This article contains spoilers for “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.”
“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” has arrived, bringing a new hero to the MCU, powered by new — or perhaps very old — technology. And below the surface is an interesting wrinkle — there’s meaningful circumstantial evidence that it doesn’t take place in the present day of the MCU, but rather in the interval between when Thanos snapped half the population away and when the Hulk snapped them back.
We don’t have enough info to draw any firm conclusions. “Shang-Chi” doesn’t explicitly tell you what year we’re in during the present narrative — but it does tell us that Shaun’s mother and father met in 1996, when they have their epic almost-dance fight. The present of the MCU is 2023 at the earliest, and Shaun is 24 years old during “Shang-Chi.” Without any other dates to go by, that means it could take place as early as 2021 if he was conceived quickly enough — plausible because there was definitely a “love at first sight” thing going on with his parents. So we can’t really make an argument based on that either way, because it can easily work either way.
So we know just from that that it takes place after the snap in “Infinity War.” And “Shang-Chi” does make two explicit references to that fact. Just outside Shaun’s apartment, there are a bunch of posters covering a wall offering help to those who have been struggling with the aftermath of the snap, dealing with lost loved ones and whatnot. And in one of the scenes of Shaun and Katy having dinner with their friends, there’s an offhand mention of living in a world in which half the population could disappear at any moment.
What there is not is any reference to the missing half the population coming back. And there are more details that muddy the waters on whether it’s before or after that. Or, if we wanna get real crazy, maybe even that they live in another branch of the multiverse where the snap occurred, but the Avengers didn’t fix it.
The bulk of that circumstantial evidence comes in the mid-credits scene — though not all the clues in this scene are in agreement.
The mid-credits scene involves Shaun and Katy discussing the Ten Rings with Wong, Captain Marvel and Bruce Banner. There’s not much to glean from what they actually are saying, but there are four details worth noting here for this discussion.
First: Banner is in human form, not the Smart Hulk form we last saw him in during “Endgame.” Since “Endgame” kinda implied the Smart Hulk form was permanent, it’s weird that they would just show him being normal again without any acknowledgement that it’s weird that he’s normal again. Given the complete lack of context to go on here, we could guess either that he turned back normal for some reason, or that this scene takes place before he made his arrangement with his Hulk side.
Second: Banner’s arm is in a sling, which could certainly be explained the result of his snap that brought everyone back — you’ll recall that messed his arm up pretty bad, leaving him in a sling at the end of “Endgame.” That’s the easiest explanation, though I’d also point out that Banner’s hulk suit from “Infinity War” got beat up pretty bad, including getting on of its arms ripped off by the Black Dwarf. He probably didn’t come out of that unscathed.
Third: Captain Marvel’s hair is significantly longer than it was at the end of “Endgame.” Here’s what her hairstyle was like in “Captain Marvel” itself and at the beginning of “Endgame.”
And this is what it looked like at the end of “Endgame.”
In “Shang-Chi,” her hair looks much more like the first image. Maybe she just cut her hair for one scene and now she’s growing it back out. But that would be kinda weird since her hair was actually a plot point in “Endgame” — she actually mentioned she was gonna get it cut before she did it, and it was definitely a point of discussion among fans.
Fourth: none of the people in this scene were snapped, as far as we know. If Shaun and Katy had been snapped then they absolutely would have mentioned it at some point. Captain Marvel and Banner were obviously shown as being around during the interval. And we know Wong’s status because of a poster. Yeah, a poster isn’t canon, but it’s the only thing we have to go on, and there’s no contradictory evidence from any movies or shows.
As we said, all of this stuff is circumstantial, and certainly doesn’t prove anything about when “Shang-Chi” takes place. While the filmmakers can talk about how it takes place after “Endgame” all they want, the actual text of the movie has to take precedence over real-world statements. And the text of this movie is so vague that it’s impossible to know just from watching.
There is one possible explanation that could make all of this make sense, though: the alternate timeline thing we mentioned before. If this is a timeline that came to be due to Sylvie’s introduction of the multiverse in “Loki,” then “Shang-Chi” could very well take place after “Endgame” — since it wold mean this all happened because of the events of that movie — while also taking place before the Hulk’s unsnap if the Avengers weren’t able to defeat Thanos in this timeline.
But that’s probably more complicated than the MCU wants to be — the simplest option is usually the closest to being correct when it comes to MCU fan theories. The multiverse is a very complex idea, so they’ll likely wanna getting too creative with the rollout for fear of causing confusion among the regular folks who don’t obsess over these things — you’re not gonna make a billion dollars at the box office if you can only snare nerds.
Our theory? Marvel is being intentionally vague so they can keep their options open. Because if Kevin Feige and co. had wanted it to be clear when “Shang-Chi” takes place they could easily have done it with a single line of ADR. But they didn’t.