Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
This weekend, I watched a fantasy movie on the big screen. I thought I was going to see Marvel’s next big superhero movie, but that’s not exactly the experience I had. Judging by the reactions I’m seeing across social media, I don’t think I’m the only one. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is proving to be the sort of superhero movie that appeals to people who don’t like superhero movies (but also those who do). Finding that sweet spot of storytelling in any genre is hard to do, and Shang-Chi achieves this by leaning into what it is, and recognizing what it is not.
Shang-Chi is a superhero in the world of Marvel, but he is not Captain America, Thor, or Iron Man. He’s not a Western hero with Western sensibilities, motivations, or origins. And Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is not strictly a superhero film—at least not one like we’ve ever seen before. It’s a mythopoeic martial arts extravaganza that just happens to exist in the realm of the MCU, and it feels at this time only loosely tied to the rest of that world (although I’m sure that will change as Phase 4 continues). I hope I don’t sound like I’m diminishing the fact or importance of Shang-Chi starring the first Asian hero in the MCU—again, Shang-Chi is a superhero. But unlike other origin stories we’ve seen so far, there is nothing superpowered about him until the final battle sequence of the film, and Shang-Chi relies heavily on Chinese philosophy, religion, and mythology to tell a fantasy story that could only spring from an Eastern tradition. In short, this movie is a window into East Asian imagination.
Because Shang-Chi is an Eastern story, it is more circular than linear, and symbolism, character development, and themes spring from the concept of yin and yang. Yin and yang is what holds this story together—the East Asian belief that there is a balance between light and dark that exists in all things and all people. As such, Shang-Chi is not a story about a person coming to grips with powers they have (or have been given); this is a story about a person who has to find balance in order to become worthy to wield powers. The title character, Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), has no powers aside from the martial arts training he received from his parents—parents that represent opposing forces of the yin and yang. Until he can balance the light and darkness within himself—a light and darkness he’s inherited from two sides of a complicated, oppositional family dynamic—he cannot become the hero the story says he will be.
Almost all the superpowered stuff is given to the bad guys in the film, at least until near the very end, and much of the set-up happens early in the film. Shang’s father, Wenwu (Tony Leung), is the leader of the infamous Ten Rings—a shadowy war and crime syndicate that has been behind the rise and fall of major world events for a thousand years. Wenwu wields the mysterious and powerful ten rings until he meets a woman he cannot best in battle: Li, the woman who will become Shang’s mother. Li is the guardian of Ta Lo, a magical village filled with beings out of Chinese mythology who guard a gateway to a dark dimension. Li and her people draw power from a protector dragon in Ta Lo to guard and defend the gateway—and thus the earth—from a host of dark, soul-sucking creatures that want to get through the gateway.
When Wenwu first meets Li, their courtship is a dance between light and dark, between a style of fighting that is feminine and open and filled with movements of deflection, and one that is closed and aggressive and masculine. You don’t have to be familiar with yin and yang or the way Shang-Chi calls back to classic martial arts films to know that Wenwu and Li are destined for each other; they are classic light and dark, passive and aggressive, opposites that need each other for balance. When they fall in love, they each give up their powers, get married, and have children. But Wenwu cannot hold back the darkness of his past, and when Li is murdered because of him, he takes up his ten rings again and starts to train his son, Shang-Chi, to be his heir.
The majority of Shang-Chi takes place around this set-up and back story once Shang is grown and has abandoned his father’s organization. But when Wenwu threatens Ta Lo—believing he can resurrect Li by using the ten rings to open the dark gateway—Shang and his sister (Meng’er Zhang) are compelled to stop him.
Western ambitions are all about centering the self—self-actualization, self-realization, self-fulfillment. Whatever is deemed “toxic” must be exhumed, cut out, destroyed in order for the true self to emerge. Shang, having spent the last ten years in America with an American name (Shaun), pursuing American things, is tempted to this sort of Western fulfillment when things seem the most bleak near the end of the film. He doesn’t know how to defeat his father, who is the literal embodiment of darkness in his life, who is the darkness and the dark part of himself he’s been running from for ten years, and so he tells his friend Katy (Awkwafina) that he will kill his father. Patricide—he doesn’t see any other way.
But—aside from murdering one’s own father not being a very heroic thing to do—this is also not a way to bring balance to the turmoil Shang has felt since his mother’s death; it is no sort of resolution for his internal conflict even if it seems like it would solve the problems they are facing in Ta Lo. We have a lot of stories these days that overly simplify good and evil, that don’t allow characters to instead find peace in their situations despite complicated narratives. In an age that encourages us to cancel people—to label people as toxic and reject them—Shang-Chi gives us a story with a hero who has to forgive a complicated villain. Furthermore, Shang has to accept that the villain is part of who he is, but he doesn’t have to become his father. This isn’t a story of “cancelation,” it is a story of acceptance.
Shang learns how to defeat his father without killing him—how to disarm him as his mother once did—and is able to reject the alluring power of the rings even as he takes them from his father by force. Shang-Chi has to accept that he is both his mother’s and his father’s son—light and dark in balance. He attains worthiness to wield the rings through balancing his mother’s peaceful nature with his father’s anger, and through that balance, he is able to reject the lust for power that consumed his father. It’s only once he finds that balance within himself that he can become the protector of his people. And when Shang achieves balance, he brings balance to his world, as well.
I’m not going to pretend that the yin and yang are Christian concepts, nor am I going to try and appropriate Shang-Chi as a “Christian story.” Neither of those things is true, but Shang-Chi tells a good story about true things that runs counter-cultural to much of what we hold onto as Western ideals (whether or not they are Christian in nature). Shang-Chi’s actualization into an MCU superhero gives us a hero who comes from a culture that is more we-focused than me-focused, and I see that as a good thing.
When a story like this comes to a platform like Marvel, the benefit is that it is viewed by a huge audience—an audience filled with a wide mix of people, many of whom really just wanted to go and see the next superhero film, and many of whom (it’s safe to say) are entirely unfamiliar with any culture outside of their own. A film like Shang-Chi has the opportunity to not only connect East Asian viewers with the MCU in a new way, but also to introduce a wide audience of Western viewers to Eastern culture—viewers who might not otherwise have chosen to go and see a Chinese-language film or one of the many martial arts classics Shang-Chi pays homage to. In decentralizing the Western imagination, Shang-Chi shows a Western audience the beauty in the unfamiliar; it builds bridges of empathy to a people who, in the West, are often viewed as the “perpetual foreigner.” And although it is a cliche to say this, it also shows the ways in which the East and the West are not so different after all. Fighting what is evil, defending what is true and beautiful and good, protecting the weak—these are things that unite us, regardless of culture.
The MCU is a found family of lost characters, and Shang-Chi is another character that fits that mold and will no doubt slide seamlessly into the “family.” What Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings does for the MCU, though, is it provides a new foundation for mythic storytelling. This goes beyond representation on the screen and into influencing people to see the whole world as friends and neighbors—as people we can welcome with an open hand rather than a closed fist.