Marvel Studios has come under fire over the years for dragging their feet when it comes to diverse representation on the screen. Of course, some of the classic comics from the past 60-odd years were groundbreaking in representation while others, well, not so much. Once Black Panther hit in 2018, everything changed. The film grossed over a billion dollars worldwide and garnered a Best Picture nomination. Representation wasn’t merely a massive corporation being “woke,” it was simply good business. Marvel takes its next great leap forward with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which doesn’t merely take the studio forward in terms of representation but also pushes the Marvel Cinematic Universe to new, wonderous locations.
Director Destin Daniel Cretton was given a tricky task in bringing Shang-Chi, a character originally modeled after Bruce Lee amidst the booming popularity of kung-fu movies in the ‘70s, to the screen as well as the larger continuity of the MCU. Amazingly, Cretton pulls it off, delivering an origin story that is in some regards reminiscent of Black Panther, mainly in the way it establishes a whole new world of mythology in a thoughtful and entertaining way.
The film opens with the origins of Shang-Chi’s father Wenwu (Tony Leung), a man empowered by ten mystical rings that grant him superstrength and immortality. We first see him centuries ago, singlehandedly decimating entire armies. He is a man of immense power that craves only one thing – more power. He creates an organization known as the Ten Rings, a shadowy cabal with the power to shape and destroy governments. In 1996, his quest for even more power takes him to the mythical land of Ta Lo, where “people practice the martial arts of the Gods.” Except he didn’t exactly find all he was looking for. Instead he found Jiang Li (Fala Chen), whose mastery of the martial arts is the only person that has defeated Wenwu in combat for centuries. The fight scene is deftly staged and choreographed, an obvious homage to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Then the tone of the fight shifts, and then it becomes more of a dance, a physical flirtation. What seemed at first to be the villain’s origin story is, in fact, the actual origin story for the film’s eponymous hero.
In modern times, Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) is living in San Francisco and goes by the name Shawn. He works alongside his best friend Katy (Awkwafina) as a valet. The two are inseparable. The two are also perpetual underachievers. On their way to work one day on the bus, a group of Ten Rings goons attack Shang-Chi to steal a pendant given to him by his mother. The meek Shang-Chi suddenly displays a knack for the martial arts, defeating numerous opponents including the aptly named Razor Fist (Florian Munteanu) like a kung-fu virtuoso. His best friend stunned, Shang-Chi must confess the secrets of his past to Katy – his father training him as an assassin after the death of his mother, the years in exile, and his long-lost sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) in Macau. It’s not long before this family reunion is quickly crashed by their father, who explains his plot to return Ta Lo in order to save his slain wife – her voice haunting him to be rescued. If he’s not allowed his way into Ta Lo, he will burn the secluded village to the ground. This, naturally, is not what Shang-Chi, Xialing, and Katy can agree to.
A lot more happens after this point, but anything after that is getting into spoiler-territory and I just can’t do that. There’s a surprise in this movie that delivers on such a great level and continually pays off that anyone who spoils it should be tried at The Hague for the crime of being a complete asshole. I will say this, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings mostly plays out like so many of Marvel’s best movies. It introduces a bunch of new characters and mythology, does so at a brisk pace with plenty of really good jokes along the way. But like so many Marvel movies, it’s always bordering on great without ever crossing the threshold. As usual, the film devolves into a bombastic, overlong CGI slugfest. I genuinely believe that Marvel has a really great model for pop entertainment: the mythology can’t overwhelm the fun of the film. The biggest problem facing the studio and its future is the repetitiveness of their final acts.
As for the main cast, Simu Liu really delivers in his breakout role, giving Shang-Chi a real emotional depth to his mystical kung-fu fighter. On a beat he can shift from a cocky swagger to timid vulnerability. We’re constantly going back and forth between the present and his past, and the numerous conflicting emotions that drive the character to his current state are deftly handled by the film’s star. As his best friend, Awkwafina operates as the audience’s surrogate, an average person thrust into a fantastic world. Most of the exposition is delivered to her as she tries to make sense of this new world, and her impeccable comedic timing often ensures that these exposition dumps aren’t tedious and convoluted. A lot of credit needs to go to Destin Daniel Cretton and his co-writers Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham, who also give Awkwafina’s character plenty of depth and agency in the story, firmly eschewing any simple damsel in distress role. In key roles are legends of Asian cinema, Michelle Yeoh and Tony Leung lend their powerful screen presences to the Marvel comic book movie, giving a bit of credibility to the wildly absurd. And yet wrapped around all of the Marvel mysticism is a truly resonant familial story about discovering one’s self and breaking free from confines of parental demands.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is one of Marvel’s best origin stories, introducing a previously unseen hero and a whole new world of characters and mythology with plenty of verve and fun. The film is overflowing with references to classic kung-fu cinema as well as other aspects of the MCU, and yet its surprisingly fresh in its delivery. For his first blockbuster, Destin Daniel Cretton has made a genuinely fun crowd-pleaser that expands the MCU both in its setting and in its representation. And the film never panders, either. It’s not concerned with being preachy about its inclusionary aspects. Instead it treats its characters with respect, giving them depth and heart. Real representation is treating these characters as they would any other saga of heroes and villains, and that’s what Cretton has pulled off in Shang-Chi.
There are certain truisms in the movie business. Even if its sounds like a disaster, you never bet against James Cameron. Even if you’ve never heard of the characters, you never bet against Marvel to make them household names. I was skeptical of this film’s chances as I was unfamiliar with the characters and uncertain of Cretton’s ability to direct an action blockbuster. And now I’d happily return to the world of Shang-Chi. My biggest fear now is that the never-ending pandemic will have a negative effect on the film’s commercial prospects, as it’s only debuting in theaters. Regardless of box office receipts, Destin Daniel Cretton, Simu Liu, and everyone involved in bringing Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings to the big screen should hold their heads high – they made a movie teeming with such pure joy that its brilliance can overcome its flaws.
- Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Despite the typical Marvel flaws, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings exudes so much energy and charm that its able to overcome a by-the-numbers finale thanks to its visual flair and charming cast, led by Simu Liu and Awkwafina.