Representation and fairness – those are the big words in Hollywood these days. A century after it was discovered, cinema is reckoning with its relationship with people who are neither white nor male. An exorcism of all things politically incorrect is being carried out. The male gaze is being dislodged, whitewashing is on its deathbed and anything resembling a white saviour is unacceptable now.

“Wokeness” is as important a criterion for measuring a movie’s success these days as are commercial and critical successes.

This is not a bad thing, except that political correctness has come to commercialise movies such as Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings as much better than they are in actuality. Even movies like Black Widow, which few could admit is a great movie, are most often criticised because Marvel waited too long to make female superhero movies than on their own merits.

“Certainly, Shang-Chi goes some small way to correcting the history of unsavoury and unpleasant portrayals of South East and East Asian characters in Western media,” reads a BBCculture piece 'Why Asian superhero Shang-Chi could truly change the world.'

In as long as cinema is a cultural phenomenon, pondering the stereotypical depictions of non-whites and LGBTQ communities is important. But representation is the beginning and the end of analysing the merit of a movie. Character development and how well the story is fleshed out should count for something, and it does not in Shang-Chi.

Most of us are reasonably familiar with superhero movies by this time. Marvel, DC and Disney animations are the only thing keeping the cinema business going these days, with the first one shining the greatest. For too long, I have been a sceptic. Iron Man, Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight were impressive enough, but the rest are frivolous stuff.

Then came the last two Avengers movies, infusing the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) with an energy never before seen. Infinity War best showed the consequence of each movie, the continuity, and made clear what Marvel was doing releasing all of these superhero movies – they are creating a cinematic world. It has continued to expand with surprisingly creative TV shows, including WandaVision, What If…? and the refreshingly fun Loki.

Shang-Chi is the latest iteration in this. It introduces a part of the cinematic universe that will form part of a bigger whole. As a standalone – mainly stripped of its Asian influences – it is a pretty irrelevant movie. It has value as part of a whole that ties in what is unfolding in the WandaVision and Loki series, and the upcoming Spider-Man: No Way Home and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.

Shang-Chi makes a call back to the Mandarin, the villain in Iron Man 3, which was revealed to be a front for another antagonist in that movie. Apparently, it was appropriated from an actual secret organisation, the Ten Rings, that has been operating in the background of world events for centuries.

It is led by Xu Wenwu (played by Tony Leung of In the Mood for Love fame), who wears 10 rings – technically bracelets – that give him immortality and superpowers that are only vaguely defined in the movie. Wenwu did not appear in Marvel comic books and was created for the film in place of Shang-Chi's most infamous villain, Fu Manchu, a character too stereotypical of Asians by today’s standards.

Shang-Chi is Wenwu’s son and trained in martial arts. He escapes from his father when he is a teenager to the United States and lives there for about a decade without his two lives crashing down into one another. But when Wenwu begins to receive a mysterious signal calling to him to an old magical village, Shang Chi has to rise to the challenge and thwart his father’s plan.

Shang-Chi is not a bad movie but will probably not be the cultural phenomenon that was Black Panther, a film about another “ethnic” superhero. It is probably because African – not African American - cultures are so underrepresented in cinema that the latter seemed wholly unprecedented unless one counts heavily stereotypical fare such as Coming to Africa and The Gods Must Be Crazy.

Without the politically correct aspect going for it, Shang-Chi does not have much to offer for anyone else uninterested in knowing all that is going on in the MCU.

PUBLISHED ON Sep 10,2021 [ VOL 22 , NO 1115]

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