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'Shang-Chi' and representation: What do Asians and Asian Americans think about their first Marvel superhero lead?

By AYIE LICSI Published Sep 09, 2021 1:09 pm

Since its premiere, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings has been making waves, proving that its story is just as important as the other more popular storylines in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).

The flick broke Labor Day box office records in the US over the weekend and became the highest-rated comic book movie of all time on Rotten Tomatoes at 98%, surpassing the likes of Spider-Man: Far From Home and The Dark Knight.

But Shang-Chi isn't only important in the grand scheme of the MCU, it's also significant to its Asian and Asian American audience. And being the first Asian-led story in the film's franchise, it had a lot of expectations riding on its shoulders.

Representation matters

For most Asian Americans, Shang-Chi did not disappoint. writer Joey Morona noted how the movie made him feel seen.

“Growing up as a first-generation Asian American in a nearly all-white suburb of Cleveland, movies starring people who looked like me were few and far between…Most of the time we were portrayed as old wise men, villains, or nerds," he wrote.

He said Shang-Chi was Asians' Black Panther or Wonder Woman. "For the first time in a movie of this scale, we can look up at the big screen and see faces that look like us and who have experienced the same kind of obstacles we have are indeed capable of superhero-level greatness. The impact of that is immeasurable."

On writing about how the movie connected with her, TIME's Kat Moon shared how it felt like she was watching her life experiences reflected on the big screen. 

For her, it was the subtle details like nicknames and people attempting to pronounce names right as well as the big ones like family interaction and dynamics that made her feel seen.

It's no surprise that Asian Americans would feel such a connection with the film, as that's what Director Destin Danel Cretton had in mind during production.

“There was a constant dialogue happening when we were stepping into any scene. Should these characters be speaking Chinese Mandarin now or should they be speaking English? What food is on the table?" the Japanese-American director told io9.

But what about the Asian audience? Does this film appeal to us, too?

Shang-Chi in the East

When Shang-Chi trailers dropped earlier in the year, fans in China weren't too pleased. There were criticisms toward the appearance of the lead actors Simu Liu and Awkwafina and how they weren't conventionally attractive enough. Fans, however, did show love for the presence of Tony Leung in the film.

They also called to boycott the film when they learned that Fa Munchu, a problematic villain from the comics, was revealed as Shang-Chi's father. Marvel, however, listened to this critique and changed the villain to Wenwu to appease fans in China.

Currently, Shang-Chi isn't even in theaters in China, but it is in neighboring countries like Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan. And despite the earlier flak, some Chinese people seemed to love the movie, YouTuber Li Can shared.

According to Li Can, these Asians appreciated how the opening dialogue is in Mandarin and the showcase of authentic kung fu. Users on Douban, a Chinese version of IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes, gave the Marvel movie generally good ratings at four to five stars. They especially lauded Tony Leung and how he imbued the villain with sympathy.

And while Shang-Chi is a great first step for Marvel for representation, users online pointed out how there is still little of it in movies and TV. They noted how the same actors from Crazy Rich Asians are in the superhero movie.

Still, Shang-Chi's win is still a step towards the representation Asians are fighting for in movies.

Thumbnail and banner photos from IMDB.