How Awkwafina’s Katy became the relatable heroine of Shang-Chi

Katy captures the experience of being a lost 20-something looking for purpose – even if she does have to fight international ninjas to find it.

Shang-Chi

By: Jess Bacon

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New Marvel movie Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings includes a wealth of rich characters, from comic-book favourites and rethought villains to classy cameos sure to intrigue audiences the world over.

Still, in many ways it’s the brand new characters the film brings that are the most exciting, with a fresh generation of heroes arriving to kick off the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Phase Four. Obviously this includes Simu Liu’s titular martial arts master, but we shouldn’t overlook the presence of his best friend Katy Chen (Awkwafina), who also makes her debut in the film. In fact, arguably, Katy’s storyline in Shang-Chi is one of the most relatable to the MCU’s biggest fans, and tells us a lot about a generation of viewers.

From the start, it’s clear that Katy is so much more than just a superhero’s sidekick. Despite her secret skills and snappy one-liners, Katy represents both a regular Asian-American living in San Francisco and a young person searching for a purpose to their life.

After graduating from Berkeley, Katy lives at home and works as a valet driver with her long-time best friend Shaun (Simu Liu). She doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life, but at the start of the film she’s in no rush to find that out. In any case, there’s less “pressure to grow up” as she shares this experience with Shaun.

This film explores so many important and powerful themes, but a crucial one is identity: the family you’re born into, who you are and who you have the potential to become. Shang-Chi is burdened with living up to the expectations of his father and his mother’s legacy, and knows that one day he’ll have to face that future and his father again. By contrast Katy exists in a state of idle contentment within a stable family, which is shattered when Shaun/Shang’s past catches up with him.

As a loyal friend Katy travels with Shang-Chi to face his past – and as he reconnects with his identity, Katy begins to piece together more of her own. In many ways, it’s relatable moment for all 20-somethings: when a friend moves forward with their life, you don’t want to be left behind.

Shang-Chi
Simu Liu and Awkwafina in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (Marvel)

Once Katy enters the mystical Ta Lo and witnesses the villagers training, she says: “I envy you; you know exactly what you want to do and you spend your whole life doing it.” Katy even praises Trevor (Ben Kingsley) for pursuing acting, even though he chose his career after he was erroneously inspired by what he believed to be monkeys acting in The Planet of the Apes. The comical misunderstanding behind his dream doesn’t sway Katy’s authenticity or admiration for him. She craves what Trevor has found, his purpose.

On this quest, Katy is given a chance to try archery as she’s told: “If you aim at nothing, you hit nothing.” For Katy, this takes the form of literally taking up a bow and shooting at a target, something which she has a natural flair for in the film’s final battle. A little convenient as hidden skills go, but for Katy it represents something bigger.

Previously, Katy has tried and given up with whatever she’s attempted, and unlike her superpowered best friend she isn’t good at everything. But the advice Katy is given transcends archery – in fact, it speaks to all lost 20-somethings navigating the uncertainty of their future. In a time of dwindling attention spans and crippling self-doubt, the ability to focus on one pursuit is extremely difficult, especially when you don’t know if it will work or if it is even what you’re meant to do.

More than ever, young people are so concerned with what they should be doing that they might never decide to do anything at all. Without an end goal, life becomes aimless and opens the possibility that you’ll never achieve anything, as you never tried to.

Shang-Chi
Simu Liu and Awkwafina in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (Marvel)

In Shang-Chi, this is dodged with a quick turnaround. Ta Lao opens Katy’s eyes to the possibilities in her future and the post-credits scene suggests that future will be explored in upcoming MCU movies. Interestingly, even without superpowers, Katy is treated as Shang-Chi’s equal and brought into the Avengers’ fold as the film concludes.

Clearly, Katy isn’t without drive or talent – it just takes a surprising revelation, a near-death experience and a quick trip around the world to find her target to channel that drive.

Katy knows who she is – she’s confident enough to sing Hotel California in the face of bullies, drive a bus without brakes and fight against a mythical creature without even a full day’s training – but she only finds her purpose through taking action, rather than waiting for her calling to find her. Like Katy, we don’t all know who we’re destined to be or what we’re destined to do and in some ways that makes her a more relatable character than Shang-Chi.

By the end of the film, it’s comforting that Katy finds her purpose as it gives hope to any other lost almost-adults that it’s possible for them too. Though hopefully we don’t all need to dangle off bamboo scaffolding and fight an evil dragon to do it…

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Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is in cinemas now. For more, check out our guide to watching the Marvel movies in order, check out our dedicated Movies page or find something to watch with our TV Guide.