So we’re a month away from Shang-Chi and the Legend of The Ten Rings coming out, a movie I’ve been eagerly waiting for since it was announced. Besides the wonderfully pulpy name, I’m excited as all get out to finally, finally have an East Asian protagonist in a major Marvel movie. As someone of East Asian descent, it’s really dope to finally see someone like me with all the Marvel trappings.
And then his power’s kung fu.
It’s… not great when one of the biggest East Asian heroes in Marvel’s stable’s ability is the stereotype of East Asians in fiction. There’s a definite stereotype in both fiction and culture that if someone’s Asian, they know martial arts. It’s tired, it’s annoying, and it’s one that’s been levied against me. So Shang-Chi’s a mixed bag.
He came up in comics to capitalize on the martial arts craze in the States in the 70s, particularly borrowing from the tv show Kung Fu. To the credit of Shang-Chi’s creators, at least their main character was actually Asian. Still, though, there’s a bit of an issue.
But over time he’s changed, become this suave guy who’s sometimes an Avenger, sometimes going on his own quest, sometimes wooing Domino while working together. He’s not just the kung fu guy anymore, even though that’s still his thing, he’s defined by more than just martial arts.
There’s nothing wrong with the Asian dude being really good at martial arts, the issue is when it becomes his defining characteristic. As Shang-Chi in the comics has been fleshed out beyond his initial creation, beyond having Dr. Fu Manchu (yes, that Fu Manchu) as his father, he’s gotten more interesting and become allowed to be more than just that. Which is good! Because kung fu fighting is dope! But so are realized characters!
In light of that, the Shang-Chi movie with a subtitle that harkens back to the character’s pulp fiction ancestry is looking like it’s going to very much be a kung fu movie, but more in the vein of Hong Kong and Chinese action cinema than its western imitators. You’ve got familial strife, secret dragons, and wuxia action backed by a stacked cast that includes Michelle Yeoh and Tony Leung. It looks like Marvel’s leaning into it, and honestly, it’s wonderful.
Because while there probably is a narrative out there about a martial arts wunderkind just doing his thing in San Francisco without any Asian influence beyond the protagonist’s race, that feels almost disingenuous. Shang-Chi is a character who’s inexorably tied to his Chinese background (again: his superpower is being Really Good At Kung Fu), so you have to dive into that to do it justice. So yes, draw on Hong Kong action cinema while giving it that Marvel flair. Give me that sweet, sweet specificity that lets me know that, hey, this isn’t just lip service.
In sum: I really wanna see this movie. So get your damn COVID vaccinations so it’s actually safe for me to go see this in a cinema. Please.