The record-breaking opening weekend for “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” or “Shang-Chi,” garnered the best showing of any Labor Day weekend film ever at $94 million domestically. Within just a few days, according to gross receipts worldwide, it has already made back its $150 million budget.
But beyond this impressive performance, there are many cultural and political implications to the success of this film with an all-Asian cast.
The success is nostalgic, harkening back to Bruce Lee’s Hollywood breakthrough and Jackie Chan’s mainstream U.S. success. We are in a period where age-old stereotypes have finally been overcome, and so we are able to reflect on more sensitive and intersectional issues.
I caught up with my good friend, Filipino American YouTube pop culture commentator Mitch Lozada, who contributed his thoughts on the cultural footprint the movie has already made in just a few days.
We both agreed that the Marvel movie made a concerted effort to avoid stereotypes while tastefully honoring Asian culture with strong character arcs. The writing was so poignant that, while main leads Simu Liu and Awkwafina both gave strong performances, they could have been replaced and the movie would have stayed as engaging, a testament to the strength of the screenplay. The film also stayed true to Marvel’s branding and to “Shang-Chi”’s comic book origins, which should please most longtime fans.
The first stereotype the movie overcame was in its casting of Awkwafina as a valet driver who actually drove well, instead of making the age-old joke about Asian women and their poor driving.
Stereotypes such as the Asian nerd and the “tiger mom” were also avoided, though homage was paid to the high expectations of Asian fathers. In fact, the story’s focus on the overcompensating father training his son to become an assassin is powerfully Asian.
The film is almost an updated version of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” making “Shang-Chi” the perfect movie to return the martial arts genre into mainstream consciousness. Marrying this with the Marvel superhero format is yet another level of genius. This is manifested in the movie’s good urban sequences and in its incorporation of newer and different styles of fighting, moving it past old Asian movie cliches.
The main character, Shang-Chi, was the focus of the film, and his growth from overcoming his childhood issues to becoming a hero easily put him on par with the rest of the Avengers.
The lack of “woke” lecturing and political commentary also make this movie stand out, and the audience clearly rewarded this with major box office success. Funny how a good story that doesn’t tell you how to think can capture the hearts of millions.
“Shang-Chi”’s success sees the beginning of people returning to theaters, giving confidence that the film industry, which took a major hit during COVID-19, can revive. Labor Day is not typically the top-performing box office weekend, but “Shang-Chi” made 2021 an exception.
There are other atypical firsts for “Shang-Chi.” This is one of the first blockbuster films with a real Asian American lead. This is one of the only Hollywood movies overcoming the typical “invisible” Asian man or the hypersexualized Asian woman stereotypes, simultaneously proving those who question the marketability of Asian males wrong. A movie with a strong Asian male lead can clearly sell just as well as — if not better than — other films.
This movie has revolutionized mainstream Asian films going forward in the U.S. While Asians may be tired of being pinned as martial artists, the superhero component gives “Shang-Chi”’s concept a new twist. “Shang-Chi” honors Asian culture while simultaneously providing range.
After decades of invisibility despite the fame of those such as Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, leading Asian males have finally come back with a bang.
This is the opportunity for Asian males and for the rest of the Asian community to not fall back into the stereotypical roles Hollywood previously put us in. “Shang-Chi” has not only given us permission to leave the mold, but it has also inspired us to muster up that warrior spirit and conquer the Hollywood frontier formerly closed-off to our community.
Welcome to a new generation of leading Asian men.
Marc Ang is President of Orange County’s Chinese American Citizens Alliance.