The latest Marvel film Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings features Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first Asian superhero Simu Liu and has vastly improved its representation of superheroines, where earlier women were hyper sexualised and their self-worth was determined by the way their male co-stars treated them.
Shang-Chi follows a typical superhero arc with a kid who becomes a trained assassin after the tragic death of his mother. Trained by his father Xu Wenwu who possesses the power of mystical weapons and commands a private army named the Ten Rings, Shang-Chi escapes from his life as an assassin and settles in the United States. He is once again pushed to face the demons of his past as he’s tasked to save his mother’s mythical village from the clutches of his evil father.
Let’s look at the female leads in Shang-chi.
The true embodiment of power is through the female leads in the film, Ying Li played by Fala Chen possesses air-bending powers and uses the technique of Tai Chi to deflect and defeat Wenwu. The fight sequence with Li and Wenwu is the second longest combat scene in the film. This enforces the character of Li as the protector of her land against the destructive force of Wenwu. Although her role in the film is short, her death is the base for the story that unfolds throughout Shang-Chi.
Another strong female lead in the film is Xu Xialing played by Meng’er Zhang, Shang-Chi’s sister. She is a self-trained martial arts fighter who’s formidably led down by the male figures in her life, her father Wenwu never deemed her worthy of attention or education and her brother Shangi-Chi who abandoned her for a fresh start.
When Shangi-Chi starts searching for his estranged sister in the intention of protecting her from the dangerous men sent by their father, it is revealed that Xialing is running a popular underground fighting ring where she remains on the top as the undefeated fighter. She further explains that she ran away from her father’s clandestine of the Ten Rings at the age of 16 after her brother left, she managed to single handedly built up the fighting ring.
The Ten Rings compound owned by her father refused to train girls and only trained boys. In comparison Shang-Chi grew up with many advantages – formal martial arts training and attention from their father and still managed to escape to the United States to start life afresh.
It is empowering to notice that Xialing managed to achieve entrepreneurship and leadership at a very young age but sadly the Marvel film sheds less light on Xialing. She ignored the sexist customs that were thrown at her as they aimed to disempower her, this brings to light another issue which is the sexist barriers that are thrown at Asian women; Asian men and women have vastly different experiences in life.
The end credits scene shows Xialing staring at the feminist graffiti art and rock heroes’ posters in her childhood bedroom, she then walks up to her new throne as the new heir to the Ten Ring’s compound priorly owned by her father. The camera pans out to feature an army of masked female warriors of all body and skin-types being trained in the martial arts while the compound is decorated with the rebellious artwork of her teenage years. A role so compelling and strong, she stole the limelight in the film.
Shang-Chi’s best friend Katy played by Awakafina plays the over glorified side-kick for the only purpose of delivering comic punch-lines and drive in complicated situations. She eventually learns how to wield a bow and an arrow and fights alongside the army of Ying Nan.
Finally Michelle Yeoh plays the role of Ying Nan, a strong and daunting authority figure in the film, donning robes of scarlet, she is the protector of the mythical village of Ta Lo and leads the army and mythical creatures to battle against Wenwu. She teaches Shang-Chi the martial art technique of Tai Chi and encourages Xialing to train with the other warriors as the women in Ta Lo train alongside men.
It is a step forward for the Asian community to see a Marvel film featuring an Asian superhero but to limit the character of Xialing to an accompanying character even after having an impressive character arc feels like a step backwards. Marvel has a roster of strong and fearsome female characters of colour featured in Black Panther as the women warriors of Wakanda called the Dora Milaje, Shuri who is a scientist and Nakia, a superspy and an elite warrior.
It is to be noted that all the strong female leads of colour are limited to the role of a sidekick, as these strong female leads return to our screens, it is to be wondered whether they’ll remain less written as experiments or will return back with own solo films like the Black Widow.
All images are stills from the film Shang-Chi