted with many people with shields and spears, all asking them to leave. Then, a voice emerges from the crowd, saying that they can’t welcome their guests like that. A woman named Ying Nan (played by Michelle Yeoh), who was their mother’s sister, welcomes them home. She guides them around the village and tells them the history of Ta Lo. They used to be a prosperous village, until the Dweller-in-Darkness and his minions attacked. They sucked the souls out of villagers to fuel Dweller-in-Darkness’s power, but then the Great Protector came along and drove the evil into a mountain. The Great Protector left them with dragon scales, which are used in the village’s weaponry. Ying Nan says that she believes the Dweller-in-Darkness has been calling to their father, disguised in the voice of their mother. They specifically are calling to him because they know that the ten rings have the power to break the seal put in place by the Great Protector.
The village prepares for the arrival of Wenwu and the Ten Ring army. Katy helps out with the archers, but one of the villagers says that she should shoot. They believe that she has more potential than she realizes. Ying Nan gives Xialing a rope that has a dragon scale spearhead and dragon scales on the other end so that she can train. Ying Nan comments on how everyone can train in Ta Lo, not just the men. Shang-Chi goes to see Ying Nan a little later, asking for her to teach him how to beat his father, as his mother was the only person able to defeat his father.
Then begins the training montage! One of my favorite things in any superhero origin movie. The movie crosscuts between the three learning and getting better at their skills. Katy is a surprisingly good archer, Xialing takes out all of her training targets, and Shang-Chi learns who he is, which he incorporates into his fighting (but he still wasn’t able to defeat Ying Nan). After the montage, Ying Nan gifts Shang-Chi and Xialing with new tops. She said that their mother anticipated their arrival to Ta Lo, so she had something prepared for them.
The night before Wenwu arrives, Shang-Chi has a revelation. Katy finds him on some rocks, where he confesses that he did kill the person that the hit was put out on. His father trained him to be a killer, so he could compensate for not interfering with his mother’s killers. When he was seven, the Iron Gang came to their home looking for Wenwu. He wasn’t home, but someone had to pay for the things that he did. His mother told him and Xialing to go to their rooms. Shang-Chi watched through a window as his mother fought members of the Iron Gang when she was eventually killed. Shang-Chi believes that his father was responsible for his mother’s death, and, for that, he must kill him.
Wenwu arrives the next morning with his army to break the seal, to free the mother. A battle breaks out as Wenwu goes directly for the seal. Shang-Chi goes to stop him but isn’t strong enough. His father uses the rings to punch Shang-Chi in the gut — not just once, but twice. He blamed Shang-Chi for just watching his mother die and not interfering; in his words, “you could’ve done something.” The second time sends him deep into the water, and Wenwu uses the rings to propel himself to the seal. Wenwu begins to break the seal and all looks bleak. The minions begin to fly through the seal and head towards the village, sucking the souls of those fighting. They call a truce to kill these minions, as the dragon scale weapons are the only things that can kill them.
Meanwhile, in the water, Shang-Chi hears his mother’s voice. He hears the last things that she told him, which was enough to wake him up. He sees bubbles coming from under him, and the Great Protector stares him in the face. The dragon emerges from the water, with Shang-Chi on her back, and they fly towards the seal. Wenwu and Shang-Chi fight once more; however, he uses the techniques that his mother taught him when he was a child to begin to take over the rings. The ring’s glow switches from an icy blue to a warm orange, and, as the fight progresses, Shang-Chi eventually gains control of all ten rings. He harnesses their power but then throws them aside, as he doesn’t want to kill his father. The two talk, Shang-Chi tries to convince his father that his mother is gone and that they need him. He was so busy trying to get vengeance that he abandoned his family. The conversation gets interrupted, though, by the Dweller-in-Darkness breaking free from the seal.
The Dweller grabs hold of Wenwu and begins to suck out his soul. At this moment, Wenwu reconciles with all that he’s done. He realizes that his wife isn’t coming back and that he failed his family. In one last act, he releases the rings to Shang-Chi knowing that he is strong enough to control them, and drops dead to the floor.
What ensues next is a grand fight to stop the Dweller from becoming unstoppable, which requires everyone’s efforts. The Dweller gets a hold of the Great Protector, which was almost fatal. Katy sees what’s going on and takes the shot for the Dweller’s neck, which is dead on. This allows for the Great Protector to regain her control and entrap the Dweller underwater. Shang-Chi takes all ten rings and blasts them into the Dweller’s chest, the power eventually exploding the creature.
The movie ends with Shang-Chi and Katy explaining their crazy adventure to their friends, who don’t believe them in the slightest. I mean, who would believe that you met a giant dragon? In the background of them talking, sparks of light circle around to reveal Wong (remember him from earlier?), who summons Katy and Shang-Chi to Doctor Strange’s residence.
Go see this movie. If you had any doubts about it, I can promise you that they all go away once the Mandarin dialogue marks the beginning of the movie. Even before the film was released, it faced many obstacles. Two days before the world premiere, Disney CEO Bob Chapek called Shang-Chi an “interesting experiment” as it’s only going to have a 45-day theatrical release. The future of Marvel titles rests on how well Shang-Chi does: “The prospect of being able to take a Marvel title to the service after going theatrical for 45 days will be yet another data point to inform our actions going forward on our titles.” Simu Liu fired back on Twitter, saying, “We are not an experiment. We are the underdog; the underestimated. We are the ceiling-breakers. We are the celebration of culture and joy that will persevere after an embattled year. We are the surprise. I’m fired the f—k up to make history on September 3rd; JOIN US.” The film also had very little advertising.
People on TikTok quickly noted how they had seen little to no advertising for the film. I’ll be honest, I saw a billboard or two and a poster on a bus once, but that was really the extent I saw in terms of advertising. Usually, when a new Marvel movie comes out, it’s all I can see in ads on YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, and so forth. That felt lost with the release of this movie. TikToker @offscreenwithjillian noted, “is it just me or does it seem like the marketing for this movie is just not happening, like, the only person that’s been hyping it up and posting is the main guy.” This is true; I’ve been following Liu since his casting announcement, and he’s constantly spoken about his excitement for his involvement in the movie. The TikTokers and Twitter users pointed out how the lack of advertising felt racially motivated. Shang-Chi is the fourth Asian-led film to be produced by a major Hollywood studio, yet we hardly saw anything about it. You would think, especially after the past year-and-a-half of Asian hate crimes, that this story would be uplifted, not swept under the rug. Despite all of this, Shang-Chi smashed Labor Day box office records and had a 99 percent audience reaction on Rotten Tomatoes opening night. It opened with $90 million in just four days, being the second-biggest pandemic opening behind Black Widow.
I absolutely loved the representation within the film; a large majority of it is spoken in Mandarin. It’s this commentary that Asian-American cultures cannot be separated, especially when you live within a family of multiple generations. It also embraces Chinese-American culture; it didn’t have the same treatment as Raya and the Last Dragon, where South East Asian cultures were treated as easter eggs. The culture blended with the story. It was very normalized, as this is the reality for many Asian-Americans. Our culture isn’t all that we are; we exist within our culture, it’s something that’s normal. It’s not grand, or unusual, and isn’t something that should have a harsh spotlight on. We should celebrate it instead. The visuals in the movie were absolutely insane; seeing it in the movie theaters is worth it, if you can do so safely. The movie is so vibrant and detailed that it deserves to be seen on the big screen. The fighting choreography is bad—ss, and the representation of strong women was everything I needed. It, overall, was a beautiful movie — not just visually, but as representation.
Featured Photo Courtesy of Marvel Studios.