Flicks With Nicki – ‘Shang-Chi’ and other movies that hate mothersNicki Salcedo. Photo by Dean Hesse.
“Shang-Chi” is the kind of movie I like. I like the actors. The action was superb. We see a blend of fantasy and the modern world. Overall, I enjoyed it and was reasonably satisfied with the movie except for one big thing. They killed the mother.
It isn’t a spoiler that they killed the mother. It’s part of the plot they teased. My ten-year-old decided not to see the movie with me, but offered me this piece of advice as I headed out.
“You know they’re going to kill the mother,” she said. “She was in the trailer. If there is a mom, she always dies.”
I thought my daughter was being precocious. Maybe I spend too much time dissecting movies in front of her. Maybe she was in a bad mood. But she wasn’t in a bad mood. She was right.
Many heroes don’t have a mother. Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Ariel, Oliver Twist, Heidi, Buddy the Elf. Countless main characters start with no mother. Some films will drive home the absence by killing off the mother on screen. It is gratuitous and unnecessary. I will not watch the first five minutes of “Finding Nemo.” Even after all these years I can’t. Am I overly sensitive? Fragile? I’m not. I watched “Shang-Chi” in a week where I saw women across the world being subjugated, silenced, and killed. We fight for rights that should be private, not political. We argue over the safety and sanctity of our bodies. It is hard for me to accept the absence and death of these mothers. Now I realize why.
Mothers are utterly disposable. Once we become pregnant, we are simply vessels. We aren’t human beings anymore. Maybe we would be cared for in real life, if we were treated with more respect and compassion in fiction.
“Shang-Chi” starts with a fairy tale. Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung) is a violent warlord whose power and immortality come from the mythical Ten Rings he wears on his arms. When he runs out of worlds to conquer, he begins to search for a magical beast that resides in Ta Lo, a village hidden from the world and protected by Ying Li (Fala Chen). It’s a tale as old as Anakin and Padme. One is good. The other is prone to evil. Both are powerful in their own way. They battle, Li defeats Wenwu, and the two fall in love. Their firstborn is Shang-Chi (Simu Liu).
The story zigzags between past and present. Brutal training ruins a childhood. A father makes a terrible request. A boy runs away. A sister is forgotten. The reason for all of this? The mother’s death. Without her death there is no story. She must die for the other characters to come alive.
I’m not mad at Marvel. They are simply following age old tropes. We’ve seen it in Disney and Pixar. We’ve seen it in dramas and comedies. In an age where we strive for diversity of story and equity of characters, mothers are not granted this same chance to be seen. We are not valued.
“Shang-Chi” tries to give us other female heroes in the form of his sister (Meng’er Zhang) and aunt (Michelle Yeoh). We get the wry humor in the form of his side-kick Katy (Awkwafina). They get to live because they haven’t had babies. Yet. This should be a superficial piece of cinematic fluff. New worlds and elegant fighting, but I was stuck on the mother. Her death, though not shown on screen, is strangely brutal and menacing.
While I enjoyed “Shang-Chi” for the highly choregraphed fight scenes, I wish someone had spent the same amount of time on the story of Ying Li. She is the most powerful warrior in the story, but she loses her power. Marriage and motherhood take away her autonomy and her strength.
What does that mean for me? Motherhood is not the central way that I define myself. I am lots of other things too. Having children has made me more ferocious, not less. At some point during “Shang-Chi” I was ferociously angry at the movie when I should have been swept away by the beauty of Simu Liu and artistry of the hand combat scenes.
I found myself at a dead end.
There are a lot of things to like about “Shang-Chi.” It has magic and humor. If you like Awkwafina, you won’t be disappointed. If you don’t like her, you’ve been warned. I can’t fault Simu Liu. He is adorably normal. Tony Leung plays a father who is quietly menacing and more compelling than oversized villains we usually get in Marvel movies. When in doubt add Michelle Yeoh to any movie. She makes everything better. I wish I could say the same about the creative team.
The plot jumps from San Francisco to Macau through time to magical realm. I needed a more plausible story thread that tied the action together. In the end, it was still an enjoyable ride. I am not a harsh reviewer. It is a good movie. I would watch it again. It falls right in the middle of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in terms of quality. They are trying something new, and I like it. Grade C+. I grade movies like it’s Organic Chemistry. C+ is good.
I spent the moments after the movie trying to catalog other hero films where the mother is alive, is strong, and survives the story. There aren’t enough examples to count on one hand. Movies, please stop hating mothers. For that Hollywood gets a D-.
Nicki Salcedo is a Decatur resident and Atlanta native. She is a novelist, blogger, and a working mom.
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