Even before the Marvel Cinematic Universe wrapped up the final story arc of its explosive third phase, the superhero franchise was already hard at work laying the foundation for the next action-packed chapter. Composed of both films and original television series, phase four would take the MCU down a path fueled by fantasy; magic, time travel, and alternate dimensions rule this next era. Shang-Chi & the Legend of the 10 Rings, the second film in the next chapter, expertly uses many of these imaginative elements to tell a new, but long overdue story.
Shang-Chi & the Legend of the 10 Rings follows the trials of Shaun/Shang-Chi (played by Simu Liu), an assassin-turned-valet coasting through life in San Francisco. As the estranged son of an immortal terrorist leader and a divine being from the heavenly realm Ta-Lo, all Shang-Chi has ever wanted is a life of normalcy and peace, but being a normal person just isn't in the cards for him. Our protagonist's path to realizing his true potential is anything but straightforward, marked by hard truths, trauma, and terrifying encounters with the very things myths are made of, but he ultimately gets there once he realizes that his power has always been inside of him. Simply put, Shang-Chi was born to be a hero.
The same can be said for Liu, the man bringing Shang-Chi and his kickass moves to life. For the Chinese-Canadian actor, playing a superhero had always been a dream gig — so much so that he spent several years actively campaigning for the MCU to notice him and cast him in some way within its popular franchise. Little did Liu know that years down the line, he'd actually be the first Asian superhero to get his own origin story in the MCU, giving an entire diaspora and several generations a new narrative to finally identify with.
"In all of my conversations with [director Destin Daniel Cretton], we talked about wanting the character of Shang-Chi to be universally relatable," explained Liu in a Zoom conversation with Refinery29. "It's not about being a god or the most strongest, tallest, or most handsome — it's about being an ordinary person, who, under the most extraordinary circumstances, chooses to do the right thing. That is how a hero is born."
Timing-wise, Shang-Chi's release is nothing short of serendipitous. In 2020, people of colour working in the TV/film industry began speaking out about the importance of real representation across projects. And almost at the same time, a wave of anti-Asian sentiment swept much of the world in racist response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, leading to an increase in abuse and violence towards the community globally. Even with the fact that production for the MCU film was delayed due to the pandemic, Shang-Chi's September 2021 debut feels almost pre-destined, as if the universe knew that we needed an Asian superhero. And the box office numbers for its first weekend in the U.S. echo that deep desire; to the glee of its leading man, the movie raked in almost $95 million in only its first four days in cinemas, setting a Labor Day weekend record.
Throughout the MCU's 13-year-long vice grip on the superhero market, the stories have been overwhelmingly white save for the game-changing Blackity-Blackness of Black Panther and its introduction of Wakanda. Phase Four plans to right that wrong by diversifying its ranks, and Shang-Chi is a perfect first deliverable on the franchise's promise. Featuring the MCU's very first all-Asian cast (and pulling heavy hitters like Michelle Yeoh and Tony Leung) what unfolds is a tale about family, identity, and personal transformation that's grounded in the rich mythology of Chinese culture. It's a story for all of us, but for so much of the Asian diaspora, it wouldn't be a stretch to say that Shang-Chi is the movie that many people have been hoping and praying for for years. From the little details, like the casual placing of shoes by the door, to the implementation of Wing Chun and tai chi-inspired fight scenes as well the frequent Mandarin dialogue throughout, the movie speaks to an authentic experience — a welcome update to the problematic context of the original story of Shang-Chi, which was steeped in racist stereotypes.
"For whatever reason, there are expectations going in about what this movie will look like," Liu told Refinery29. "But when you have creatives at every level that actually reflect the lived experiences of those characters, quite a bit of it just happens naturally. It's not like every time we picked up a pen and paper, we're like Gotta write something Asian! That truth just comes through because it's a part of our lives and how we've evolved."
"We had to craft a story that we knew would empower Asians and Asian Americans watching and would also resonate across a broader audience as well," he continued. "I'm so happy to bring a new type of origin story, especially one that's told through the Asian American lens and fleshes out what it means to be part of this community because it's important that people watch this and understand that Asians and Asian Americans are not a monolith. We're so incredibly diverse in all of our experiences, and I think all of those differences should be highlighted and celebrated instead of our entire group of people being lumped into one."
In 2021, it goes without saying that we deserved a narrative like this a long time ago, but Shang-Chi's seemingly tardy arrival in the MCU easily sets him up to be a major force in the Phase Four story arc, as evidenced by the film's first end credits scene. From what we know about the next slate of MCU films — which all involve magic, jumping through time, and the very fate of the world(s) as we know it — having a friend with legendary weaponry, access to a heavenly plane, and the spirit of an ancient dragon powering him will definitely prove helpful against whatever Thanos-level big bad we'll be facing this time around. Diversity pays, especially when it comes to saving the universe. (Just saying.)
Shang-Chi & the Legend of the 10 Rings is now available in UK cinemas.