How Marvel Studios has sold an expansion of its character roster with another origin story
Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings arrives as the latest installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe a scant two months after the last entry, Black Widow. The movie stars Simu Liu, the first Asian lead in a major superhero film, as Shang-Chi, a man who leaves his past behind as he sets out to define his own destiny. But his connections to a mysterious organization known as The Ten Rings and to his family may be things he can’t shake and has to confront.
The movie also stars Tony Leung as Wenwu, Shang Chi’s father who has his own secrets, Fala Chen as Shang’s mother Jiang Li, Awkwafina as Katy, a friend he makes in his time away and more. Notably, Benedict Wong reprises his Doctor Strange role as Wong and Ben Kingsley makes another appearance as Trevor, a character last seen in Iron Man 3 who was hired to pose as The Mandarin.
It’s directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, who cowrote the screenplay with Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham.
announcement and casting
While the movie had been announced as “upcoming” well before that, the 2019 San Diego Comic-Con panel with Marvel Studios was where announcements regarding official release dates, cast and full title were revealed.
A couple months after SDCC 2019 Cretton was interviewed about his hesitancy to take on the project as well as what he hoped to accomplish with the movie.
In March of 2020 production was halted when Cretton self-isolated out of concern surrounding the Covid-19 outbreak. He later announced he was fine.
Several months later Disney pushed its release back at the same time it moved a number of other titles because of coronavirus closures.
the marketing commences
The formal marketing campaign kicked off this past February when Marvel put out a video overview of the character to help introduce him to audiences who may not be familiar, which is nearly everyone, including long-time comics readers.
The first teaser (22.3m views on YouTube), released in April, introduces us to Shang-Chi and shows he is reluctant to embrace the destiny his father and others trained him for. But that reluctance isn’t stopping a variety of bad guys from coming after him, meaning he needs to put that training to use to survive. No one’s motivations are explained, but it sure does look cool, and that’s the goal of this first spot.
Shang stands in front of the 10 rings – all of them seemingly inscribed with runes – on the first poster (by marketing agency BOND), also released in April.
First glimpses at the film itself included in the studio’s “Marvel Studios Celebrates The Movies” video from early May.
The first real good look at Liu in costume as the title character came in May as part of an interview with him where they talked about getting involved with the movie and what the character meant to them. Later that month Disney CEO Bob Chapek confirmed the movie would receive an exclusive 45-day theatrical run instead of going to streaming simultaneously or shortly after that theatrical run. That put it in stark contrast to Black Widow, which recently had a simultaneous Disney+/theatrical debut.
More of the history of the power of the 10 rings and the connection they have to Shang-Chi’s family is explained in the second trailer, released in June. The trials – both physical and emotional – the hero is put through are shown, including how he wants to be his own man. Toward the end there are surprise appearances by not just Abomination but also Fin Fang Foom, of all things.
An EW cover story from July had Liu talking about the audition process along with lots more about getting to know the character and so on.
Advertising for the film essentially kicked off with an extended TV spot released in July that offers more details on how Shang attempts to reject his family’s legacy and entanglements but finds himself ultimately needing to confront things in order to become his own man.
A featurette released around that same time has the cast and crew talking about the characters and story as well as producer/overlord Kevin Feige making the first overt connection with the 10 Rings organization that was introduced all the way back in the original Iron Man, The Mandarin being a long-time adversary of that character in the comics.
The cast introduced their characters in another featurette where they also answered questions about themselves.
Shang-Chi is in the same pose on the second poster, released in July, that he was on the first. This time, though, he’s surrounded by the other characters, from Kate to his father, the latter looming in the background in the traditional “villain” position.
a marvel legend will rise
More TV commercials – also run as preroll on YouTube and as social promoted posts – continued to come out beginning in early August. As is the norm, each focused on a slightly different aspect of the story, from the action to the family drama to the humor and more. Some also included slightly better looks at characters like Wong and even Abomination.
Those spots also began positioning the film and the character of Shang-Chi as “a Marvel legend” that is finally getting the spotlight. That’s interesting branding in that it gives the character a little more importance, but it also makes you wonder why that debut is only happening now if the character is such a legend.
Liu took issue with comments from Disney CEO Bob Chapek about this movie being “an experiment”, pointing out that Asian-American representation on film is necessary and good, not something to play around with to see if it works.
The world premiere red carpet event was held in Hollywood at the El Capitan in mid-August.
At the premiere, Feige responded to Liu’s comments, attempting to clarify that the “experiment” was in the 45-day theatrical exclusivity, but that feels like it only addressed part of the issue. There were also interviews with Liu, who espoused his opinion that the movie would be world-changing, and others at the premiere as well.
Fandango MovieClips had the first clip, which shows Shang-Chi and Kate escaping a bunch of ninjas.
That “legend” branding was continued with a TV spot that starts out showing clips of Iron Man, Thor and Captain America, positioning Shang-Chi as a hero in the same vein, one who stands at the same level.
Tickets went on sale in mid-August, announced with another TV spot.
Around that time a special IMAX advance screening in select markets was announced with just about 24 hours notice, an attempt to create some buzz for the film by showing it off to more people.
Another song from the soundtrack, “In The Dark” by Swae Lee feat. Jhené Aiko, came out later in August.
A scene from the trailers of Shang-Chi and Kate being attacked by assassins on a bus was expanded on in another clip.
An interview with Feige had the producer discussing some of the issues that had complicated or delayed the movie’s release in China, an important market for Marvel but one that is up for grabs here given the subject matter.
Cap, Thor and Iron Man make another appearance in a later TV commercial that hints at the 10 Rings themselves being not only powerful but also not from this universe.
The action sequences of the movie were covered in another featurette, with Liu talking about the choreography and filming.
How Awkwafina not only got involved in the project but also found herself leading the chemistry read sessions looking for the lead were covered in an interview with her. Liu expanded on the process that resulted in him being cast and how life-changing the opportunity is.
Similar to other films with Asian and Asian-American leads, the Gold House initiative organized a campaign to get people to theaters, partnering with GoFundMe for this one. The topic of Asian-American representation on film was also the subject of a joint interview with Awkwafina and Kumail Nanjiani, who stars in the upcoming Marvel Studios film The Eternals.
The “Rise” portion of the campaign came to an ending (more or less) with the release of a featurette with that exact name and about the debut of a character who is being set up as very important to the future of the MCU.
Leung finally got a profile of his own late last month, the emphasis being on the amount of preparation he did before filming his scenes and how he paid attention to what was happening even if he wasn’t involved on a particular day.
Format-specific posters were released in mid- to late-August for 4DX, ReadD 3D, Dolby Cinemas and IMAX.
- Considering everything that’s going on in the world right now – continued pandemic spikes, wildfires that are engulfing much of the western U.S., hurricane aftermath that has much of the southern U.S. underwater or utterly destroyed – the $50 million projection for opening weekend isn’t bad.
- The “Rise of a legend” theme really tried to make Shang-Chi into something he isn’t in the comics, but is a good sign for what he might mean to the movies. It’s also an attempt by Marvel Studios to overdo it a bit in making the first Asian character to lead an MCU movie a big deal without earning it at all in previous entries.
- It’s a bit surprising to me that there wasn’t much said or done to address how problematic and drenched in racist stereotypes Shang-Chi, The Mandarin and other supporting characters were in the comics. If you’re wondering why there aren’t new collected editions of old comics on sale right now, that’s why. But there could have been more acknowledging the past here.