Marvel Studios has been “experimenting” with representation in its movies in the past
few years. We saw Captain Marvel with the MCU’s first female-led movie, then Black Panther
with their first black-led movie, and now Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings hosts their first Asian American superhero as the lead in his own movie.
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Not only has Shang-Chi blown away critics and audiences alike, with a 92% critic rating
and a 98% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it has also outsold many Marvel movies with a worldwide earning of over $360 million by only its 4th weekend. An amazing feat, even if you don’t consider everything working against it.
Shang-Chi being the first MCU movie with an Asian lead means many things for the
movie. One of the most major being the pressure of showing Marvel, and the rest of the film
industry, that not only are Asian American stories entertaining and important, but profitable as well. A concerning task seeing as Marvel’s advertising was lackluster with subpar trailers and with little to no campaigning.
Surviving the crushing numbers of people unable to attend movies in theaters is not an
easy job. We can see how Marvel worked around this with their July release of Black Widow.
That movie was released in theaters and on Disney’s streaming service, Disney Plus, where
audiences could pay for premier access or wait for it to be released for free on the platform a few months later. This system allowed Black Widow to prosper when it otherwise might have failed due to Covid. This was the original plan for Shang-Chi as well, but, as the release date became closer, Marvel announced that Shang-chi would not be launched on Disney Plus until 45 days after it was released. People online also noted a severe lack of advertising on the part of Marvel; trailers were few and far between and, when they were seen, online reviews thought them to be boring and not truly representative of the movie. With all of these things working against Shang-Chi, the representation could have been the final nail in the coffin.
Looking at this critically, there are two ways this representation of Asian Americans
could have hurt the movie. The first is obvious; racist people who usually watch Marvel movies might not go see Shang-Chi, therefore it loses some profit. Though this is a real problem, it is not a problem for the lack of profit. The real dilemma is this: is it a good representation of Asian Americans or not?
Speaking generally, as this is not a Shang-Chi specific issue. There is a real problem
that minority groups face when it comes to supporting representation on screen. Should people settle for subpar representation to show companies that minority stories are worth covering? Is it better to do this in the hopes that they create better representation when they realize it is profitable, even though audiences run the risk that by supporting it companies will not see a need to improve? Or, should they not watch in hopes the creators get the message that the representation is done poorly, yet ultimately risk that companies see minority stories as unimportant because they don’t bring in enough money? The equation of profit to importance is disheartening at best and actively harmful at worst, making things like this hard to navigate. It has no definite answer, yet it springs up with every minority-led movie. Luckily, Shang-Chi didn’t have to deal with this dilemma directly.
Until the release date, speculation on quality was abundant in online spheres. People
were excited to see themselves on the big screen, scared that it wouldn’t be good or accurate to the Asian American experience, and nervous that it wouldn’t be received well and have to be placed in the forgotten Marvel projects pile. But, upon release, those represented were generally speaking well of the way the movie talks about identity. Throughout the movie, there are conversations of assimilation and themes of identity intertwined with a story about family and power. There were little to no criticisms of stereotypes and passive harm. It was a resounding success.
Representation is powerful. To finally see someone who looks like you being able to rise
in prominence, to represent an experience you relate to, to watch as they gain power and are
developed on the screen; you don’t know how much it matters until you don’t have it.
Hollywood has a tremendous issue with diversity, from casting the same few people to
play minorities in movies and colorism when it comes to skin tone, to exoticism and xenophobia through scripts and casting. Representation is not something that everyone has had since day one, but it is something that everyone deserves.
Hopefully, the success of Shang-Chi gives Marvel the incentive to create more positive
representations of minorities in their movies, and hopefully, one day companies won’t need a
monetary incentive to represent everyone.