On Sept. 3, the Marvel Cinematic Universe welcomed a new character to its roster: Shang-Chi, the first of its Asian-led superheroes. Shang-Chi intertwines the captivating battles that we expect from Marvel movies with aspects of Chinese and Asian-American culture.
Played by Chinese-Canadian actor Simu Liu, Shang-Chi is initially introduced under the pseudonym Shaun, who is a young man living a seemingly regular life in San Francisco. That is until one day when Shaun and his best friend Katy — who you might remember as the hilarious Peik-lin Goh in 2018’s breakout film “Crazy Rich Asians” — are attacked on a bus in the city. To Katy’s surprise, Shaun fights back with a marvelous routine of kung-fu, effectively fending off the ambushers and revealing his true identity.
From there, the story unfolds. Far from the average person he appeared to be, Shaun is actually a master of martial arts, who is currently evading his wicked father — a Chinese warlord named Wenwu, played by Hong Kong star Tony Leung.
Shang-Chi first entered the Marvel Universe nearly 50 years ago, according to NPR. During this time, martial arts was taking the American comic book and cultural scene by storm, made popular by films such as Bruce Lee’s “Enter the Dragon” and songs like “Kung Fu Fighting” by Carl Douglas. Marvel caught up to this trend with their 1973 Special Edition and the debut of Shang-Chi, a character that would eventually be featured in an impressive 125 issues.
According to Marvel, Editor and Chief at the time Roy Thomas agreed to release the series on one condition: that Shang-Chi was made half-white. This diminished the character’s identity, as Thomas refused to support a film that highlighted Asian culture in its entirety.
In contrast, the newest rendition celebrates Shang-Chi’s Chinese heritage. From screenwriter Dave Callaham, who grew up visiting his grandmother in San Francisco’s Chinatown, to director Destin Cretton, a Japanese American who felt isolated after moving to California, Shang-Chi is a reflection of real Asian-American experience.
To avoid mistakes that they have seen made in other martial arts films, the filmmakers made it a goal to counter stereotypes held about Asian people, according to the Los Angeles Times. They ensured that the characters were not portrayed as hardened or lacking emotion, but rather as charismatic. They built multifaceted storylines, to avoid the trope that Asian individuals are too often subjected to in films — that their most interesting trait is the color of their skin.
All of their endeavors seemed to have worked, for Shang-Chi has set a pandemic record, grossing $35.8 million in ticket sales during its second weekend in theatres, according to USA Today. Nonetheless, the film has not been immune to skepticism.
“We think it’s actually going to be an interesting experiment for us because it’s got only a 45-day window for us,” said Disney CEO Bob Chapek.
Quick to clap back in defense of not only the movie but also of the Asian-American community, Liu responded to Chapek in a tweet.
“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,” Liu wrote.
Shang-Chi marks a change in tide for Marvel’s cinematic universe — one of increased equality and diversity. Thanks to countless perspectives from cast, filmmakers and crew alike, the imaginative movie is simultaneously rooted in the reality of the Asian American experience.
“It would be interesting to see Marvel delve more into pre-existing Chinese cultural stories and try to source their plots from stories more Chinese people would relate to or feel familiar with,” said Rosalinda Zhao, Co-President of Brentwood School’s Asian Student Alliance, about future films.