In Marvel’s ‘Shang-Chi,’ Asian Americans Are Heroes, Not Sidekicks

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Shang-Chi gets ready to fight on a Muni bus going through the Stockton Street Tunnel.  (Disney)

As an Asian American growing up in a predominantly white Bay Area community, I never saw much Asian representation, if any, in movies or on TV. When I did, Asian characters were always sidekicks who got minimal screen time and then never reappeared in sequels. With the exception of Doctor Strange’s Wong, played by Benedict Wong, and Spider-Man’s Ned Leeds, played by Jacob Batalon, most Asian characters in superhero films are thrown into the background. Seeing these one-dimensional portrayals infuriates me because Asian Americans are incredibly diverse in terms of ethnicity, class, cultural background and language. There is no singular, defining Asian American experience.

Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings shows none of the typical “model minority” stereotypes. The protagonist, Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), has a job as a valet driver for the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. He isn’t some hot-shot doctor or a successful lawyer; he parks cars for tips and lives in a garage in a back alley of the city.

His best friend, Katy, played by Awkwafina, lives with her mom, grandma and younger brother, and is also a Fairmont valet driver—a point of contention with her mother. Katy knows and understands some Chinese, but as we discover later in the film, she’s far from fluent. Shang-Chi and his sister, Xialing, played by Meng’er Zhang, understand and speak the language. These complex family and cultural dynamics are refreshing, and stand in contrast to the flat Asian characters we typically see in film.

The film has all the characteristics of a classic Chinese martial arts film: well-choreographed fights that are almost like dances, the traditional Chinese music, accurate costumes (especially with the Ta Lo villagers) and even creatures from Chinese mythology. Simu Liu’s performance as Shang-Chi is raw and real. During the more serious and sad moments, you can tell what his character is feeling as his emotions emanate from the screen. 

It made me happy to see a Marvel film portray Asian characters with nuance, and even happier to know that this film is succeeding in the box office. People are embracing Shang-Chi the character, which is a big deal after all the violence Asians and Asian Americans have been through during the COVID-19 crisis.

Just as 2018’s Black Panther gave America a Black superhero to root for, Shang-Chi marks a major shift in popular culture. This film shows that Asian superheroes can exist as leads of their own stories. It reaffirms that we matter and that we are important, even though the U.S. entertainment industry has historically mocked or ignored us.

You don’t have to be a Marvel expert to appreciate Shang-Chi, as it barely references previous films and can pretty much stand alone, other than the mid-end credits scene (no spoilers here). Instead, director Destin Daniel Cretton establishes the storylines of this band of characters and gets us prepared for more stories featuring Shang-Chi—and, perhaps most excitingly, his sister, Xialing.

Xialing is fierce. While Shang-Chi trained with his father, Wenwu (played by Tony Leung), leader of the international criminal organization The Ten Rings, Xialing secretly taught herself to master the rope dart and other martial arts. While Shang-Chi is parking cars, she’s running an underground fight club in Macau. When we first meet her, she beats Shang-Chi in a cage fight, only a day after he demonstrated his own formidable skills while battling members of the Ten Rings on a speeding San Francisco Muni bus. Xialing gives young Asian girls a character to look up to; she proves to be just as powerful as her male counterparts in the film, if not more so. 

The entire cast is no less stellar, and are among some of the best actors in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Their performances and the brilliant choreography, music and set design make for a film that entertains and destroys stereotypes along the way.