Marvel’s Asian American Movie Shang-Chi Brings Out the Rep Sweats and Gold Opens

Shang-Chi
(L-R): Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) and Katy (Awkwafina) in Marvel Studios' SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2021.

I’ve been a fan of Marvel comics as a kid, collecting comics including Spider-Man, The Avengers, Fantastic Four, and a fan of the film adaptations from the first Tobey Maguire Spider-Man, to the first official Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) film, Iron Man, and more recently, Avengers: Endgame.

In all that time though, I don’t think I had even heard of Marvel’s Shang-Chi comic book and only peripherally had learned about it when the announcement of the film adaptation was made. After that, I had read that the comic has perpetuated some stereotypes and had some racist tropes, like the main villain character, Fu Manchu.

So when I heard that Disney’s Marvel Studios was making a Shang-Chi movie starring Simu Liu (Kim’s Convenience), I was pleasantly surprised. At the time, I thought it made perfect sense for Marvel to come out with its first Asian superhero film. Black Panther was a gigantic success, and Marvel superheroes have been historically overrepresented by white men and women.

The hype surrounding Shang-Chi reminds me of the expectations surrounding Crazy Rich Asians. When that film came out in 2018, it was billed as the first Asian American rom-com or Hollywood blockbuster, with a cast and a budget to match. Prior to the premiere of Crazy Rich Asians, I was excited yet also concerned. I had organized a Gold Open buyout of a screening for my alma mater and was hoping that it was going to be good. 

For those not familiar with Gold Open, it’s a community movement inspired by the African American and women communities who had successfully ensured the opening weekend success of their own films, buying out theaters for independent films along with other promotional efforts. I had what Asian Americans often call “the rep sweats”—the feeling of anxiety over one film or show representing the potential to unlock or withhold all future projects for Asian Americans.

So when I was able to see an early screening of Shang-Chi and the Ten Rings in San Francisco as part of a 25-city U.S. and Canadian IMAX promotion two weeks in advance at a Marvel fan screening (for free and in IMAX no less), I was happy as well as a little nervous—I was having the “rep sweats” again. As I was thinking about organizing another Gold Open buyout screening, I really wanted the film to be great, or at the very least, not to disappoint.

And I was not disappointed. I was ecstatic that the film was action packed and entertaining, with a developed storyline featuring Asian and Asian American characters that were not caricatures and that spoke to universal themes such as family and duty, and with an Asian bent that was cinematographically gorgeous with a lot of surprising imagery that I was not expecting. Shang-Chi’s comic book origin story was also adapted, with regards to my concerns about the Fu Manchu character. I was also pleasantly surprised to see how much Mandarin Chinese was spoken in the film (with subtitles). 

Shang-Chi, or as he is better known at first as Shaun, is your average non-stereotypical underachieving Chinese American living and working in San Francisco enjoying life day-to-day with his co-worker and friend Katy, played by Awkwafina. Eventually, Shang-Chi has to confront, how shall I say, his overbearing father Wenwu (aka The Mandarin), portrayed by Hong Kong acting legend Tony Leung.

Tony Leung as Wenwu
Wenwu (Tony Leung) in Marvel Studios’ SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios

Although super heroes with super powers are not real in life, seeing them on a screen, especially an Asian superhero, comes with the extra special power of delighting those who are being represented and being seen. With the mid-credit scenes, Shang-Chi also ties the film to the overall MCU. Shang-Chi will be in subsequent films—the Shang-Chi film was not a one off token effort but the Shang-Chi super hero will be an integral part of the MCU. Additionally, if the clues hidden in the movie are any indication, we might be in for a treat in the form of a sequel featuring Shang-Chi’s sister…

Personally, coming out of the early screening, I was really happy with the film. I thought it was really well done, with some awesome action sequences and visually stunning at times, which convinced me to organize another Gold Open theater buyout, but at a much smaller scale (based on my alma mater’s required guidelines due to the Delta variant COVID situation). Originally, Shang-Chi was supposed to premiere on February 12, 2021 (the first day of the Chinese New Year), then to May 7 and July 9, with the final date scheduled for September 3. Shang-Chi will be the first Marvel Studios film to receive a 45-day theatrical window before premiering on Disney+. If it weren’t for Delta, I think Shang-Chi would have a blockbuster opening, but who knows now? I think part of the 25-city early screening promotion of the film was to get word of mouth and reviews out to help promote the film, as the reviews have been fantastic—92% “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes with over 134 reviews at the time of this writing.

In the future, I’m hoping that these Gold Open buyouts aren’t deemed necessary as the films can be judged on their own merits, like any other mainstream film and having the “rep sweats” will disappear. But I do have to say, the Gold Open of Crazy Rich Asians and its subsequent success led to the development, great promotion, and/or distribution of films such as The Farewell, Parasite in the U.S., as well as Shang-Chi itself, to name a few. If you’re into the Marvel Cinematic Universe or just like action films, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed with Shang-Chi and encourage you all to catch the film, ideally opening weekend.

John Lin is a Taiwanese American Silicon Valley professional who also blogs for 8Asians.com.

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