How Shang-Chi was forced to become Marvel's potential pandemic saviour

While Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings has been hailed as a watershed moment for representation, industry watchers say it has been forced to shoulder more burden than it should have, by restarting the Marvel franchise's theatrical experience.

Simu Liu-led action epic is the first Marvel movie to premiere exclusively in theatres in more than 2 years

Actor Simu Liu attends the Canadian premiere of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings in Toronto on Wednesday. While the film was hailed as a watershed moment for representation, the pandemic has it shouldering additional burdens. (George Pimentel/The Canadian Press)

Just ahead of the release of what is largely considered the first official movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe's long-awaited Phase 4, you'd be excused for thinking the studio has little to worry about.

Since its official inception with Robert Downey Jr.'s first turn as Iron Man in 2008, Marvel Studios' MCU has come to dominate pop culture in a way no other cinema trend has before.

For the past 10 years, at least one Marvel movie has sat in the Top 10 worldwide box office each year — aside from 2020, when the studio decided to hold their scheduled movies due to the pandemic. In four of those years, they were No. 1. 

So to some, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings may appear to be locked in as simply another entry in the MCU's unbroken list of hits — but that is far from the reality.

Because, as the cast and producers urge audiences to go to the first Marvel movie released exclusively in theatres in more than two years, Shang-Chi has been transformed into an unwilling test case for the future of box office blockbusters, fans' commitment to the increasingly bloated Marvel universe, and superhero movies in general. 

Back in July 2019, when Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige announced that Canadian actor Simu Liu would lead Shang-Chi, it was cause for celebration. As the first Asian MCU superhero, it represented a giant step forward for representation in the franchise — comparable to the previously released Black Panther, which introduced the MCU's first Black hero, and Captain Marvel, the first female-led superhero film. 

WATCH | Actor Simu Liu shares insights behind being an Asian superhero — both on and off the screen:

Actor Simu Liu shares insights behind being an Asian superhero — both on and off the screen

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Duration 3:19
Kim’s Convenience star Simu Liu is an ambassador for Unicef Canada, an activist against anti-Asian racism, and has become Marvel’s first leading Asian superhero. He spoke to Toronto Catholic District School Board students this week about how they can be superheroes in their communities.

Days ahead of the film's premiere, Liu echoed that sentiment.   

"It is such a watershed moment for our community. But guess what? There could be many more," Liu told CBC News in an interview.

"[Shang-Chi is] a story about self-acceptance and the route to self-acceptance, which is to look at all the people that came before you and to understand that that's why you're where you are today."

More than a sidekick

For fans, the casting choice is similarly important.

As an aspiring actor, 12-year-old Sophia Liu (not related to the action star) said Simu Liu leading his franchise makes her hopeful for her future. Instead of being relegated to "sidekicks" or "hacking geniuses," Shang-Chi proves Asian actors can — and should — be shown as central characters.

"It's really inspirational because, like, that could be me. That could be an Asian face," she said. "It's not really like, 'Oh, like you have to be white. You have to be this, you have to be that.'"

Sophia Liu, left, poses with her mother, Fei Liu, in the backyard of their home in Richmond Hill, Ont. The 12-year-old says that seeing Simu Liu as the lead actor in Shang-Chi gives her hope for her career as an actor. (Christopher Gargus/CBC)

That is what the film was positioned to be, said Variety entertainment writer Adam B. Vary. But, he added, a number of factors have made it shoulder much more responsibility — both for the future of Marvel Studios, and in-person movie-going in general. 

"Shang-Chi just finds itself in this really unusual and rather unfortunate position of being a kind of bellwether for the superhero experience, and the theatrical experience, in a way that it was never intended to be," said Vary. 

Big-budget, blockbuster superhero movies require a massive return at the box office to stay profitable — something that Marvel Studios has sorely missed during the pandemic. And right now, Vary explained, the best way for a film to earn a profit is still in theatres — something the studio is anxious to see return.

Meanwhile, Hollywood has been "aggressively, almost single-mindedly fixated on expanding into streaming services," Vary said. Nearly every major studio has developed their own streaming service, while trying — mostly unsuccessfully — to get audiences to think of their platforms as blockbuster-sized conduits for feature films. 

That's bad news for Marvel and its parent company, Disney. While they have had success with the four Disney+ series released in 2021 (WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Loki, and What If…?), that success is difficult to quantify, since Disney+, like all other streaming platforms, won't release streaming numbers. 

Regardless of their series's successes, the way the MCU became such a huge part of pop culture is through the theatre experience. Marvel president Kevin Feige has repeatedly said the theatrical experience is central to the studio's strategy, and its movies are designed to be a communal experience.

WATCH | Shang-Chi delivers mythic martial arts and a new Marvel star: 

Shang-Chi delivers mythic martial arts and a new Marvel star

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Eli Glasner reviews the much-anticipated arrival of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings starring Canada's Simu Liu.

Without box office dominance, Vary said, the MCU's reign as content king could be at risk. "And in the middle, here is this movie, Shang-Chi."

Since we're so far away from the last Marvel release, Vary said, no one has any idea how Shang-Chi will perform — or what would even constitute a "good" performance right now.

Restarting the franchise

Miriam Siegel, a doctoral candidate in cinema studies at the University of Toronto who has taught courses on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, pointed out other obstacles Shang-Chi is being forced to overcome. 

Though Black Widow premiered before it, Shang-Chi marks the real start of Marvel's Phase 4: the first film to look ahead after the narrative pause of Avengers: Endgame.

On top of replacing the core cast of characters, it is the first real reset of the MCU story — and one that's occurring after the first full year without any new Marvel movies since 2009.

That gives Shang-Chi the tough job of basically restarting the franchise and asking audiences to join back in with all-new characters.

"We've had this sort of stoppage with Endgame, [and] lost a lot of characters with Endgame," she said. "And Marvel, in particular, always branded itself this way; it sells characters in addition to selling stories."

While the MCU's Phase 1 hit theatres at an almost perfect time, with a perfect setup for success — the use of science fiction and fantasy elements which were popular at the time, the novel introduction of a cinematic universe, and all the charisma of a young Robert Downey Jr. — Shang-Chi faces an uphill battle. 

Audiences are now familiar with the concept of an expanded universe, while the "superhero" cinema trope has been in play for over a decade now. That's much longer than other movie trends — like vampires, zombies and pirates, for example — managed to hold audiences' attention.

WATCH | Shang-Chi inspires Asian viewers and performers:

Marvel’s Shang-Chi inspires Asian viewers and performers

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Friday's release of Shang-Chi, Marvel's first movie featuring an Asian superhero, is being welcomed in the Asian community as a watershed moment for representation in film and giving new hope to one young performer in her own career.

Meanwhile, the communal experience on which Marvel built itself is no longer so simple. Disney — along with Warner Bros., Sony and every studio that have committed to superhero universes — has tied themselves up with these movies for the foreseeable future, betting big that audiences still see blockbuster superhero theatrical releases as a draw.

With the pandemic, Siegel said that's not so certain. 

"There's always going to be this slight taint with an only-theatrical release, because you are — consciously or not — taking on a little bit of risk to be able to go and see it," she said. 

"There's going to be something in the background there that's like, 'Is it really worth it for me?'"

'Can't afford something not to do well'

On top of all that, Shang-Chi still shoulders the burden of craving success for fans who want to see themselves represented on screen.

Ron Han, editor-in chief of POC Culture, a website that celebrates diversity in pop culture, said that all these obstacles outside of Shang-Chi's control could make it difficult to perform well. That feeds into the extra responsibilities such productions often take on.

"That's the burden that we face when it comes to, you know, marginalized cultures and striving for representation … everything has to be a success. We almost can't afford something not to do well."

Still, Han said, he believes the content of the film — and the watershed moment it represents — will help it to succeed. 

"Yes, I am nervous — but I am confident and hopeful that it's a progression. Black Panther to Shang-Chi to Eternals and so on and so forth. And I hope more studios will embrace that." 

With files from Eli Glasner and Sharon Wu