Nearly four weeks after Disney CEO Bob Chapek referred to Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings as “an interesting experiment” for the company’s nebulous release strategy, Marvel Studios’ first film to feature an Asian lead debuted with a dominant opening weekend.
Box office expectations for Shang-Chi were muted by concerns about the spread of the delta variant, the poor performance of DC’s The Suicide Squad, and the steep falloff for Marvel’s Black Widow after its early-July day-and-date opening. But buoyed in part, perhaps, by being the first Marvel movie since 2019 to debut exclusively in theaters, Shang-Chi ended all doubts with a historically hot start. Although Black Widow made slightly more in its first three days in theaters, Shang-Chi shattered the previous Labor Day record with an estimated $90 million in domestic earnings, adding $56.2 million overseas (excluding China, where it’s yet to be released) to exceed all projections with a worldwide total of $146.2 million.
Beyond its early (and possibly precedent-setting) success at the box office, Shang-Chi has garnered widespread praise from critics and audiences alike. The film successfully blends thrilling action sequences with more gripping performances and nuanced characters than one would typically find in a standard martial arts film or MCU affair, including the breakout appearance of Simu Liu, the Chinese Canadian actor who portrays the titular Chinese American hero. Liu first manifested and then owned a role he staked out more than seven years ago when he tweeted at Marvel, “great job with Cpt America and Thor. Now how about an Asian American hero?”
The success of Shang-Chi, which became only the fourth Hollywood-produced film since 1993 to feature a predominantly Asian cast, is a monumental win for Asian representation in Hollywood. As the first non-prequel film of the MCU’s emergent Phase 4, it’s also a pivotal release for Marvel Studios, which is seeding its interconnected universe with new stories and characters following the conclusion of the decade-long Infinity Saga. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is the MCU’s first origin film since Captain Marvel introduced the space-traveling Carol Danvers in 2019, and while the lion’s share of its running time focuses on Shang-Chi’s backstory, it also hints at where Phase 4 may be heading. Here are my biggest takeaways from the film, ranging from why it works so well to where it may fit within the greater scope of the MCU.
Re-creating Shang-Chi’s Father
While Shang-Chi is loaded with strong performances, from Liu’s star-making turn to Awkwafina’s comedic-relief role as Katy, Tony Leung’s portrayal of the grief-stricken and power-hungry Wenwu is one of the film’s biggest highlights. Leung is a legendary Hong Kong cinema actor who built a massive international following through his brilliant collaborations with director Wong Kar-wai (including Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love), as well as John Woo’s Hard Boiled. But even though Leung first signed an American agent back in 2005, it wasn’t until Marvel approached him for Shang-Chi that the superstar finally chose to make his Hollywood debut.
Along with Leung’s swaggering performance, Shang-Chi director Destin Daniel Cretton and cowriter Dave Callaham’s efforts to reestablish a character with an unusual amount of baggage help make Wenwu one of the most compelling villains ever to appear in the MCU, which has sometimes struggled to craft compelling Big Bads. In the comics, Shang-Chi’s father was originally a deeply problematic pulp villain with a long history in Hollywood and pop culture: Fu Manchu. The character, which author Sax Rohmer created largely as an extension of a centuries-old racist fear of East Asia, had appeared in movies, books, radio serials, and other properties for decades before Marvel began licensing him in its Master of Kung Fu series.
Fu Manchu helped inspire the Mandarin, an Iron Man villain who possessed 10 mystically powered rings. The Mandarin shared many of the same racist features as his predecessor, along with a simplistic desire to destroy the Western world while on a path to global domination. Wenwu is, in a sense, an amalgamation of these two comic-book characters cut from the same Yellow Peril cloth. But thanks to Cretton and Callaham’s desires to break stereotypes in the film and reposition the character in an empathetic light after he loses his wife, Ying Li (Fala Chen), following his decision to give up his rings for good, Wenwu bears no resemblance to the tropey characters that loosely inspired him.
The film’s final act suffers from the familiar pitfall that many MCU spectacles share—a climactic battle sequence that often prioritizes CGI chaos at the expense of consistent and grounded storytelling—and it’s disappointing that Wenwu dies at the hands (or talons) of a soul-sucking CGI dragon from an alternate dimension. But Wenwu still gets to squeeze in a moment of redemption, as he recognizes that he’s been duped by the evil creature and makes a last-ditch effort to save his son and pass on his rings (and his legacy) to someone he’d clearly loved from the beginning (even if he made some extremely questionable parenting decisions along the way).
Wenwu may be dead, but after the events of Loki, we can hope that one of his variants will show up in the future.
Repurposing the Mandarin
Along with the baggage that Wenwu carries from the comics to the film, the character also has some controversial ties that date back to the beginning of the MCU. Although Wenwu’s criminal organization had been around since 2008’s Iron Man, when the Ten Rings kidnapped playboy billionaire Tony Stark, it wasn’t until Shang-Chi that Marvel actually attempted to tackle the character in earnest. Before Shang-Chi, Marvel faked out audiences by appearing to introduce the Mandarin in Iron Man 3 with Sir Ben Kingsley in the role, only to reveal that Kingsley was actually portraying a washed-up actor named Trevor Slattery.
Rather than casting an actor of Chinese descent and modernizing the Mandarin’s backstory, Marvel Studios scrapped the character entirely, while also employing a renowned English actor to prop up the faux role with an over-the-top performance that would satirize Marvel’s previously problematic editorial choices instead of attempting to fix them. (Kingsley is of Indian descent, but the Mandarin is a Chinese-born character.) While Marvel president Kevin Feige defends the choice to this day, it was widely criticized at the time, as it seemed like a cheap way to circumvent the necessary work it would take to re-create a character with racist origins. Of course, Marvel Studios repeated this practice to an even more misguided degree when it cast a white actress, Tilda Swinton, as the Ancient One—an Asian character in the comics—in 2016’s Doctor Strange.
Not only does Shang-Chi poke fun at the Mandarin character in a dinner scene when Wenwu mocks the American public’s fear of a villain named after an orange, but the film’s creative team repurposes Kingsley’s Trevor Slattery character for one of the more delightful surprises of the film. Slattery resurfaces as Wenwu’s prisoner, following his capture in the 2014 short film All Hail the King, which serves as an epilogue to Iron Man 3. In addition to providing some of the movie’s funniest moments, Slattery expresses regret to Shang-Chi for his unsavory portrayal of Shang-Chi’s father and, by extension, apologizes on behalf of Marvel for its years of using the problematic character in the comics. “The idea of the Mandarin was a setup to a very clear stereotype,” Cretton recently told Variety. “I think it’s hard to imagine who the Mandarin is—this mysterious, really evil Asian dude somewhere out there—and not have some type of stereotype in your brain. So to be able to have Trevor just come in just straight-up apologize for giving a terrible impersonation of their father just felt like the perfect way to say sorry.”
The Origins of the Ten Rings and the Future of the MCU
Shang-Chi’s mid-credits scene picks up where the movie ends, with Wong (Benedict Wong), Shang-Chi, and Katy discussing the mysterious origins of the Ten Rings (the artifacts/fashion accessories, not the terrorists). Perhaps more notably, though, they’re also joined by two familiar faces: Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo).
Wong calls upon Captain Marvel’s alien expertise and Bruce’s smarts to help figure out where these ancient rings of empire-building power came from. Bruce, who is no longer in his Professor Hulk form from Avengers: Endgame (but is still wearing a sling after using the gauntlet to bring everyone back after Thanos’s snap), has little insight to offer, while Captain Marvel says she hasn’t come across anything of their kind in her space travels. Wong explains that even the ancient Kamar-Taj holds no record of the rings, but adds that a beacon was detected when Shang-Chi gained control of them in the film’s final battle. “A beacon to where?” is the question that lingers into the credits (after a little karaoke with Wong, of course), seemingly implying that the rings come from another dimension as the MCU continues to expand its scope to a wider multiverse.
While the stinger potentially offers a glimpse at one course a Shang-Chi sequel could take, in which Shang-Chi would continue to learn about the rings that his father wielded over numerous lifetimes, it also provides our first looks at Captain Marvel and Bruce since 2019’s Endgame. Larson (who also starred in Cretton’s Short Term 12, The Glass Castle, and Just Mercy) will reprise her role in 2022’s The Marvels, while Ruffalo is set to return in the upcoming Disney+ series She-Hulk in 2022. Captain Marvel’s longer hair in the scene, along with Bruce’s markedly less green appearance, signals a passage of time between the events of Endgame and Shang-Chi.
Bruce’s return to human form could tease how he’ll appear in She-Hulk, as well as how his cousin Jennifer Walters will enter the MCU. In the comics, Walters becomes She-Hulk after a potentially fatal injury requires her green-skinned, gamma-radiating cousin to give her a blood transfusion. It’s possible that the Hulk’s transformation back into Bruce ties into her origin story as well. When you factor in Abomination’s cage-match cameo and the fact that Tim Roth will reprise his role as the Hulk villain in the upcoming Disney+ series, it will be fascinating to see how these moments in Shang-Chi help set up the events of She-Hulk’s MCU debut.
“The Ten Rings Will Return”
In the film’s second stinger, we find Shang-Chi’s sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) packing away some of her old belongings from her childhood bedroom. As Shang-Chi explained to his friends in the movie’s final scene, Xialing was supposedly heading back to their home to shut down their father’s operation for good. But the post-credits scene reveals that Xialing had other plans in mind.
After Razor Fist (Florian Munteanu) tells Xialing that her guests have arrived, the camera follows her through the Ten Rings headquarters as it mirrors an early shot that captured Wenwu overlooking his criminal empire—only this time, it shows his daughter taking a seat on his throne. Xialing, with holdover members of her father’s organization (including Razor Fist) and her previous employees from her underground Macau fight club (such as Ronny Chieng’s Jon Jon), is rebooting the Ten Rings as its new leader and remaking it according to her own vision.
Moments after we see men and women training against each other in the Ten Rings’ courtyard, a message flashes across the screen: “The Ten Rings Will Return.” This phrasing notably highlights the organization’s growing role in the MCU instead of focusing on Shang-Chi in the way that past films have teased their protagonists’ impending returns. It’s possible that Xialing and the Ten Rings will receive a story of their own in a Disney+ series that could provide a fun look at how she intends to modernize her father’s criminal empire, but it seems more likely that the scene is setting the stage for a potential Shang-Chi sequel in which brother and sister go toe-to-toe.
If Marvel Studios decides to go the route of establishing Xialing as the antagonist of a Shang-Chi 2, it could borrow some elements from the 2020 Shang-Chi comic miniseries Brothers & Sisters, written by Gene Luen Yang and illustrated by Dike Ruan and Philip Tan. The five-issue series’ supporting characters are different from the film’s, and its Ten Rings are rechristened the Five Weapons Society, but it makes a similar choice to focus on the family dynamic that is so crucial to Shang-Chi’s character and the greater Asian American experience. The story introduces a compelling relationship with Shang-Chi’s sister Shi-Hua, who similarly claims ownership of their father’s criminal empire as she attempts to take it to new heights. Rather than destroying the Five Weapons Society for good after a climactic showdown with his sister, Shang-Chi instead rebuilds the organization himself and returns it to its founding roots to protect China and the world at large, an arduous endeavor explored in Yang’s subsequent and ongoing series, Shang-Chi vs. The Marvel Universe.
It remains to be seen where Shang-Chi’s and Xialing’s respective journeys in the MCU will take them, but there’s a growing amount of material in the comics that Marvel Studios could look to borrow from and build upon as it develops Shang-Chi into a big-screen franchise.
The MCU’s First Leading Asian Superhero
More so than where Shang-Chi fits within the history of Marvel Comics and the MCU, the film will be remembered for being not only the first of Marvel Studios’ 25 movies to feature an Asian lead, but also the first big-budget American blockbuster to revolve around an Asian superhero. It’s a milestone that Asian Americans have been awaiting for years, and one that arrives during a pandemic that has coincided with a rise in anti-Asian hate crimes. Simu Liu shines with a worthy performance in a momentous role, from going full action hero in the film’s incredible bus fight sequence to landing Shang-Chi’s most vulnerable moments as he comes to terms with the life and family he ran from for years.
When Shang-Chi and Katy join Wong, Captain Marvel, and Bruce Banner in Shang-Chi’s mid-credits scene, the meeting represents an invitation to the MCU’s larger world of superheroes, as Shang-Chi finally stands among them (albeit through holographic communication). “Welcome to the circus,” Bruce says to Shang-Chi and Katy, with a knowing smile that acknowledges the sheer chaos that they’re both about to discover. And while the invitation for an Asian superhero to take a seat at the table may be long overdue, the film’s early critical and financial success suggest that Shang-Chi’s story is only just beginning.