The film is based off of the comic book series The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu, written by Sax Rohmer in 1913. Dr. Fu Manchu was portrayed as the embodiment of the term “yellow peril,” which stemmed from the fear that Western countries had of East Asia. When addressing this topic, the creators of the film decided to exclude Dr. Manchu from the story entirely, and replaced him with Shang- Chi’s father, Wenwu, a loving family man turned villain after the death of his wife.
Shang-Chi breaks away from old traditions in Chinese culture and introduces new ones, like in Ta Lo, where all genders are treated with equal respect and have equal opportunity. Shang-Chi’s sister, Xialing, played by Meng’er Zhang, expresses a similar sentiment as Shang-Chi in wanting to avoid their father. However, Xialing also deals with the gender inequality of the Ten Rings organization, where only men are trained to be assassins. Xialing does not let this stop her, and she teaches herself. The film introduces Ta Loas an alternate reality to the Ten Rings organization, where Xialing’s deceased mother lived before marrying Wenwu. When Xialing finds her way to Ta Lo, she is presented with the opportunity to learn and train. In Chinese history, male family members are held in higher regard, as we can see when Shang-Chi, Wenwu, Xialing, and Katy (played by Awkwafina), Shang-Chi’s best friend, arrive at the Ten Rings compound. Upon their arrival, Wenwu announces that his son has returned and to take the women to their rooms.
The film still deals with the tropes that East Asian-centric movies in Hollywood typically are centered around, such as martial arts and kung fu, but director Destin Daniel Cretton spoke to the Washington Post about fighting against that stereotype. In his interview, Cretton said that the “primary hope for ‘Shang-Chi’ was to find an actor who would help to break the stereotype of a kung-fu Asian dude. We have seen that archetype of that character over time. And particularly in Western cinema, it’s often the butt of a joke. We wanted to create a character that was surprisingly relatable to anybody.”
Cretton did this by making Shang-Chi unlike any other Marvel superhero that viewers have seen. Characters like Iron Man and Captain America have no trouble inserting their superhero identity into their everyday lives, whereas Shang-Chi makes a conscious effort to separate the life his father wanted for him from his own life in San Francisco. At the end of the movie, when Shang-Chi accepts his fate as the bearer of the Ten Rings, there is a clear sense of the character’s humor and humility, making him relatable to everyday people and moving away from stereotypes.
Despite Shang-Chi’s struggles to separate Asian characters from societal stereotypes, the film takes a big step in the right direction for Asians in Hollywood. According to a study done at the University of Southern California, from 2007 to 2019 Asians only held 7.2 percent of speaking roles in the top 100 movies. The study concluded that “white male actors named Ben, Chris, Daniel, James, Jason, John, Josh, Michael, Robert, Sean, or Tom were far more likely to be hired as the top actor in a film than an API [Asian Pacific Islander] woman actor with any name auditioning in all of Hollywood.” Shang-Chi includes multiple Asian female leads, such as Meng’er Zhang who plays Shang-Chi’s sister, along with well-known actresses Awkwafina and Michelle Yeoh.
Since the start of the pandemic, Shang-Chi has been the first movie to earn two hundred million dollars in the North American box office. Given Shang-Chi’s positive reviews from critics and viewers alike, Marvel fans can hope to see a sequel to the movie--and more cultural representation--on the big-screen.