The story below contains spoilers for Marvel Studios’ Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. You’ve been warned!
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) has finally arrived amidst a sea of expectations. As the first Asian-led film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Shang-Chi has a wealth of responsibilities on its shoulders. It must champion Asian representation, assimilate to an existing continuity, and cohere to the Marvel style — all while subverting the racist stereotypes that plagued the comic book mythos of its characters.
Disney executives wondered whether it would see financial success despite being released exclusively in theaters amidst a raging pandemic, while fans of kung fu flicks and wuxia legends were eager to evaluate whether the film paid proper homage to the tales that preceded it.
The weight of these expectations makes Shang-Chi’s critical and financial success all the more impressive, but they also narrow the scope of interpretation and evaluation. What the existing discourse around Shang-Chi overlooks is also what constitutes the film’s relatable soul — a family conflict that pits father against child, tradition against modernity.
Into cinema’s long history of troublesome fathers comes Wenwu, played by Tony Leung. By giving the Mandarin this name, Marvel finally humanizes this villain as more than just an Orientalist menace, a treatment that’s ultimately required to match Leung’s riveting performance. He is a charismatic leader, a ruthless conqueror, a loving husband, and a terrible dad.
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Wenwu stands as a paragon of ancient values in title and reputation: wen (文) refers to the literary, while wu (武) refers to the martial. When joined, these words underline the millennia of learning and combat that have made Wenwu the ultimate Chinese patriarch.
This legacy also means he’s stuck in his ways.
Fueled by a relentless love for his dead wife, Ying Li (Fala Chen), Wenwu seeks to invade her mystical home of Ta Lo and release her trapped spirit. He tries to enlist the help of his two children, Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) and Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), by invoking the Chinese concept of tuan yuan (团圆), which upholds the togetherness and completeness of a family as sacred.
Tony Chiu-Wai Leung as Wenwu in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Image via IMDb
While Shang-Chi and Xialing would love nothing more than to be reunited with their mother, they know better. They know that an evil voice guides Wenwu, and they are wary of their father’s narcissistic and egomaniacal confidence. His sense of tuan yuan is twisted: as if bringing Ying Li back would rectify his murder of rivals, his abuse of Shang-Chi, and his abandonment of Xialing. His ambitions, therefore, appear to represent a set of outdated traditions in need of a rude and unfilial awakening.
Shang-Chi’s character arc represents an approach to ‘completeness’ — one based on internal conflict and identity — that opposes Wenwu’s ambitions in both aim and method. When we meet him, he has left behind his dark past to become a parking valet in San Francisco.
It’s a self-imposed life of mediocrity, and he has never reconciled his father’s ruthless nurture with the kind and gentle care he received from his mother. Having become an assassin at a young age, he’s afraid of what he’s capable of.
As he makes his way to Ta Lo, fight after fight forces him to unleash more of the power he has tried to forget.
Simu Liu as Shang-Chi. Image via IMDb
The film’s exposition functions like a series of therapy sessions. As he recounts his experiences to his old friend Katy (Awkwafina), he confronts the episodes of his buried trauma. He reaches an epiphany on the eve of battle: he must be prepared to fight his father to the death to have a chance of stopping him.
By reconciling the yin with the yang, Shang-Chi achieves a sort of completeness in identity that allows him to awaken the Great Protector, bend the Ten Rings to his will, and force Wenwu to recognize his delusion.
Meanwhile, in Macau, Xialing presents a different challenge, one that takes on the patriarchy that Wenwu upholds.
After Ying Li’s death, Wenwu shunned Xialing and forbade her from training in martial arts, claiming that he could not even look at her because she so resembled her mother. The rest of the film contradicts his statement, however, repeatedly showing that Xialing takes after Wenwu.
Michelle Yeoh as Ying Nan in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Image via IMDb
As just one example of many, she tenaciously learned martial arts in secret and used her skills to establish an underground fight club, which she later describes as the empire she had to build because her father denied her access to his. In demeanor, ambition, and prowess, Xialing is far more of an heir to Wenwu than Shang-Chi is.
Yet Wenwu doesn’t acknowledge her, implying that he sees Xialing’s gender more than her individuality.
While it’s a shame that Xialing does not get the opportunity to face off against Wenwu directly, her own fight with her father’s forces allows her to earn their respect and loyalty. She seizes what he refused to give her, and after the dust settles, Xialing has assumed leadership of the Ten Rings, occupying her father’s throne with Razor Fist and Jon Jon at her side. Outside in the courtyard, women now train alongside the men.
Together, Shang-Chi and Xialing (with some support from Katy) overcome Wenwu’s antiquated methods. Their victory signifies a series of consequences: they save Ta Lo from the Dweller-in-Darkness, they each find their place in the world, and they revolutionize their father’s legacy.
The Ten Rings now bear new meaning, with the physical rings wielded by Shang-Chi and the organization commanded by Xialing. As the film closes to the beat of “Swan Song,” it is just as Saweetie and NIKI say: “Out with the old; in with the new.”
Cover image via IMDb
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