Marvel’s recent origin story Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was good enough to pull me out of movie blogging retirement.
I could spend article after article talking about the depth, meaning, and symbolism of this movie. Everything from the costuming to the scenery was full of purpose and interest. The character work was excellent. Shang-Chi carried a balance of sadness, triumph, humor, and potential.
But what actually got me to put words on the page is the relationship between Shaun (Shang-Chi) and his best friend Katy. They are probably one of the best things the MCU has created in a long while. Here’s why – warning, spoilers ahead.
Katy and Shaun are the defining relationship of the movie.
That may sound funny given how many other turbulent and dominating relationships we see Shaun experience throughout this story. But Katy and Shaun’s relationship is the most important one in the entire movie; and every other relationship (good or bad) can be contrasted or compared to it.
His relationship with his father is a twisted one. It’s defined by abuse, sick expectations, deep desire for something genuine, broken heartedness, and whatever true love is left in his father’s heart. It’s turbulent, nauseating, angering, and aggressive.
His relationship with his sister is one of broken promises, a broken heart, bitterness, coldness. At the root is a little girl who lost everything/everyone. It’s sad.
His relationship with his mother is one of remembered sweetness and meaning and beauty that he once had. He can’t reach her, he can’t get her back, and he couldn’t save her. It’s full of guilt and longing. It’s tragic.
Shaun’s new relationship with his aunt brings back some of the light he’s had hidden inside of him from his mother. It helps remind him of who he is, but it’s still much more of a mentor relationship.
And then there’s Katy. Quirky, witty, adorably awkward, forever faithful Katy. Katy is Shaun’s defining relationship throughout this entire movie. He deals with every demon (literally) of his past and present. From the bus fight in San Francisco to a magical valley in China where a dungeon full of soul-eaters exists, Katy is there. She’s Shaun’s reference point, his only constant, the anchor. He orbits around her as he faces everything else.
Unlike his father, Katy isn’t always about what Shaun has to do for her in order to earn her love. Unlike his sister, their friendship has been one of constants. Unlike his mother, Katy is very real and in the present. And unlike his aunt, Katy is facing some of the same struggles he is when it comes to being grounded in her identity and life direction.
We see Shaun experience many relationships in this story. We meet many layers and versions of Shang-Chi/Shaun, but we always return to Katy and Shaun. The way they laugh together, the way they tackle problems, the fears they both have, the way they listen to one another. It’s a healthy, life-on-life kind of relationship that keeps Shaun from jumping off of a character cliff. Katy grounds him even as she helps him fly. For a character with no superpowers, Katy is one of the most powerful characters in this movie.
It’s subtle, well-written, and woven logically and beautifully into the story. It feels real. Katy and Shaun are forever even if other things/people are not.
Katy saved Shaun
No, I’m not just talking about when she jumped in between him and the bully (honestly, she saved that jerk’s life). I’m talking about Shaun. He’d been through horrific things and had no where to land – until Katy showed up. She gave him a home, a family, a friend, and a sense of normal he lost the moment his mother was killed.
We see just how much this one friendship has defined Shaun when we see the contrast between him and his sister – Xialing. Where Shaun is warm, Xialing is cold. Shaun is gentle, Xialing is harsh. Shaun is normal, Xialing is very much abnormal.
You can’t really hold it against her. Shaun got to spend more years nurtured by their mother. Once their beautiful mother was gone, their father didn’t just see Xialing as a neutral presence, he treated her like a negative. She became someone lesser, someone to step over. He looked away from her in pain for something that wasn’t her fault. Even though his relationship with Shaun was perverted and full of abuse, he still affirmed Shaun in a twisted way. Xialing never got any of that. The only place where she found affirmation was in the gross underworld of using force to gain respect and admiration. For how much she hates her father, she has learned to be very much like him.
At the end of the movie, Shaun goes back to his normal life of karaoke and storytelling over drinks and appetizers with Katy – until Wong comes along with what is essentially a gold-lettered invite to the Avengers. Shaun has maintained the ground he’s gained and grown a few sizes larger as well. But he’s still Shaun. He’s a pretty amazing knight-in-shining-armor character.
Xialing isn’t as far along as he is. While at her father’s compound (where Shaun thinks she’s cleaning up the mess) we see Xialing uncovering the wall in her room. It’s full of angry, dark, violent pictures/posters/images. Half of the wall is uncovered, revealing a beautiful painting of a sad little girl. Xialing sits in normal clothes on the floor (the first time we see her this way) clutching a beautiful drawing of her mother. It’s symbolic – half of her heart has been uncovered – but the other half is still caught in darkness.
Her scene ends where we see that she is actually taking over the Ten Rings name and running the thug group on her own. The black leather is back, she’s still chasing affirmation and identity through force. She hasn’t learned as many lessons as her brother has, her future is still more in question.
What’s the difference between the two siblings? Shaun had a Katy, Xialing didn’t. Katy’s tiny family apartment in an old corner of San Francisco represents more genuine wealth than the entire stone compound Xialing possesses. The life that Shaun has where he gets to argue with Katy’s grandma about where the whiskey went, gulp down cereal before taking the bus to their shared valet job is more real, beautiful, and genuine than anything Xialing has. For a movie about the child of a 1000 year old warlord and his magical, soul-sucker fighting wife, Shang-Chi gave a place of great honor and value to the everyday beauty of a normal, loving family.
When Katy stepped in between Shaun and that bully she was saving his life. She was bringing in beauty, truth, life, warmth, hope, and a future. She didn’t know that, she doesn’t overthink it, she’s just herself and that’s what he needs.
Shaun’s mama used to sit at a table with him and make construction paper dragons and tell him stories from her homeland. That kind of beauty is what had literally caused his evil father to put the rings away and act normal for a while. It’s magic – powerful magic woven into ordinary, extraordinary, everyday kind of love. I finally found something worth growing old for – Xu Wenwu
Shaun lost that life the moment his mama died, but he was given it anew the moment he met Katy. It didn’t matter if his mama was from a magic corner of China with fantastical creatures, and Katy is the self-described “Asian Jeff Gordon”. It’s the same magic presented differently, but the fruit produced is just as good.
Katy and Shaun are a perfect team.
Are they perfect as people? No, they are beautifully flawed and that makes the story that much more enjoyable. But they are a perfect team.
A mistake many people make is they create a normal character like Katy, and a super-character like Shang-Chi, but then they don’t know how to keep the two together throughout a story. The Katy’s of the world get pushed off to the sidelines to ooh and ahh at the wonders of the Shaun character.
Shang-Chi didn’t do that once. Katy was always as relevant and important to the storyline as Shaun was. It isn’t because she is crazy brilliant, superpowered, rich, famous, etc. She’s just a good friend who doesn’t give up, and that’s an overlooked and under-utilized power. Her loyalty and faithfulness to Shaun is what made her the perfect boom to his pow. They need each other and they give to each other.
Shaun gets attacked on the bus and fights back – so Katy drives the bus.
Shaun has to go face his deadly family – Katy buys a plane ticket. So what if we are going to a seedy corner of Macau? Girl’s got a fanny pack, she ready.
They have to escape his father’s compound – Katy drives full speed towards a cement door trusting that Shaun is gonna get a henchman’s bio print on the screen in time to open it.
Shaun admits to murdering someone at the age of 14 – Katy is the first person to point out what a bad situation he was in and how he needs to be kinder to himself.
Shaun is about to lose to the soul-eater as it’s sucking the soul out of the dragon – Katy fires an arrow at the soul-sucker’s throat and causes a pivotal interruption.
Shaun and Katy are a one-two punch, on and off the battlefield. They fill in each others gaps, listen to each other’s problems, and have each other’s backs. They develop together, something that many movies struggle to portray. Their friendship naturally produces growth in both of them even if they take turns supporting each other. They are a both and kind of relationship, not an either or.
The director of the film (Destin Daniel Cretton) said very clearly that Katy and Shaun are just friends for the majority of this movie. Shang-Chi is going through a lot and Katy’s friendship is what he needs, there isn’t room for anything else….But now? Who knows?
I could easily see (and let’s be real, AM TOTALLY ROOTING FOR) them becoming more in the future. Shaun and Katy are one of those legendary kind of relationships that are quite simply, best friends forever that slide smoothly from one phase of friendship into another. They are never gonna find someone else to connect with at the level they connect with each other, and they don’t need to. What they have is powerful and the world needs more of it.
The friendship of Katy and Shaun created this base rhythm for the rest of the movie to build off of. Their humanity and love for each other gave a heart and soul to a story that without that human base could have felt very bizarre. But with them in the center of it, it was just perfect. The strength and health of their friendship created a measuring mark for every other character interaction. As a writer and a fan who is always looking for character-first stories, I was incredibly pleased.
What did you think of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings?