Shang-Chi: Mental Health and Healing, Marvel Universe, and Awkwafina Humor

Suppressed intergenerational family trauma and healing, warm welcome to the Marvel Cinematic Universe team, and Awkwafina's humor really make this film the real MVP.

Cathy Yee
Cathy Yee
September 6, 2021

Shang-Chi is making waves as Marvel’s first Asian lead… and crushing it at the box office

with an anticipated $80 million for opening Labor Day weekend! Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings that is. Why the filmmakers decided to make the title a mouthful is either marketing genius or incredibly obnoxious, perhaps both. Maybe if someone commits to saying the full title aloud a few times, they feel so invested from the elocution exercise that they then need to purchase a ticket to justify it. Psychology? I don’t know. In any case, Shang-Chi brings about SO MANY topics and themes to get into, even without the Marvel Cinematic Universe tie-ins. I’m not an expert Marvel fan, only a baby Marvel fan, so I’ll link in the MCU fun facts and sources accordingly.

No Romance / Platonic Friends

Katy and Shang-Chi Parking Cars as Platonic Friends

Katy and Shang-Chi parking cars for work

It was refreshing to see a feature film focused on a platonic friendship without romance. The camaraderie and silliness between Shang-Chi and Katy was relatable for anyone. As always, I love Awkwafina, and she was so crucial in the film. Her comedic relief was necessary to break up the more heavy segments, including the part on the plane where a flight attendant interrupted Shang-Chi’s heartbreaking childhood story to ask which meal they wanted to choose, and Awkwafina as Katy bantered with such dry humor. I’m just going to say Awkwafina as Katy sometimes, because her persona seems larger than life. The scene was so stupid, yet hilarious. I probably laughed a little bit too much. That and the part where she trolls Shang-Chi (pronounced Shaun-Chi) about Americanizing his name to Shaun as an alias for hiding. Shang-Chi and Awkwafina as Katy trolled each other and had each other’s backs as true friends should.

The camaraderie is not to say that a future Marvel film won’t pair them up romantically, but at least in this film, it was really nice to see such a stellar example of a male-female buddyship.

Suppressed Family Trauma and Healing

Various themes of intergenerational mental health issues and pain were prevalent throughout the film. The themes reflected the dynamic of hurt and redemption. Here are a few that stood out.

Xialing being badass in Shang-Chi

Xialing being badass

Abandonment to Redemption

Shang-Chi leaves his little sister Xialing to carry out his father’s mission. He promises to return in 3 days. The little girl misses her brother, holding on to his promise — waiting 3 days, 4 days, 1 month, 6 years, before finally realizing that he’s not coming back. Shang-Chi later in the story holds tight to Xialing’s arm as she’s grasped by the evil demon. This time he refuses to leave her.

Neglect to Success

Being unseen, invisible, and ignored is tough treatment from anyone important, much more so by a parental figure. Xialing is ignored by her father after her mother’s death, and excluded from martial arts training. Although Wenwu doesn't directly say why, it's easy to infer that it's because she's a girl and Wenwu wanted to protect his daughter. I like that the film never has Wenwu apologize to Xialing or right his wrong. It's sad for the character of course, but this phenomona reflects reality for many — and loved ones don't always apologize or show up. Sometimes we have to make do nevertheless. As a wise friend said — some people suck. Xialing ended up building her own fighting empire and martial arts academy by herself. “If my dad won’t let me into his empire, I’m building my own.

Misguided Paternal Instincts to the Ultimate Sacrifice

Shang-Chi and Father Wenwu The Mandarin

Little Shang-Chi and Father Wenwu, The Mandarin

Shang-Chi’s father Wenwu, revealed as the real Mandarin (more on this later), parents Shang-Chi in the way that he deems best. He conditions Shang-Chi to be a skilled fighter and assassin since childhood. After Shang-Chi’s mother is killed by his enemies, Wenwu urges Shang-Chi to join his quest for revenge, sending him off to assassinate people as a little boy. As grueling as Wenwu is, you did get the sense that he truly believed he was doing what’s best. I'm glad the film didn't justify the father’s relentless and oftentimes cruel treatment, whatever his intent. Ultimately, when faced with Shang-Chi’s death by the demon, Wenwu makes the ultimate sacrifice — saving his son, and losing his life. He finally bestows his son the legacy of the ten rings, which is what he had always intended.

Obsession with Power to Gentle Love

Tony Leung as Wenwu and Fala Chen as Jiang Li in Shang-Chi

Battle turns into romance for Wenwu and Li

Wenwu had been obsessed with power for a millennium, using his legendary ten rings for greed, control, and murder. He transforms when he meets Li, the only person who can beat him in a fight, who then becomes his true love and wife, and Shang-Chi’s mother.

Pleasing Your Parents to Rebelling to Do the Right Thing

Like children do, Shang-Chi grew up yearning for the love and approval of his parents. It’s such an innately human thing. When his mother was alive, the family was loving and healthy. After she passed, the family broke. It became colored by revenge, trauma, and pain— no longer the warm love and acceptance that it once was. Shang-Chi then did his best to be a good son to his remaining parent — obeying his father’s quest for revenge. However, when Shang-Chi discovers his father’s shady definition of “vindication” also entails wiping out his mother’s village, he realizes he must confront his father, even to the death, in order to protect his mother’s family and culture (and ultimately the universe).

Katy’s Driving

Asian women being terrible drivers is a humorous / endearing stereotype that many Americans, including Asian women, really believe to be true. Early in the film, Awkwafina drives like a maniac, and it’s hilarious. That being said, she does save the day as much as Shang-Chi does, and literally saves everyone’s life on the bus. The scene is terrifying, entailing humorous tumultuous driving, but to be fair, the situation — with the unexpected villain with a chainsaw arm trying to kill them — is pretty chaotic. Awkwafina as Katy later saves the day again, driving skillfully (and terrifyingly as per the nature of the situation), saving her friends through the mystical maze despite a 19% chance of success.

Katy’s Aim

Awkwafina as Katy

Awkwafina as Katy

As mentioned, Awkwafina’s humor is on point as Katy. However, Katy has a significant role in the story and does not solely serve as comedic relief. At the beginning, Katy parks cars with Shang-Chi at a hotel. Their friend tells them they’re the most talented people she knows and are wasting their potential. In the mystical village of Shang-Chi’s maternal family, Katy blabbers on absentmindedly about how she admires the village people and how she wishes she could do something useful (something along those lines anyways). Master Guang Bo then turns to her when teaching her to use the bow and arrow, sternly saying “If you aim for nothing, you will hit nothing”. The truth and bluntness of the proverb startles her, but she takes the point. She internalizes the lesson, and literally takes aim at the monstrous demon’s throat to save her friends. This is life or death, and she indeed does not aim at nothing. Katy really saves the day in a lot of ways.

Meng’er Zhang as Sister Xialing and Michelle Yeoh as Aunt Ying Nan

Truly strong characters not to be reckoned with.

Marvel Cinematic Universe Tie-In and Action

Shang Chi with the rest of the Avengers

Shang Chi with the rest of the Avengers. Image from Screenrant

Ben Kingsley makes a comedic appearance as drunken actor Trevor Slattery, who was originally thought to be the famous Marvel villain known as the Mandarin in Iron Man 3. It turned out that Trevor as the Mandarin was just a fake persona created by Aldrich Killian. Later Killian reveals himself to be the “true” Mandarin.

Fans were neither happy with Marvel white-washing The Mandarin with Slattery, nor for doing so again with Killian. The Mandarin was a prominent Asian character (albeit villain) in the comics. After messing up twice, Marvel made Wenwu the true-true Mandarin in Shang-Chi, who does not actually refer to himself as such. Maybe it’s for the best that this portrayal of the true-true Mandarin villain happened here — where an Asian villain plays opposite an Asian hero. It ends up being less racist and more ok this way. Representation and all.

Trevor was hilarious with that cute headless mythical animal. I was a bit worried he would steal the comedic thunder from Awkwafina as Katy, though. Luckily, Katy returned to comedic center after teaming up in style with Trevor for a fun chase scene through a carnivorous forest maze.

In the first end credit preview, Shang-Chi and Katy are summoned by Wong from Doctor Strange to meet Captain Marvel and Bruce Banner. They’re welcomed officially “into the circus” of the MCU. This was momentous for me, and really made my heart swell. Sorry if that's sappy and dramatic.

Significance in Today’s World

Shang-Chi and Katy BFFs

Shang-Chi and Katy as BFFs

I was thrilled to finally have Asian superheroes within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. To be honest, I felt incredibly validated, seen, and appreciated by having Shang-Chi and Katy represent. So much so that I’m now going back through the old MCU films that I had skipped earlier. Last night I finally watched Ant-Man from 2015. True Marvel fans may scoff or judge, but representation is impactful for me, and I know I’m not the only one. Don’t get me wrong, Marvel films can be super fun, but for a long time they were only white heroes who excluded Asians from the main story arc, throwing them in to be disposable extras as headcount. Black Panther was the first Marvel superhero of color — significant for all Americans, not just for Marvel fans and Black people. Exclusion can be as much a driving force for apathy or deterrence as inclusion is for enthusiasm and dedication.

Shang-Chi is incredibly timely considering the uptick in anti-Asian sentiment that has worsened due to Covid, Trump’s divisive rhetoric, and the United States’ long-standing fear of China’s giant economy.

I was so happy this film didn’t disappoint! I’m going to watch it a few more times in theaters. The Asian American community has been pushing for a #GoldOpen, meaning a box office success for Asian-led films in Hollywood, in order to “prove” that our stories are worth it. It’s frustrating that capitalism and discrimination requires this, but I’m relieved and thrilled that Shang-Chi is succeeding — and actually killing it and breaking records to boot.

Incluvie score: 5 out of 5!

Movie score: 5 out of 5 too!