Whether it’s an overall sense of fatigue from mainstream audiences who aren’t into comic book films, or perhaps a general sense of pandemic malaise from folks unsatisfied with the state of entertainment these days, it seems like the momentum and good will the MCU has cultivated the past 12 years has turned to mixed sentiment for most of this year.
While I don’t consider myself to be among those who share those sentiments, having been a huge fan of everything we’ve received so far, from WandaVision and
The Falcon Captain America and the Winter Soldier to Black Widow and Loki (not to mention What If), I suppose, in attempting to try and see things from the general public perspective, I can understand the burnout, and need to shake things up. And that’s where I think Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is going to get folks excited again!
Because in addition to being a brilliant movie, it’s one that’s going to speak to an entire culture that has been mostly ignored in this genre since the creation of the superhero film. In other words, get ready for a huge shake up!
*LIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD*
As indicated by the trailers, Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), aka Shaun to those around him, is a valet in San Francisco with his best friend, Katy (Awkwafina). He wants nothing more than to park cars during the day, and karaoke with his bestie at night! However, a chance encounter (aka “insane fight”) on a bus with the members of the eponymous Ten Rings organization thrusts both of them into a globe-spanning adventure that is tied directly to his actual past, his father, Wenwu (the legendary Tony Leung), head of the Ten Rings terrorist organization (the same ones tied to the kidnapping of Tony Stark in the first Iron Man), and his sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang). Shang-Chi must reconcile the complicated past he thought he left behind to become the true hero and future legend he is destined to be!
On multiple levels, Shang-Chi is not just your average superhero movie. For one thing, the cast is proudly predominantly Asian, apart from maybe Creed 2’s Florian Munteanu (who plays Razor Fist) and maybe 1-2 other smaller roles. For another, unlike any other MCU film to date, Shang-Chi is also a beautiful blend of a wushu martial arts film, a Jackie Chan-inspired action comedy romp, and surprisingly most of all, an epic fantasy film. The product is a movie that’s unlike anything we’ve experienced before – especially in the MCU. And Asian representation in Hollywood and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, are all the better for it!
But how is it as a movie overall? In a word, simply spectacular! Director Destin Daniel Cretton serves up a wonderful combination of amazing action set pieces and larger than life visuals! However, while fantastic, those aren’t the main event. The movie is focused on the Xu family. And their story, while complex, is simply fascinating and emotional. What happens to these characters, and what they experience together makes every choice they make valid. And that’s what owns this movie: the character drama and grounded family dynamic with the wonderful characters and their complex relationships with one another. Who they are, and what they go through, as well as how much we sympathize with them make us love them (that and how badass they are — more on that later). And by the end of the movie, we want to continue seeing them for a long time to come. And it doesn’t hurt that the cast is pitch-perfect in all of this! Huge credit to Sarah Halley Finn, because she never misses on casting. But hands down phenomenal performances from the charismatic Liu, Zhang, Awkwafina, and most of all Leung!
Liu commands the screen as the newest Marvel Studios legend! He’s charismatic, funny, dramatic when he needs to be, and overall charming in every way any leading actor carrying a franchise has to be! Awkwafina is hilarious and her chemistry with Liu is one of the best platonic relationships in the history of the MCU as a whole. As characters, Shang-Chi and Katy are incredibly likable. Shang-Chi’s arc throughout the film, as an origin story, is also a unique departure from the “snarky man has to humble himself to save others” formula we’ve seen in several films like Iron Man, Doctor Strange, or the first Thor. And it’s because it’s so personal and central to this character and his family’s story, as we find him defying the destiny that was written for him by his father, while still trying to make peace with himself internally. It’s incredibly captivating to see this inner struggle. And because of this, everything about Shang-Chi’s character feels fresh.
Katy on the other hand, has a really, more universally relatable arc for anyone who has ever just found themselves stuck and wanting to find or search for what they want to do with themselves and their lives in adulthood. Combining their two dynamics is pure MCU gold!
However the biggest surprises of the film for me were Zhang and Leung (though c’mon that should never have been a surprise), whose characters are among the very best, most fleshed out characters to grace a Marvel Studios film in some time. Zhang is the ultimate MCU badass. As soon as she gets on screen her presence shines the same way that Letitia Wright does as Shuri in Black Panther. Her character is tough, funny, competent, and devious in the same ways we’d expect a character like Loki to be, yet just as complex and fully fleshed out, especially given how she was raised and what she had to do to survive. Xialing is a fantastic character and is growing into one of my new favorites.
But to me, the tragic heart of this film is with Leung’s Wenwu. Arguably one of the best villains to ever grace this universe, the character is so incredibly sympathetic. Wenwu is the only villain in a comic book movie that actually tries to change, but pays for doing the right thing. Leung gives him such a wonderful soul, and through his performance, you want nothing more than to offer him a consoling hug every time he’s on screen. He’s easily on the same level as Thanos and Killmonger, and comes off as perhaps the most human MCU villain we’ve seen, potentially ever.
In addition to the cast, the action sequences in this movie are, without a doubt, the best in the MCU and in any comic book movie I have ever seen. Simply no words could do them justice outside of “oh my God!” Choreographed and coordinated by the late, great Brad Allen (the film is dedicated to his memory), a protégé of Jackie Chan’s, who worked with Chan as far back as Mr. Nice Guy, the film is filled with breathtaking sequences of hand-to-hand ass-kicking that’s both hard-hitting and fast paced! The film version of Shang-Chi most definitely lives up to his comic book counterpart’s reputation as the best hand-to-hand fighter in the Marvel Universe!
Liu’s choreography is so incredibly impressive, and in the blink of an eye you’ll see him land 10 resourceful blows using his environment and quickness. The bus scene mentioned above pays a lot of homage to some of Chan’s best scenes, whether Liu is punching while taking a jacket off or on, or dangling out of and climbing around the outside of the bus itself! The same can be said with a brilliant fight sequence taking place atop and outside of the bamboo scaffold of a building housing an underground fight club. Zhang and Liu are so spectacular in that one!
And in addition to the Chan-influence, there’s so much wushu influence as well, which will inevitably lead to comparisons with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. For instance, one of the first scenes in the film, and later a sparring fight between Shang-Chi and Michelle Yeoh’s character Jiang Nan, are visually gorgeous and carefully balletic and graceful in nature. I simply just couldn’t get enough of them!
There is unfortunately only one action sequence in the film that isn’t as good as the others. One could say it suffers a bit simply because the preceding scenes are so good. In fact the final third of the film is mostly where my issues with it come up. Starting with said action sequence, there’s a bit of the typical comic book film CG overload in the final climactic action scene. It’s still pretty cool and epic, and I admire the scope of it all, especially since conceptually there’s nothing like it in the MCU. But it made me yearn for the more practical, grounded fights we saw in the first 2/3 of the movie.
I will say the movie is pretty heavy on exposition, potentially to a fault, but primarily nails the delivery of these characters’ stories and world building. Most of it is shown rather than told, which is effective storytelling, and necessary to flesh out these characters. I love that we get to see a lot of these characters’ pasts and traumas revealed to us as the movie continues, piece by piece. I also love that the movie opens up a lot of doors in the MCU; particularly those that tie into the fantastical realm of Ta-Lo, which we have never seen at this point.
The imagination of the creatures and culture, as well as the mythology set within this pocket dimension is surreal and fascinating. Marvel Studios has never attempted anything like this before, and for as brief as we see it, whether it’s the inventive looking types of beasts we encounter or a breathtaking chase through a mythical forest, this level of fantasy makes a large impact on us, and sets up so many future possibilities for the MCU.
However, again in the last third of the movie, there is an exposition dump that feels like it’s solely there to set up the razzle dazzle of CG enemies in the action sequence I criticized above. And it’s delivered by a fairly wasted Michelle Yeoh. I get why it’s there and what purpose it serves, and thankfully Cretton is aware it’s really not the central part of the film, but a means to an end. But it was something I thought could have been worked in or established a bit more gracefully than it was.
My criticisms of the film are absolutely just nitpicks though; none of which diminish how good or fun the movie really is or, most important of all, what the impact will be for Asians in this industry. Which brings us to the best thing about the film of all: the representation angle. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings does not shy away from its Chinese roots. A lot of the film’s dialogue is in Mandarin, from the opening lines of the movie, to various flashbacks and familial conversations we’re presented. Cretton and team are fully committed to the sincerity of the Asian representation they’re presenting here. They know they have a responsibility and they absolutely deliver!
Yes, many will consider some of the aspects in the final third of the film to be tropey (I’ll just say “dragons” and leave it at that), but for a limited amount of tropes, we get real, relatable Asian family conversations around the breakfast or dinner table among regular Asian folks about honoring the dead or the importance of names. We even get scathing criticisms about the concept of The Mandarin villain namesake, and the appropriation of Chinese culture by Americans for self gain (hint: prepare for some Iron Man 3 references). In any film from any US production company, this is big. But for Marvel Studios and the MCU, this is huge! And we cannot ignore this, as these sorts of conversations, not only help make the characters of the film feel real, but give a semblance of actual presence and belonging for Asians in the biggest franchise of all time.
We’ve had, so far, four Asian-led live-action Hollywood blockbusters debut this year, which in and of itself is something of a feat: Mortal Kombat, Snake Eyes, The Protégé, and now Shang-Chi. In fact, though I listed these in order of chronological release, I also inadvertently listed them in order of ascending quality. And I can honestly say that while I appreciate the representation all of these have provided for Asians in the industry, the only one that I can say was truly excellent is Shang-Chi. And that’s a huge deal!
We as Asian Americans cannot just be satisfied with projects being Asian-led. We need to shoot for Asian-led projects being excellent! Because if the product stinks and flops hard, there’s the potential for executives to use non-White casting as an easy target to blame underperformance on. And that’s the last thing we want in the industry. Which is why it’s so meaningful that Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings isn’t just Asian-led and produced, but it’s flat-out fantastic!
At the end of the day though, Asian or not, I’m just a humble fanboy, looking for good superhero movies. And as someone who enjoyed Black Widow, and most definitely The Suicide Squad, I’ve been fortunate enough this year to get that in spades. But to not only get a wonderful, unique superhero fantasy movie, but also get one that finally represents stories and voices that I can actually truly relate to, rooted in Asian culture – my culture – is nothing short of an astonishing, extraordinary, and rare experience. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is all of the above.
Overall Score (on an entertainment level): A-
Overall Score (on a representation level): A –
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings hits theaters on September 3!