It’s Complicated: Iron Fist, Shang Chi, and Me

Shang Chi

By JCM Berne

September 10, 2021

I have not, as of writing this post, seen the Marvel movie Shang Chi, but I’ve read enough about it to say some things about what they’ve done to one of my all-time favorite characters (and no, I won’t criticize Simu Liu’s casting, both because I like him as an actor and because one should see the movie before making the claim that he can’t pull off the character).

First, you should understand that Shang Chi is probably the fictional character with whom I have the strongest personal attachment. As a kid who loved martial arts and comic books, Master of Kung Fu was the most prized part of my collection. I read through the full run of the comic many, many times.

I loved those comics. They had much more in common with spy films than with superheroes – sort of a “What if Bruce Lee’s character from Return of the Dragon teamed up with a poor man’s James Bond?” Fu Manchu, Shang Chi’s comics father, was as hurtful and damaging a stereotype of an Asian as you can imagine, but I was blissfully unaware of those implications.

To understand what was great about Shang Chi it is best to compare him to Iron Fist, Marvel’s other martial arts based character.

Iron Fist

Iron Fist was built on even more damaging racist tropes, especially the notion of a white savior. Young rich white Daniel Rand finds himself in K’un L’un, where he (thanks, I suppose, to being white?) becomes the greatest fighter in a city full of fighters, defeats a dragon, and gains its superpowers. He promptly leaves behind the city and any responsibilities to it he should have had to slum with Luke Cage and pretend to care about the people of Harlem.

Much more recently authors of Iron Fist titles have been acknowledging, at least a little, that he’s kind of a putz, exaggerating his flaws to offset the white savior stigma. It doesn’t really work, though I have a very tender spot in my soul for the visuals of the green-suited, dragon-tattooed Iron Fist punching down walls with his glowing hands.

Shang Chi was the counterpoint to Iron Fist. As Asian as his father, he was an amazing warrior because his supervillain dad had him trained from birth by the foremost martial artists in the world. Recognizing his father’s evil, he rebels, being a good-hearted bloke, and devotes his life to thwarting Fu’s ridiculous schemes of world domination.

It’s a much better origin story, not only because it casts Asians on both ends of the spectrum of morality, but because it gives a heroic weight to Shang Chi’s actions. He’s not fighting out of revenge or anger, but out of an earnest desire to see evil thwarted, seasoned with a touch of guilt for the years he spent in his father’s service.

Still, it was inevitable that Marvel would have to get rid of Fu Manchu. The character is just too deeply intertwined with deeply racist Yellow Peril imagery, and there is no way a Chinese audience (which matters to movies nowadays) would accept a movie starring him. Marvel also has a tenuous hold on the rights to the character Fu Manchu, and I’m sure they would rather not pay a hefty sum to Sax Rohmer’s estate to keep them.

What they’ve apparently done—and remember I have not seen this film—is make Shang Chi’s father a morally ambiguous character with whom his relationship is more complicated and less simply antagonistic.

I can’t say it was the wrong choice. I’m not sure you can make an action movie with an unrepentingly evil Chinese villain unless you’re making it in China. But the movie is going to lose the lovely dynamic of Shang Chi’s heroism—the son trying to right his father’s wrongs, seeking cross-generational atonement—that made the character so great.

I’m rooting for this movie to be great for both personal and social reasons. Early reviews are extremely positive. I’m not sure I’m ready to watch it in a movie theatre, though. . . another thing COVID has taken from us.




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