Super Specific | Shang-Chi and Disney’s journey with Chinese dragons

Super Specific is a bi-weekly blog about superheroes in pop culture.

By Diana Velasquez, Contributing Editor

So, pop culture has a dragon obsession. “Game of Thrones,” “Harry Potter,” “The Hobbit,” The “How To Train Your Dragon” franchise — they’re all full of them. Everywhere you look in movies and media, you’ll find a dragon in some way, shape or form, especially since we have the technology to make them look real. 

This isn’t a surprise, dragons are so freaking cool — what other reason do we all have to go crawling back to HBO and its Targaryen-packed GOT spinoff?

There are dragon myths in almost every culture and civilization on Earth. Possible origins for these myths vary from unearthing dinosaur bones to beefing up the Nile crocodile.  But there’s a difference between talking about dragons over a campfire and making one for the movie screen. There are many elements to consider when making your dragon, and it’s not always as easy as putting Benedict Cumberbatch in a motion capture suit

And there isn’t just one type of dragon.

For everyone on the Western side of the world, the type of dragon we’re likely most familiar with is a “European” one. Four legs, two wings, lizard-like, hoarding gold, all kinds of evil and of course, breathing fire. They’re usually portrayed as villains — an obstacle for the hero to overcome with their fists or wits. 

The story is very different for Chinese dragons, and in Marvel’s latest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe — “Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings” — audiences get an up close and personal experience with one.

(Warning, below this line are spoilers for “Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings”)

The dragon in “Shang-Chi” appears in the third act of the movie, known to the villagers of Ta Lo as the “Great Protector.” The dragon saves the life of Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) during the battle between the villagers and Wenwu (Tony Leung), who believes his deceased wife is trapped behind a sealed mountain gate beyond the village river. 

Assisted by Shang-Chi and his sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), the Great Protector duels with the true antagonist of the movie — a great and evil “dragon-esque” creature who lurks beyond the gate, whom the villagers call the Dweller in Darkness.

It’s a visually chaotic battle, the silver- and red-scaled Great Protector taking on the black and purple Dweller in Darkness over the roaring spray of the river. I can only imagine the amount of money spent on the CGI, since the scene lasts a good 15 minutes or so. 

But watching the movie, I found myself paying less attention to the action and thought instead, “Did Disney, Marvel’s parent company, finally get a Chinese dragon right?”

Truthfully, if you want to see an authentic-looking Chinese dragon you should just watch a Chinese movie like the 2019 animated film “White Snake.” But for a company like Disney — which literally has billions of dollars to spend on research — you would think it would be able to get a dragon right the first time. 

I don’t think I have to tell you that wasn’t the case. 

Disney dabbled in Chinese myth before with its 1998 animated classic “Mulan,” based on the Chinese folktale of the same name. In the movie, Eddie Murphy voices a wise-cracking dragon named Mushu. While American audiences took to the character with ease and fondness, Mushu garnered ire in China for his cultural inaccuracy.

Chinese dragons are regal, powerful and often peaceful figures that impart wisdom upon their story’s heroes. Mushu, a tiny red sarcastic creature that could fit in Mulan’s saddlebag, was far from what Chinese audiences expected of their myths.

To Disney’s credit, they removed Mushu from the 2020 live-action “Mulan” remake, and edited the storyline to better mirror the original Mulan poem, but the production still had its own fair share of controversies

It’s not impossible for an American movie about China to do well in the Chinese movie market. In fact, one of the most popular films in China is DreamWorks’ “Kung Fu Panda.” Not only did the animated wuxia film make $416 million dollars overseas, it gained the love and respect of fans in China.

Pandas in China have almost as much importance as dragons in Chinese culture, if not the same. The Chinese government literally charges $1 million dollars a year just to rent one in a zoo. So how did DreamWorks do right with its panda, when Disney failed with its dragon?

It’s hard to say — over time people learn from their mistakes, and with Shang-Chi it seems that Disney paid far more attention to Chinese mythology than it ever did in the past. 

The Great Protector looks like a Chinese dragon, and is certainly revered as one by the villagers of Ta Lo. White dragon-like creatures are not uncommon in Chinese myth — often found in the many iterations of “The Legend of the White Snake” — a story about a powerful female snake spirit. 

I’d give Disney a thumbs up for the resemblance. But it’s good to keep in mind that this isn’t a Chinese-made movie. Shang-Chi himself has spent 14 years in America, and assimilated into the culture. So perhaps the Great Protector is less a part of the Chinese past and more a reflection of the movie’s hero, who is both a product of his birthplace and the home he’s chosen to make for himself.