Marvel’s First Ever Asian-American Comic-Book Sensation is a Marvel-ous Martial-Arts Epic that Demands to be Seen for Authentic Representation of Chinese Communities

by Hassan Ilahi

Crazy rich abilities of Asian communities are scarcely appreciated in Marvel’s white-dominated comic-book movies. Despite wealthy movies claiming poor Asian-American families secure prosperity in capitalist societies, Marvel has frequently denied Chinese celebrities opportunities using whitewashing. For instance, Scott Derrickson’s Doctor Strange w-ong-fully pronounced Asian communities as psychotic patients whose destinies are determined by white wizards with supernatural capabilities. In all fairness, Asian-Americans have often been seen by white comic-book artists as yellow-peril villains since Fu Manchu’s 20th Century origin. Nonetheless, over centuries Asian-American misunderstandings have disappeared as Hollywood has progressed toward inclusivity. As Bong Joon-Ho’s Oscar-winning Parasite symbolized, Asian-Americans’ dreams know no boundaries. Regardless, stark-ly iron-ic reality remains Asians purely form 5% of a company condemned to repeat history (Karim, 2018). Could Marvel bid parasitic history farewells using lu-minari-y Asian stories?

Legendary breakthroughs that ring through when Asian-American celebrities are afforded equal opportunities to showcase crazy rich kung-fu abilities as white ethnicities are marvel-lously staged in Destin Daniel Cretton’s blockbuster Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. An ambitious, empowering and soulful epic, it showcases fast-as-lightning heights superheroes achieve when everybody kung-fu fights despite ethnicities. With Marvel’s first Asian-hero, Cretton taekwondo’s centuries-old Asian mythologies. Packed with stunning visuals, taut action and strong performances, it breaks barriers. Although Shang-Chi is stark-ly marvel-ous, ultimately it isn’t flawless. It’s overlong, and suffers from a formulaic ending. Nonetheless, it offers exciting entertainment that’ll satisfy comic-book fans.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings follows a former martial-arts assassin whose stained legacy leads him to confront his family identity. Simu Liu stars in the titular role as Shaun, an assimilated Asian-American driver seeking to escape his past. However, Shaun’s dreams are diminished when sibling reunions draw him into his father’s Ten Rings organization. Assisted by companion Katy (Awkwafina), Shaun rediscovers roots. As Shaun uncovers shocking family secrets, he questions his accursed ancestry.

Writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton has always gravitated towards dysfunctional families. Ever since he achieved critical praises with 2013’s Short Term 12, Cretton has become an extraordinary Asian-American filmmaker. His award-winning debut Short Term 12 offered empathic looks into fractured relationships between supervisors and troubled teenagers in healthcare hospitals. With Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, however, Cretton crafts his first Chinese comic-book blockbuster. It’s Cretton’s first attempt to inaugurate Asian-American heroes into predominantly white-led genre, but he pulls it off successfully. Cretton showcases cultural sensitivity, demonstrating strenths of allowing Asian-Americans to make movies regarding their communities. Using spellbinding cinematography, Cretton draws viewers into a martial-arts protégé’s journey. Evoking Wakanda in Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, Cretton successfully employs Asian locations to build diverse Ta Lo village. Working alongside cinematographer William Pope, Cretton expertly uses real-life locations to celebrate Chinese traditions. Cretton honors Asian superheroes, and his latest blockbuster is worth watching in theaters for this reason alone.

If stories of kung-fu legends do not attract your attention, however, there are still plenty of other reasons to see Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Cretton excels at demonstrating familial relationships in mesmerizing martial-arts fights through slow-motion choreography. Accompanied by stunt-coordinator Andy Cheng, Cretton adeptly utilizes slow-motion taekwondo sequences to demonstrate dysfunctional family relationships. For example, slow-motion is illustrated particularly well to capture family relationships in the nightclub sequence. During this memorable scene, Shaun kung-fu fights his estranged sister following decades-long separation. One can’t help but admire slow-motion choreography that demonstrates Shaun’s clashing rivalry with his sister in elegant style reminiscent of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In most comic-book films (ex. Zack Snyder’s Justice League), slow-motion often becomes excuse solely for superheroes to display flashy powers. In contrast, Cretton uses slow-motion to craft believable bonds. Besides, Joel P. West’s score merits praise. Emulating Jet Li classics, it gives action jet-like energy. Through stellar production, Cretton crafts compelling families.

Another exceptional aspect of Shang-Chi is the screenplay. Cretton’s greatest screenwriting strength is his aptitude for building compassionate portraits of Asian-American immigration through flashbacks. Excluding the waka-nda-rful Black Panther, most Marvel movies about downtrodden minorities depend upon discriminatory stereotype and condemn their lifestyles. Fortunately, however, these problems aren’t evident in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Cretton wisely refutes centuries-old yellow-peril misunderstanding about Asian-American communities. Inspired by Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy, Cretton masterfully employs flashbacks to capture a Westernized martial-arts Asian-American’s experiences. The movie simultaneously progresses between two different timelines: Shaun’s contemporary experiences as an assimilated Asian-American immigrant and cruel martial-arts training past. Recalling Bruce Wayne’s martial-arts training with League of Shadows in Batman Begins, Shaun’s past flashbacks offer insights into hardships encountered by Chinese immigrants. Through flashbacks, Cretton crafts a multidimensional Asian-American superhero anyone can sympathize with disregarding ethnicity. From a company that frequently neglects inclusivity, its immigration depiction demonstrates progress towards representation. Using empathetic storytelling, Cretton creates inspiring Asian superheroes.

One can’t overlook outstanding performances. Cretton’s decision to avoid whitewashing through Chinese casting pays off tremendously.

Simu Liu delivers a breakthrough performance as Shang-Chi. In his first major leading role, Liu emerges an astonishing Asian-American actor with flair for playing legendary kung-fu prodigies. It’s not easy to assume responsibilities of being Marvel’s first Asian-American superhero. However, Liu pulls it off adeptly. Drawing inspiration from Matt Damon in Paul Greengrass’ The Bourne Trilogy, Liu crafts a compelling kung-fu prodigy haunted by traumatic past. With spellbinding expressions, he captures courage, jealousy and resentment of an Asian-American immigrant seeking to escape family legacy. Not only does Liu nail comic timing, but he proves a deaf-defying stuntman. It’s a magnificent performance that honors Asian talent.

The supporting cast is stellar and crafts believable bonds. Tony Leung is terrific, exuding humanity into Shaun’s tormented father whose mood for loving magical powers sours children relationships. Awkwafina is astonishing, using her subtle awkward humor for jokes as Shaun’s bestie Katy. Last, Michelle Yeoh is amazing. As Ying Nan, she emits guardian affection.

Despite its phenomenal performances, however, Shang-Chi assembles low-key rather than a vengeful martial-arts fights that fall short of the comic-book genre’s starkly superior dark knights. Assisted by Joel P. West’s energetic score, Cretton keeps the film moving at entertaining pace during the first hour. However, once the movie enters its action-packed finale, it slowly loses steam and tests viewers’ patience. Furthermore, the movie is undermined by a conventional action-heavy conclusion. Cretton’s decision to conclude the movie with dragon fights of epic proportions is bold and unexpected, but it doesn’t work. Whereas this extravagant ending worked in a grand-scale blockbuster like the Russo Brothers’ Avengers: Endgame, it conflicts with this movie’s grounded-in-reality tone. Simply put, Game of Thrones-inspired dragon battles seem intended solely to satisfy fictional fantasy show fans rather than celebrate real-life Chinese culture. Consequently, Shang-Chi falters.

Nevertheless, comic-book fans will definitely enjoy Shang-Chi and so will movie-goers seeking enjoyable entertainment. An empowering Asian-American achievement, it suggests there’s room for inclusivity in a white-dominated genre. As crouching tigers unaware of hidden dragons’ skill, it’s high time Marvel raised red lantern on Asian communities’ crazy rich stories even if its mood for loving kung-fu is hated by parasitic old boy committees.

Hassan’s Grade: A-