Commentary: Shang Chi shatters stereotypes


Marvel Studios

“Shang Chi-and the Legend of the Ten Rings” released in theaters on Sept. 3 2021, has grossed over 420 million dollars.

The road to fair Asian representation in American films has been rough and at times, nonexistent. But the commercial and critical success of “Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” Marvel’s first superhero film to have an Asian lead, may have just been the superhero sized step Hollywood needed. 

The movie received a 92 percent tomato score from critics on Rotten Tomatoes and an even greater 98 percent tomato score from audiences. At the box office “Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” further exceeded expectations, grossing over 419 million dollars at the box offices worldwide, over 30 million more than “Black Widow,” Marvel’s other recent release. 

 “Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” follows the success of 2018 romantic comedy “Crazy Rich Asians” (2018), “Parasite” (2019)and “Mulan” (2020) with its historic best picture win at the Oscars among others and this decade’s it rom-com trilogy “To All the Boys”—all of which follow the path trailblazed over twenty years ago by “The Joy Luck Club” (1993.)

The movie also comes in the wake of a rise in anti-Asian sentiment and hate crimes, spurred by the pandemic, not to mention the long history of marginalization, exclusion and suffocating stereotypes Asian Americans have endured both in daily life and Hollywood. 

These biases and long history of scapegoating burrowed deep and emerged bolder than ever during the pandemic.

Anti-Asian bias events in California rose from 43 in 2019 to 89 in 2020, according to a report from California’s Department of Justice. 

But the film’s visual and historical backdrop only serve to make its character and content stronger. 

“Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” closely follows the relationships the titular hero Shang Chi shares with the places and the people in his life. 10 years after he runs away from home at 15, Shang Chi, now a San Francisco valet attendant by the name of “Shaun” receives word from the younger sister he left behind. With the help of his best friend, Katy and sister, Xialing, he strives to prevent his father, Wenwu, from destroying their mother’s former home, the wondrously mystical village of Talo, in a misguided attempt to resurrect her from the dead. 

At times “Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is the picture of a typical Marvel movie—complete with the troubled hero, their wisecracking best friend and the predictable mentor and villain lusting for power.

Yet the movie breaks barriers in the way it deliberately subverts stereotypes.  According to the New York Times, producers actually sat down and wrote a list of Asian stereotypes they wanted to address—and break. 

As an Asian American, I appreciate this first step to concrete change in the industry as portrayals of Asians in American film and television are often stifled by stereotypes.

According to the library of Ithaca throughout Hollywood’s history, Asian women in the media have been stereotyped as promiscuous and exotic dragon ladies. Submissive “china” dolls. 

Asian men in the media have been stereotyped as humorless nerds and emasculated men. The villains in American cinema and yet the “model” minority in American society. 

— Sarah Yee

Asian men in the media have been stereotyped as humorless nerds and emasculated men. Foreign “yellow” devils. The villains in American cinema and yet the “model” minority in American society.

Oftentimes the stereotypes stumble over each other, contradicting even themselves. 

The impact of these stereotypical portrayals is evident in the way Asian Americans are evident in day to day life. 

A survey in early 2021 found that 42 percent of Americans could not name a “single prominent Asian American,” and when they could, they named Asian Americans in stereotypical roles, predominantly martial artists. 

But from the very first second Shang Chi (Simu Liu) steps on the scene, he subverted stereotypes, asserting his strength and masculinity as he does push ups in the corner.

 Katy, his witty best friend, is portrayed as “nerdy” not in her love for math and science but for her love of fast cars and late night karaoke jams to “Hotel California.” 

She’s bossy, sarcastic and reckless and Awkwafina shines in the role. 

Furthermore, Shang Chi’s and Katy’s reckless, drunken karaoke nights remind viewers how imperfect all young adults are. Asian Americans should not be confined to a “model” minority standard.

Because even as Shang Chi is a warrior, seeking strength from his past, his family and himself, he is still recognizably a young adult. He shirks responsibilities, doesn’t know how to deal with the grief of losing his mother and frequently clashes with his father. Yet through all the turmoil, his family, especially his father always hit home for him.

Likewise, the interaction between Katy and her family particularly hit home for me. Her grandma and mother’s tough yet loving admonitions to find a better job and be more responsible, set alongside her brother rolling his eyes was nearly the perfect picture of a typical dinner conversation at my home. It paints a picture of tough love, but in a way that is realistic and heartwarming and doesn’t fall into the typical portrayal of Asian families as domineering tiger parents.

Furthermore, the film’s most intriguing character is arguably a extreme “tiger” parent, albeit a nuanced one given depth. Wenwu, who initiates his son’s intense martial arts training, who stands in silence as his son drives his fist and his hot blood into the wooden pole, Wenwu who sends his son on his first assassination at 14. 

And yet, Wenwu, father to Shang Chi and Xialing, is reformed. 

The character himself has been reformed from racist manifestations as “Yellow Peril,” as the Mandarin” and even “Chinaman” in the original comics. And Hong Kong film star Tony Leung brings all the needed flair and more to the morally grey father. 

 Power both inside and outside of the family conformed to traditional gender roles yet “Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” still carefully sculpted its characters to combat them. Shang Chi and Xialing each fought their way into the world but the irony in the fact that Xialing became everything Wenwu desired—an ambitious, strong and even cold leader of her own underground fighting empire—while Shang Chi sang drunkenly in karaoke bars—was brutally clear. 

Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) was aggressive, authoritative when necessary, intelligent and compassionate. She threw her own brother around in her own arena with pride but also saves him multiple times in the film. Xialing is no “china” doll, nor “Dragon Lady”—Xialing is an empowered leader, warrior and sister to Shang Chi. 

“Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is only the fourth major film to feature a predominantly Asian cast—two of the four films in the past three years- It builds upon the footsteps of its ancestors and showcases more surprisingly sensitive portrayals of Asian characters. 

If it’s “super” success is any indication, there will be many more.