‘Shang-Chi’ Is Not NOT Like ‘Black Panther’

As Bruce Lee might say, we must start with dispelling what is not useful and replace it with what is useful. I will not rehash any arguments comparing Shang-Chi to Black Panther which are based in speculation, impulse-tweeted, or otherwise made in bad faith. The phrase “Asian American Black Panther” has been tossed around (including by me), in various contexts, since Black Panther came out in 2018.

At best aspirational, at times foolish, in most cases without consideration of what the intentionally provocative phrase would mean. Attempts to equate the films are useless — one thing is not the other. Attempts to speculate on what Shang-Chi should be are past tense now, because here it is. Comparisons based on box-office returns are beside the point, that’s just two camps counting money piles. Marvel Studios’ Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Marvel Studios’ Black Panther are both feature films that exist in the world now, and they do a few extraordinary things in a similar way.

Why should we talk about this in a way that is comparative, not competitive? Because Black Panther is a truly important film. Its extraordinary artistic (and financial) success invites comparisons to other texts, especially when the texts happen to share space in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

SHANG-CHI SPOILERS AHEAD.

Shang-Chi, like Black Panther, takes us to a new place in the world, envisioned with cultural specificity. I’d say Black Panther established a template for this that other films would do well to follow. The establishing shots of Wakanda’s main city are more meaningful than the establishing shots of most science-fiction/fantasy metropolises. The skyline is full of motifs that are familiar, yet maybe you haven’t seen them on a fighter jet before.

To contrast, Shang-Chi has a late scene of entering an East Asian mystical world, but the effect is not too analogous, because frankly, we have seen places like Ta Lo — taking nothing away from the fact that Ta Lo is wonderfully realized. During this section of Shang-Chi, with the heroes driving an earthly car through fantastical beasts, guided by an oddball with a Liverpool accent, the film I recalled was the Beatles’ animated Yellow Submarine.

Both films open with a creation myth, as good origin stories will do. There is a supernatural event in the past that designed our present. Black Panther’s event is literally a world-building epoch (a Vibranium meteor) whereas Shang-Chi’s is a smaller-scale but significant tale, recounting how the main “villain” acquired his great powers and then discovered love.

Black Panther and Shang-Chi, to my eye, both embody the virtues of cultural exchange, as opposed to cultural appropriation. Two obvious points: Many Asian Americans like hip hop, and many Black Americans like Asian martial arts. Black Panther and Shang-Chi are both powerful martial artists, and the films both use the visual vocabulary of Asian martial arts movies. Hip hop music is prevalent in the marketing of a lot of American martial arts films, including Shang-Chi, and while we can usefully debate the point of whether some films tend to overplay that hip hop card, it can’t be said that martial arts and hip hop aren’t viscerally aligned in our pop-culture consciousness.

In both Black Panther and Shang-Chi, the second act set piece happens in an Asian casino. It’s notable because both the Macau sequence in Shang-Chi and the Busan section in Black Panther take the well-trod Hollywood path of using Asian cityscapes as dynamic backdrops for thrilling action set pieces. It has to be said that the Wakanda squad’s trip to Busan is more thought-through than the typical Asian cultural decoration we’re used to in say, the live-action Ghost In The Shell, The Hangover Part II, Lucy. There is the sense that Nakia was embedded in this environs before, there are no cringey remarks about how strange it is to be speaking Korean in Korea.

By contrast, in Shang-Chi we get to see Asian Americans making a spontaneous trip to Asia and being the “fish out of water” amidst Macau’s neon spectacles. It’s a subtle thing, but when Awkwafina’s Katy mentions that “my Chinese sucks,” it highlights the Asian American experience in Asia in a way that was proposed in this blog with #AAIronFist, and only recently touched on in Snake Eyes.

We can situate the juxtaposition of Marvel superdudes in regional terms, even sports terms. One dimension of Black Panther is that it is a very Oakland thing. I was at the Grand Lake Theater on opening weekend in 2018 — the energy, the cheering, the sense of elevation was intoxicating. Especially for Black Americans in the audience. To contrast, Shang-Chi’s first act has a strong San Francisco vibe (even if it required shipping MUNI buses to Australia to manufacture it) and it has an electricity that can be felt by Asian Americans, in particular Chinese-Americans.

It doesn’t matter if it makes a billion dollars during a pandemic. I’m from the Bay Area. While Oakland and San Francisco might seem like two separate countries now, it wasn’t always thus. Only new arrivals think that the Oakland A’s rivalry is with the San Francisco Giants — the Giants’ main beef is with the Dodgers. In baseball, Bay Areans allow themselves to root for both teams.

Perhaps most importantly, in both films, there is the palpable sense that the cast and the filmmakers are having a transcendent sort of fun. Lupita Nyong’o, speaking about the Black Panther set:

A moment when I really felt a vibration was when we were shooting [the waterfall scene]. There were hundreds of extras and we were all in these traditional clothes and there were all the tribal colors and drumming, and between takes, the drummers started riffing to [Snoop Dogg’s] “Drop It Like It’s Hot.” The whole crowd started to go [sings the melody] and we were all dancing as Ryan figured things out below. In that moment, I was like, “This is big.” I had never been on a set with so many black people before and we were all so focused and I could feel a vibration in the air.

from The New York Times’ interview with the Black Panther cast

And of course that’s detectable, in one of Black Panther’s more magnificent scenes. I don’t presume to know what the Shang-Chi film shoot was like, especially considering that they had to shoot during the pandemic. But I can say, there is a lot of purely Asian American vibration flowing out of those late-night karaoke scenes with Shang, Katy, and Wong. The impulse to sing in a private room when you should be sleeping. It feels real, it feels California, it’s just what Asian Americans do. Although, as NOC colleague Jason Sperber points out, at least one of the karaoke songs should’ve been New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle.”

The films are similar in other elemental ways. Both are stories about fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, siblings, family. You know, like a zillion movies. Wanting our parents to be proud of us. Getting a hug from Michelle Yeoh. Both films feature cute/dangerous animals and proud, sexy ensemble casts. Shang-Chi is one of those Marvel heroes whose code-name is just his name (like Luke Cage, Jessica Jones), and his mask is…his face. We’re happy to see that face at the center of the kinetic maelstrom. Towards the common goal of undoing harmful stereotypes, both stories deploy clever and subversive setups: in Black Panther, my favorite bit is how Erik uses his “otherness” to trick his way past museum security; in Shang-Chi, it’s how Katy is always driving the cars and buses, neatly undercutting the well-known Asian woman driver stereotype.

Speaking about Black Panther‘s late, great star, Simu Liu wrote: “Without Chadwick, and without what he gave to his character, there would be no Shang-Chi.” And that’s certainly true (in regards to the film; the Marvel characters precede and will outlive us all). The Shang-Chi film follows a template established by the artists who created Black Panther, a template which helps us imagine a better world. As far as specific aspects of the two trailblazing films, it’s not a one-to-one analogy in any way. It is, with the karaoke-informed Captain Marvel as a third point, more like a bizarre love triangle.

POST-BLOG-POST CREDITS SCENE: Another thing the two films incidentally have in common is that some people erroneously refer to them as either “the first Black Superhero Movie” or “the first Asian American Superhero movie.” The Crow and Blade would like you to know that neither of those statements are true!

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