Reflections on the Heart of God in Marvel’s Shang-Chi
With Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, there is now an Asian-American superhero to celebrate in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This was a film that I thoroughly enjoyed watching, and also discussing with the co-hosts of the Thanos to Theos podcast.
With its release on Disney+, I wanted to revisit some themes of the movie as a discussion guide for families and student ministries that might be interested in watching the film together. This article will feature a number of spoilers about important plot points, and I highly recommend that parents and youth workers screen films in advance of watching it with students and children.
Shang-Chi’s ’s cinematography is often very beautiful. For example, the dance-like choreography, the music, the pacing, and environment of the meet-cute battle between Wenwu and Jiang Li is breathtakingly effective in establishing the characters, the emotions, and the story.
In talking with teenagers, let’s remind them that God created us as beings who long for beauty. Ecclesiastes 3:11 says, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” Solomon is acknowledging that God has created the world with much beauty, and yet because we are finite beings, there is a sadness in being unable to truly comprehend God’s purposes. When we see beautiful scenes in movies, our hearts are stirred by something, and it’s good for us to process through and dwell on that which is beautiful because it pulls us towards transcendent things.
As parents and youth workers, let us always remind our children and students that we shouldn’t take beauty for granted. Truly beautiful moments through art, film, and music can bring our hearts to the doorstep of God without even realizing it. Wenwu and Jiang Li’s love story, as briefly as it is depicted on screen, thrills us because our Creator gave to us the ability to recognize the beauty of sacrifice and love. As Wenwu gave up the Ten Rings in order to marry and start a family with Jiang Li, Christ himself sets aside heaven to come down and live a mortal life on our behalf.
- Did you find this scene beautiful? What do you think drew you into this sequence and its story?
- When was the last time you really saw something beautiful and it moved you?
- While you were experiencing this beautiful moment, did you want to tell someone about it?
- Did you feel an urge to be incredibly thankful?
- Andrew Peterson has a song called “Don’t You Want to Thank Someone” that speaks to this movement of our soul towards gratitude when we experience profound beauty. You can listen to this song together or privately and discuss the lyrics as an extension of this theme on beauty.
Because these Wenwu and his children could not process through the death of Jiang Li (their wife and mother), grief has fractured the Xu family. Wenwu deals with his grief through denial; he succumbs to the idea that his wife is being held captive against her will, believing if he can rescue her, he can make everything right again. Xialing, sister of Shang-Chi, deals with her grief through anger and violence. When she’s a teenager, she escapes to develop her own underground fight club. Shang-Chi, though initially willing to find and kill those who murdered her mother, runs away to San Francisco and buries his past behind him.
But they can all only escape their grief for so long. This movie’s plot is driven by how their various responses to this grief bring them back together. The Dweller-in-Darkness is a representation of the grief that the family must face. It literally consumes Wenwu’s soul, and is only defeated when Shang-Chi and Xialing work together with the Great Protector, utilizing the martial arts skills that were passed down from Jiang Li’s people in Ta Lo. Through the healing power of the community of grace at Ta Lo, Shang-Chi and Xialing are able to remember and embrace Jiang’s legacy.
- Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, there have been many different kinds of loss for all of us. How have you been processing through any personal grief?
- When things get really sad, how do you usually respond?
- What are the ways that we can pray together through the grief we’re experiencing together?
The Impact of Mothers
Tasha Jun’s article on the mothering heart of God from Shang-Chi is a brilliant explanation of how this theme plays out in the film. Essentially, Shang-Chi’s character is guided by the various mother figures in his life, and they lead to his development and change in significant ways without resorting to any stereotypical “tiger-mom” portrayals. Instead, we have confident, strong women displayed in all their femininity and God- given leadership. The women in Shang-Chi represent redemption, reflecting the mothering heart of Christ as he cries out over Jerusalem: “How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…” (Luke 13:34)
- Who are the women that have made an impact in your life?
- How have you seen their mothering hearts redeem and heal situations that you’ve been in?
Pressure and Expectations
At the beginning of Shang-Chi and Katy’s journey, we understand that these friends are just wasting their lives parking cars. Not to throw any shade at being a valet driver, but we see that both Shang and Katy were supposed to be doing more with their lives, but the pressures they faced made it difficult for them to excel. Instead they’re portrayed as slackers waiting for something to happen to them.
In many ways, this desire to simply do what they enjoy and what makes them happy is compelling, but of course, they know and we know that they were destined for more. This is something that so many of our students and children can identify with, and it’s worth talking about.
- How important is it for you to be happy and comfortable?
- When should we push through our comfort zone to do something that’s difficult and hard?
- Who can we trust to help us sort through the push and pull of being ambitious, while balancing our life to be joyful?
The Spiritual Realm
Something evil calls out to Wenwu, pretending to be his wife’s voice. This voice is the Dweller-in-Darkness, pushing Wenwu to bring down the dragon scale gate to unleash the soul suckers and destroy the magical realm of Ta Lo.
The MCU as a whole is beginning to lean into the magical and the mystical, and there is much value in watching a fantasy movie like Shang-Chi and asking our children and students about their thoughts on the spiritual realm. The Bible is clear that there is a spiritual realm, and as Christians, we should be aware of the spiritual battle being waged in our midst. Ephesians 6:12 tells us, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
- Read through Ephesians 6:10-20 – what are the weapons of spiritual warfare?
- Does the mystery of the spiritual realm lead you to any doubts or fears?
- Revelation 20 and 21 give us a picture of the final victory in our great spiritual war. How can we be encouraged by these two chapters and the picture of the New Heavens and the New Earth?
Shang-Chi is not just a film with a majority Asian cast, its storyline and plot are really reflections from an Asian-American crew. There is a mixture of Mandarin and English, with nothing but subtitles to help audiences understand the dialogue in the movie. The transitions and dialogue are seamless, and we move from one language to another fluidly, as one does in an immigrant household with family from two cultures. There are clever references to “ABC”, an acronym for “American Born Chinese”, as Katy’s character is a Chinese-American woman who cannot speak Mandarin.
For many including myself, seeing this kind of story on the big screen in a major blockbuster Hollywood superhero movie was truly exciting. Asian films and television shows are certainly having their moment right now with shows like Squid Game on Netflix, but the way that Shang-Chi honors the legacy of the Shanghai martial arts movies and remixes them with Asian-American nuance was something that I had never really seen before. It was exhilarating to see it done with such artistry and finesse. There’s more that can be said about representation in this Los Angeles Times article about how the creative forces behind the film shaped it from the beginning.
- For Asian students: What does it mean to you that there’s an Asian-American superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
- For non-Asian students: Do you have any friends or family members that were excited to see Shang-Chi? What did they think about the representation in the film?
- What did you notice that was similar in your culture to that of the Chinese culture portrayed in the film? What did you notice that was different?
I’m sure as you watch the film, you’ll notice other themes throughout the movie that are worth discussing, as well as themes that your students and children might want to discuss. Any movie that generates conversation and gets people talking about important aspects of our human experience are valuable tools in ministry and family.