Marvel in a post-Endgame world has been something of a mixed bag. While I found Spider-Man: Far From Home to be quite entertaining, my enthusiasm for anything else basically disappeared as quickly as half the world’s population did when Thanos snapped his fingers. The company has been trying to branch out into TV shows with more complex themes and films that enlighten our understanding of older characters, but it seems the trajectory of the MCU has been zig-zagging along with no real path or end goal.
I don’t think Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings has necessarily changed my perception of the brand, but at least it gives us one of the best villains in the entire franchise alongside a surprisingly more complex story than I thought Marvel was capable of. If this is to be a new beginning, of sorts, then it’s started off well enough.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Release Date: September 3, 2021
Shang-Chi starts things off in a manner that’s completely unique from other Marvel films. In an expository flashback sequence, we learn of the legacy of Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung), the main antagonist of the film. Having discovered the mythical ten rings a millennia ago, his thirst for power saw him conquering most of the world in an effort to quell his appetite. Having established the global terrorist organization and influencing many major events throughout history, it seems that nothing will ever be enough for him.
We then flash forward to 1996 where Wenwu learns of the legend of a village named Ta Lo. Said to contain a mystical martial art that has been passed down by the gods, he sets his sights on the region to become even more unstoppable. After navigating a bamboo forest and losing his entire squadron in the process, Wenwu stumbles into a mysterious woman (Fala Chen) guarding the entrance to Ta Lo. Having never known defeat, he challenges her and promptly gets his ass handed to him.
While the two are fighting, the rhythm of combat shifts into more of a romantic dance. Gentle camera angles reveal a connection that the fighters feel, precluding their eventual romance that will come in time. It’s majestic, in a manner of speaking, and calls to similar scenes from wuxia classics. It’s also an exquisite way to set up the motivation for our villain, who honestly steals the show completely.
In the present day, we catch up with the exploits of Shaun (Simu Liu) and Katy (Awkwafina), a duo of 20-somethings that are living out a rather mundane life. Employed as valets in San Francisco’s China Town, their friends and family feel the two aren’t living up to their potential. Neither is sure where they should be in life, but have become content with themselves. One morning while taking the bus to work, Shaun is attacked by mysterious assassins and is forced to unleash his inner strength to stop them. Low and behold, Shaun is actually a martial arts master and from this point on, the course of his life is going to be majorly different.
That’s the setup for the plot here and it’s maybe not the most original thing around. Taking a page out of Marvel’s previous origin stories, you almost get the sense that there is going to be some “destined child” angle here, but that thankfully never happens. In what could possibly be described as a darker theme for the MCU, Shang-Chi is a story of grieving and how it shapes our lives.
If it wasn’t apparent from the bazillion trailers you’ve likely seen, Shaun is actually Shang-Chi and his father is the deadly Wenwu. Trained from a young age to be an assassin, Shang-Chi escaped from his father’s evil compound to live a more average life. Both were shaken by the loss of Shang-Chi’s mother, Ying Li, and have been dealing with that grief in negative ways. Shang-Chi has done everything to distance himself from his family while Wenwu has resumed his path of destruction.
Adding some layers to the plot is the fact that Shang-Chi has a sister, Xu Xialing (Meng’er Zhang). Abandoned by not only her father but her brother, Xialing eventually escaped from her father’s compound and established an underground fighting circuit in Macau. Ignored in her youth, Xialing has been secretly training her entire life to prove that she can be more than just a damsel in distress. The death of her mother has shaken her, as well, and caused a major rift within the family.
The fact that I’ve even typing any of this for a Marvel movie is what surprises me the most. None of this is necessarily groundbreaking, but it’s fertile ground for the MCU. The closest you’ll find to this kind of story from Marvel would be Black Panther, a film that focused on the divide between generations and how the sins of the father can directly impact the son. Shang-Chi is maybe not on the same level, but it does tread on relatable ground.
We’ve all made mistakes that cost us dearly in life, though hopefully not to the devastating degree that Wenwu’s rampage unleashed. Revealed in flashbacks periodically throughout the film, we learn more of Shang-Chi’s past and how his mother’s death irreparably damaged Wenwu. With projection to his son for his own failings, it caused the man to devolve into a monster that only wanted to hurt others. On the flip side of that coin was a man unable to deal with his own grief that never quite learned how to love himself.
It’s echoed throughout Shang-Chi’s own path. Unable to forgive himself for the death of his mother, Shang-Chi thought that running would solve his problems. While not becoming corrupted like his father, he inadvertently hurt the one person that loved him dearly and threw himself into a state of mundane stability. Living a normal life was better than accepting what his past was like.
One could almost say that Wenwu and Shang-Chi serve as deuteragonists here as their plights are the most fleshed out. There is a clear arc to their characters that results in a heartbreaking conclusion thanks to Tony Leung’s magnificent performance. I’m maybe a bit biased having been a fan of his for years, but Leung really is the best thing this movie has going for it. Skilled in not only combat but dramatic chops, Leung imbues Wenwu with both a fearsome presence and a deep inner sadness. Using only his eyes (which has become something of a trademark for him), you’re able to know exactly how his character is feeling in every scene.
Shang-Chi doesn’t develop as much but still shows clear growth from his humble beginning to his heroic end. At times the movie threatens to sideline him in favor of his sister, but his struggle informs the majority of the plot. The only thing that harms this growth is that Shang-Chi is a master when we meet him, so most of the fights don’t carry as much tension as they otherwise should.
Taking a quick aside to discuss action, this might be the best choreographed Marvel film to date. You’re unlikely to hear it talked about in the future as a Kung Fu classic, but the fight scenes are generally filmed and edited well. The very first battle between Wenwu and Ying Li is a feast for the eyes, but Shang-Chi’s bus brawl is a highlight. Making creative use of a tight space like a Jackie Chan film, there’s one moment that calls back to the hallway fight from Oldboy and it’s set to an electrifying soundtrack.
Later brawls go bigger in scope, but start to become sloppy as a result. It’s not that the movie can’t entertain with these battles, but we still have the quick cuts and overuse of CGI that has come to typify Marvel. When Simu Liu and Tony Leung are given battles, things are generally good. The legendary Michelle Yeoh also appears in the movie and is given one battle that hearkens back to her role in Tai Chi Master that is very fitting for this stage of her life.
It’s more that past the halfway point, the fights keep wanting to one-up each other and simply can’t get past blurry cuts and shaky camera angles. I generally enjoyed the proceedings but was more glued to the screen in anticipation of when Tony Leung would come back. In a rare turn as a villain, he simply is outstanding in this role.
All that praise has to be met with a negative and it mostly comes to the side characters. I really do enjoy Awkwafina as both an actor and comedian, but Katy doesn’t add that much to Shang-Chi. The seeds of her arc are planted in the beginning but don’t start to bear any fruit until the final third. By that point, she’s mostly been in scenes to say “Holy Shit” or make quips while Shang-Chi knocks thugs around. It’s not necessarily a waste of her talent, but more the plot doesn’t have room to expand beyond its central players.
Even Xialing suffers a bit from this. It’s easy to take some of Shang-Chi’s personal journey and apply it to her, but she’s not introduced until the second act and doesn’t really change by the end. Coupled with an end-credits sequence that could be interpreted multiple ways and I don’t quite know what the film wanted to do with her. At least she gets to show off her skills and I really do hope we get to see more of Zhang in the future (if not in her own TV series).
Lest you think I’m soured on the whole affair: I have to compliment Marvel for showing restraint when it comes to expanding the MCU. There are cameos from Doctor Strange’s Wong (Benedict Wong) and even The Incredible Hulk’s Abomination (Tim Roth), but they mostly slot in to give longtime fans something to cheer over. Any of the extended universe nonsense doesn’t crop up until the mid-credits scene, leaving the main story to feel like an independent beginning to something new. It’s refreshing to watch an MCU endeavor that isn’t overly concerned with what’s coming next, even if we know Shang-Chi is going to return soon.
As for this review, there really is more I’d like to talk about, but it’s something that will need to be saved for a Deep Analysis. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is an interesting film from a purely storytelling standpoint, but one that eventually succumbs to the typical Marvel formula. Hell, its ending sequence is a mess of CG monsters and dragons that reminds me more of Raya and the Last Dragon than I expected it to. That ultimately doesn’t distract from what the film does well which is telling a sincere story of regret, sadness, and grief that should resonate with everyone.
I can’t quite speak to the Asian perspective of things, but as a longtime fan of martial arts cinema with a keen interest in Eastern mythology, Shang-Chi mostly delivered what I expected. Marvel might have evolved into a soul-devouring corporate machine, but at least the mega-influence of Disney has allowed its filmmakers to start taking some risks when it comes to tentpole releases. That this will introduce a major portion of the population to some of the all-time greatest Hong Kong actors is just the cherry on top of a solid enough film.