With the introduction of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ titular character, now is a good time to explore the way that the MCU has been gradually replacing the classic superhero origin story historically used for the film introduction of all-new superheroes. Shang-Chi was a triumphant departure from this device, but it is hardly the first time the MCU has experimented with it. With Phase 4 ramping up, it is becoming more and more clear that Marvel plans to update its creative vision to give us new characters that aren’t weighed down by what often felt like obligatory narratives all cut from the same cloth.
Because scrapping traditional origin plot lines will give any film more room to run, what Marvel has in store for us and its characters in the future will surely be marked by even more innovative, vibrant, and accelerated storytelling that opens the door for stronger MCU-wide connections between properties.
The proverbial hero’s journey has pervaded nearly every film in the superhero genre at large—no studio, no property, no character was immune from this model of storytelling. In the very simplest of terms, the common template of the hero’s journey sees the ordinary protagonist receive a call to adventure, experience fear or uncertainty, meet a mentor, cross the threshold to embrace this new adventure, go through trials or challenges and reach rock bottom before utilizing the lessons learned along the way to transform into a better version of themselves.
Giving credit where credit is due, the hero’s journey template is a tried and true storytelling technique, which is obvious from the fact that superhero movies have been genuinely loved for decades. The problem rears its head when a large number of films of the superhero genre start to saturate the movie landscape and the origins start to feel like they simply repeat themselves over and over again.
Shang-Chi just represented a different way to approach a character’s introduction. Instead of being an ordinary guy who has to discover, learn, and conquer what it is that makes him “super”, Shang-Chi is already established. While he is brought back into Wenwu’s Ten Rings empire, his backstory is generally accepted to be just that—his backstory. While flashbacks were heavily influential as to weaving enough history in as to complement and supplement the ongoing surface story, the real narrative was of an already expertly trained martial artist drawn back into the family he escaped.
The result is a film that doesn’t merely explore, “Who is Shang-Chi and why is he Shang-Chi?” but instead a story that was just as much an epic of the legacies of his parents as it was his journey to find himself within that stage. If anything, the film shifted its focus away from its titular character more than expected. So, overall, instead of another hero’s journey, we ended up with a multi-level mythical action flick that incidentally added another leading superhero to our repertoire.
While it is a masterful example, Shang-Chi is by no means the first MCU film to experiment with how to introduce new characters without the classic narrative constraints. It arguably started with Spider-Man: Homecoming, and it has not let up much since. Homecoming, Black Panther, Captain Marvel, and of course, Shang-Chi have all had the privilege of telling their titular character’s story in a more inventive way. Homecoming itself is a useful illustration that highlights two major ways that the MCU is reconfiguring the origin story model.
First, giving the character a soft introduction in Captain America: Civil War bypassed a lot of the forced introductory periods in origin movies. In Homecoming, it was pretty remarkable that we had a Spider-Man movie without the very well-known spider bite and Uncle Ben origin. At the time, it was a refreshing break from the seemingly constant resting and retelling of the character, and it gave Peter a leg up in terms of how expansive the solo story could be. The character of T’Challa and Black Panther also benefitted from the Civil War school of fun-size introductions of major, major players. Instead of Black Panther needing to use up time to explain Wakanda and the concept of the Black Panther, the film was eager to virtually start from any place it chose.
Like Shang-Chi, Black Panther was able to weave a story far more complex and expansive, spiritual, familial, and cultural than one that would have only focused T’Challa and his beginnings. The new Disney+ series are clearly also using the platform to lay enough foundation for the characters before they introduce or re-introduce them into the film slate. Who could argue that the upcoming Captain America 4 won’t dramatically benefit from having already watched Sam’s journey to wearing the stars and stripe in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier? Or that Kang’s (re)introduction in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania won’t be so much more anticipated and meaningful?
The second way that Marvel is reinvigorating the origin story is by taking advantage of the extensive universe of characters and concepts that it has now spent well over a decade building. Allowing new characters to immediately build off of existing characters or existing but unexplored story arcs is a gamechanger. That luxury is obvious in all of the big “team up” films including the entire Avengers collection and Civil War, but it also plays a subtler role in bolstering the backstory and available stories of new characters. Not only that—while not as flashy as the final “Avengers Assemble” moment in Endgame—this strategy applied to origin characters can strike efficiently and relatively unnoticed, so that a smooth “nontraditional” solo film can come to life.
Though not without criticism, Spider-Man’s close relationship to Iron Man in Homecoming no doubt provided a more detailed and creative story for the young web-slinger that we haven’t quite seen over the course of the constant Spider-Man film release since 2002. Captain Marvel clearly benefitted from creating a lasting connection with the foundational MCU character, Nicky Fury. Shang-Chi placed itself within the pre-existing Ten Rings backdrop and also used Doctor Strange’s Wong to tie the film to the greater film universe. These movies were able to bypass the tempting template they had at thier disposal for a superhero origin film, and they were able to feel either somewhat like an origin’s sequel or an extended back-half of a “traditional” origin film, filled with more plot substance and action.
With the ability to create so many crossovers and connections throughout any movie, there also comes pressure to not fracture the well-woven existing MCU by producing classic origin films that feel isolated from everything else that MCU moviegoers are exited for. Some thought that Shang-Chi would be too unconnected from the MCU and wouldn’t be up to Phase 4 expectations. They were wrong on several levels. But, by soft introducing characters and utilizing the vast and vibrant connections already formed in the MCU, new characters can be more delicately and strategically placed within the existing universe and feel at home in it almost from the very beginnings of the character.
The legacy of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten MCU Origin Stories (this works, I counted) is the MCU’s evolution in terms of innovative and creative ways to approach superhero origin or introduction films. Overall, the result is a stronger and more cohesive universe, with new characters being delicately placed within it ready to go. The nature of superhero movies is evolving along with the MCU, and the MCU is never immune to the current and arguable over-saturation of superhero entertainment. The fact that Marvel Studios is choosing to be imaginative and explore new ways of telling stories that have long found success being told in the same way is a good sign of the new characters and their solo films to come. Right now, we can all enjoy the studio’s spectacular work on Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.