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Family drama, be it losing and/or battling a parent, is as much a hallmark of Marvel movies as neato superpowers, magical weaponry and assorted powerful baubles.
Many father/son stories are woven through the ever-popular superhero tapestry. Spider-Man (Tom Holland) sees Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) as a paternal figure and feels lost after his death. In the “Guardians of the Galaxy” films, Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord realizes the importance of his adopted “space dad” Yondu (Michael Rooker) when his own dad (Kurt Russell) finally shows up. And T’Challa (the late Chadwick Boseman) struggles with the weight and responsibility of becoming king of Wakanda – and Black Panther – following the tragic death of his father (John Kani).
Marvel's latest effort, "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings" (in theaters now) follows suit, reuniting a boy with his dad after years apart and so many more hard feelings unresolved. But as much as mothers and fathers, and sons and daughters, factor heavily into the themes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, “Shang-Chi” specifically displays the importance of real-life Asian family bonds.
Amid the many fantastical aspects of “Shang-Chi,” from magical dragons to martial-arts fights on the side of Chinese skyscrapers, is the grounding story of a family needing to heal. After the death of his beloved mother, Li (Fala Chen), Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) was trained as an assassin by his ruthless father, Wenwu (Tony Leung), before he escaped to America and changed his name to Shaun. Now an adult, Shang-Chi returns to his Chinese homeland to reconnect with his estranged sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) and face his dad.
Liu had a "personal connection" with Shang-Chi’s “journey of reconciliation with his parents," says the actor, who was born and raised in China by his grandparents while his mom and dad pursued graduate studies in Canada. Liu moved to Ontario to join his parents when he was 5.
Many children of immigrant families will connect to the story of "just growing up in those households where your parents came from such a vastly different world than you did, speaking a different language and a different culture with different norms and values and all that,” says Liu, who expressed joy at bringing his parents "along for the ride" at the recent "Shang-Chi" Hollywood premiere.
While the fraught Shang-Chi/Wenwu dynamic is not “foreign to the MCU at all,” Liu says, it’s approached in a different perspective from other films. Wenwu isn’t even really a “villain,” per se: “He’s really just somebody who's struggling like Shang-Chi is, to put the pieces of this family back together in the best way that they know how,” Liu says.
“That expression of love is not always healthy. But I don't think that anybody watching the movie would disagree that Wenwu loves his son very, very deeply.”
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Though Shang-Chi eventually reconnects with his estranged family, the rift between him and his stoic dad is relatable to many Asian Americans, who often grow up in a culture emphasizing tough love.
"In the Asian culture, that physical expression of ‘I love you’ is almost weird," Michelle Yeoh, who plays Shang-Chi's aunt, Ying Nan, says of her generation. "They're afraid it's not reciprocated, like 'Oh my God, that would be so embarrassing, a loss of face.'"
Like many Asian parents, Wenwu struggles with vulnerability and the ability to express love out of fear of appearing weak – as shown by his unhealthy dependence on his 10 powerful magical rings. In Asian cultures especially, it's often expected for parents to be fearless, emotionless and tough by repressing feelings of sadness, fear and, yes, affection.
However, Yeoh notes that Wenwu shows his fatherly love in a way that is often overlooked: acts of service.
"At the end of the day, (Wenwu) didn't know how to express love like his wife did … But he thought, ‘If I give them power, that's my expression of love. That means I care for you. Look at the empire I've built for you,'" Yeoh says.
"It reflects a lot on the Asian culture whereby they leave their children a legacy. ‘I will work for it, then I will hand it to you. See, I gave you so much.’ And we’re like, ‘I don't need this, I would prefer you give me your time.’"
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The relationship between Shang-Chi and Wenwu in the comic books is something that grabbed director/co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton when he was developing the story. He says the various dynamics that play out in the film, even between Shang-Chi and sister Xialing, felt very real to him, especially from an Asian point of view.
But Cretton also considers those themes universal. Sometimes, he says, relationships between siblings and parents "are the most contentious and have the biggest conflicts in our lives. But I think the reason is because those are the people that we love the most. Those are the people that we expect the most from. So they can give us the most joy (and) the most pain."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Shang-Chi' father-son struggles have significance for Asian Americans