Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
2021, PG-13, 132 min. Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton. Starring Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Meng'er Zhang, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Michelle Yeoh, Florian Munteanu, Tim Roth, Ben Kingsley, Benedict Wong.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Sept. 3, 2021
The roots of Marvel's master of king-fu, Shang-Chi, are drenched in Orientalism. First appearing in comics in 1972, he was the comic company's attempt to cash in on the post-Bruce Lee Kung Fu fever sweeping America: Even worse, his fictional father was the original inscrutable evil genius stereotype, Fu Manchu. So when the Marvel Cinematic Universe first glimpsed at its Asian plots in Iron Man III it was as an almost embarrassed commentary on its four-color depiction of Chinese characters, with the Ten Rings terrorist organization a punchline about fear of foreigners.
Now, with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Marvel finally gives its original Asian superhero his solo film. Moreover, the first post-Avengers: Endgame film, launching Phase 4 of the franchise, must demolish pretty much all of those earlier plots, then build on the rubble. That process starts with its antagonist. The Marvel films have never been reticent about using high profile actors (17 Oscar winners and counting), but casting longtime Wong Kar-wai collaborator Tony Leung Chiu-wai as a criminal mastermind and immortal supervillain may be the boldest casting decision since someone first reached out to Robert Downey Jr.'s reps. He's Wenwu, an ancient Chinese warrior who has survived for centuries through the power of 10 arcane arm bands that serve his whim and have decimated nations.
He's also the shadowy figure in the past of Shaun (Liu, charming and awkward), who's shuffling around in low-paying gigs in San Francisco with his old school pal, the chaotic Katy (Awkwafina), in a charming "big brother/little sister" platonic friendship. She just thinks that he's her goofy friend from school, but that belief is shredded when he's suddenly the target of a hit squad led by the aptly named Razor Fist (former boxer Munteanu). Then she's really caught off-guard by the way that he throws down like a world-class martial artist, and suddenly announces that he has to take off to Macau to meet his missing sister, Xialing (Zhang) and rescue her from Wenwu's machinations and the real Ten Rings.
That first fight, as Shaun and Razor Fist dissect a runaway bus, shows Shang-Chi's sense of fun comes from studying the action-comedy flicks in which the Three Dragons of Hong Kong cinema – Yuen Biao, Jackie Chan, and Sammo Hung – rewrote the rule book in the mid-Eighties (no surprise, since the action sequences were put together by Andy Cheng and the late Brad Allan, both Chan acolytes). Yet it still feels like it's a continuation of the bigger Marvel story, and picks up on a lot of the themes that have run through the prior movies (globe-trotting and global conspiracies, cosmic mysteries, daddy issues). Where it really grasps those threads is in the whole "with great power" issue. Shaun's attempts to deal with legacy are matched by how Liu interacts with Leung. It's not a simple hero-villain dynamic, but something more complicated, and Leung finds plentiful nuance while meshing with the established MCU style. Meanwhile, Liu's understanding of how Shaun must come out of Wenwu's shadow is echoed in his own performance against Leung.
Aside from bringing in heavy hitter actors, the MCU has succeeded by playing with genres, bringing in elements like conspiracy spy thrillers and heist flicks into the superhero playbook. Shang-Chi looks to xuanhuan (literal translation: mysterious fantasy), in which heroes, often foreign, face elements of Chinese mythology. Previous American efforts have been a mixed bag, from the great (Big Trouble in Little China) to the tepid (The Great Wall), dull (The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor), and dismal (Mortal Kombat). Shang-Chi doesn't just pull off a fun western xuanhuan, but makes it feel like a door being opened for future Marvel films.
Where Shang-Chi stumbles is in the script. It has a huge amount of heavy lifting to do as arguably the most important scene-setter since the OG Iron Man. But that means it has to make nods to the earlier films (including a blink-and-you'll-miss return of Roth as The Incredible Hulk's Abomination), plus tie in to the post-Endgame continuity, and establish its own forward motion. That would be enough, but the interjection of a deeply uninteresting big boss is more Green Lantern than Doctor Strange, and bogs the third act down in a fight scene that strives for Black Panther's Wakandan conflict but just becomes cluttered, visually and narratively. It may also be the first MCU film where it's genuinely hard to tell whether an unresolved moment is a hint or a plot hole.
Still, if Marvel has proven anything, it's that it knows how to build giant stories in chapter form, and Shang-Chi is a definite page-turner.