Marvel’s “Shang-Chi” captures the importance of representation on the big screen

GRAPHIC BY BERKELEY PHAN / GRAPHICS CENTER

My favorite line of the Marvel film “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” comes from one of the most innocuous scenes. Soon after arriving at Macau, Shang-Chi, the film’s superhero protagonist, and Katy, his best friend, are suddenly greeted by an enthusiastic Chinese fan named Jon Jon. He praises them for how awesome their viral bus fight was, but unfortunately for Katy, he’s speaking entirely in Chinese. Once she expresses how her Chinese, as she puts it, sucks, Jon Jon switches to speaking English with the simple line, “Oh, all good, I speak ABC.”

“I speak ABC.”

Yes, it is a funny way to refer to the alphabet, but ABC has a double meaning here. For those unaware, ABC is an acronym for “American-born Chinese.” It is a term frequently used among Chinese people and Chinese immigrant circles. Katy, born to Chinese immigrants in San Francisco, is an ABC. As a daughter of Chinese immigrants born in New York, I am also an ABC. 

There is something very special about this particular line. Not just that it is a cleverly versatile joke with multiple meanings, but that it was purposefully written by an Asian-American writer and performed by an Asian actor for an Asian-American audience. This is what makes the whole film memorable. 

It is the Chinese supermarket calendar in Shang-Chi’s apartment, the quick shot of him taking off his shoes before entering Katy’s apartment, and the wuxia-style fight scenes that look straight out of the shows I vaguely remember watching with my parents as a kid. It is the back and forth between Katy and her mom about whether to embrace Chinese culture or American culture. It is Wenwu, Shang-Chi’s dad, asking for Katy’s Chinese name. Details like these make this film a refreshingly familiar breath of fresh air. 

The Asian representation in this film is a massive improvement over what Marvel has produced in the past, both in print and on screen. For example, this year’s Disney+ show, “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” faced criticism when the show set an episode on the Singapore-inspired fictional Southeast Asian island of Madripoor but failed to include any actual Asian characters. 

For a theatrical release, Marvel made tweaks to some characters that are found in the titular character’s comics. In the comics, Shang-Chi’s father was Fu Manchu, an original character created by English writer Sax Rohmer in the early 20th century. Introduced as “the yellow peril incarnate in one man” by Rohmer in his first description of the character, Manchu was presented as the embodiment of the evil, manipulative, and ominous “East.” Marvel licensed Manchu to be Shang-Chi’s father in the comic book series “Master of Kung Fu” in 1973. The company ended up losing the rights to Manchu, so the character was renamed Zheng Zu. Still, the character’s racist history and stereotypical depiction of a villainous Chinese man were so controversial that the film’s solution for the character was to just not include him. 

The film replaces his character with the character of the Mandarin, whose real name is Xu Wenwu. The introduction of Wenwu seems to be a recognition and quiet apology on Marvel’s part for its past Marvel Cinematic Universe portrayal of the Mandarin in “Iron Man 3” as a white terrorist who appropriated Wenwu’s legends and picked the name “Mandarin” to strike fear into the hearts of the American public. 

While “Shang-Chi” does represent shared Asian-American and immigrant experiences through a Chinese-American lens, it mainly represents Chinese culture. I tend to tread lightly around using the term “Asian culture” because it can have such a broad meaning to the point that it is almost meaningless. This film does not represent the culture of all Asians, nor should it. I hope that with the emergence of quality representative media, the one-dimensional approach of presenting Asians as a monolith can be avoided. I do not want people or companies to see this movie and say, “Well, Asians had their representation with ‘Shang-Chi,’ time to move onto the next group.”

Representation is not just about making an over-simplistic list of minorities and gradually checking them off once they have had their moment in the limelight. Asia is such an incredibly large and diverse continent that you cannot simply put a Chinese actor or Chinese culture on screen and say it represents all Asians. 

Other underrepresented groups go through the same problems. These generalizations can easily be avoided by nuanced and accurate portrayals of individual cultures by people of those cultures, and as “Shang-Chi” showed with Chinese culture, this can be achieved on a blockbuster scale.

 In its opening weekend, “Shang-Chi” broke the Labor Day weekend box office record with its ticket sales of $90 million beating out 2007’s theatrical release of “Halloween” and its $30 million in ticket sales. As of Oct. 3, the film has grossed $206 million domestically and $180 million internationally, opening as the No. 1 film in several international markets. 

The success of films like “Shang-Chi” gives studios incentives to continue investing in minority-led films. After all, the development of “Shang-Chi” quickly followed the success of “Crazy Rich Asians.” 

“Shang-Chi” was able to surpass expectations, turn a profit, and draw crowds in, despite the noted lack of marketing from Disney.

The current release of diverse shows and movies is a great step forward, but what we have now shouldn’t be the end for big companies like Disney or Marvel. There will always be minority stories to tell, there will always be people who want to tell them, and there will always be an audience for them. However, it is up to those in places of power at entertainment studios and production companies to pick up these stories so they have a chance to flourish. 

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