Growing up as a young lad in the 70s, The Hands of Shang-Chi Master of Kung Fu, was one of my favorite comics to read, more so than Batman or Spider-Man. Yes, I knew it had some racist imagery, but there were no Chinese heroic characters in any comics at all at the time. We took what we could get. The writing by Doug Moench was a bit more mature and the art of greats like Paul Gulacy and the late Gene Day were eye popping. It helped, of course, that that era’s depiction of Shang-Chi was modeled heavily after the likeness of the late Bruce Lee. So it was with great anticipation, hope, and fear when Marvel announced they would be making a Shang-Chi movie. Would they make a cringe inducing cliché of orientalism like Mulan or would they make something that respects culture? Well, with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the MCU has expanded their roster of big screen characters and not only added more representation and diversity to their ever growing dramatis personae, but also created a top tier entry into the Marvel movie pantheon of heroes with one of the most if not the most compelling origin stories in years.
Simu Liu, who is best known for his stint on the Canadian series Kim’s Convenience, makes his leading role debut on the big screen as the title character of Shang-Chi (calling himself Shaun in America) where he plays an everyday slacker youth pretty happy at his job as a San Francisco hotel parking attendant (honestly, in San Francisco, that can be pretty decent money). He is content to do his job and hang out with best friend Katy (Akwafina).
That simple contented life is interrupted one day as a random stranger demands the pendant he wears around his neck that was given to him by his late mother. And in the tradition of Jackie Chan, he is forced to defend himself . What follows is an incredible fight scene with choreography by the late Brad Allan, a former member of Jackie Chan’s stunt team. With a judicious blend of practical stunts and effects mixed with some CG, we get the first true action scene that will probably go don as one of the most memorable in MCU history. The influences of Jackie Chan films are very clear as the stakes go higher and Simu Liu plays the reluctant badass fighter.
It is revealed after this that Shaun, came to America to get away from his criminal father and his past. His real name is Shang-Chi and his father is the true criminal mastermind behind the Ten Rings organization that made its first appearance in Iron Man and was given the false face of The Mandarin in Iron Man 3. Shang-Chi reveals that if the men who attacked him were after his pendant, then they are after his sister’s as well. He decides to travel to Macau to find his sister, Xialing, played by Meng’er Zhang. Since Katy is his best friend, she goes along for the ride, because that’s what best buds do.
It doesn’t take long (besides another excellent fight, this time on scaffolding) before we have a full family reunion with their imposing father who is played by Hong Kong cinema’s legendary Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, as Xu Wenwu. Against comic book tropes, he is not a villain of pure evil. His history is much more nuanced than that and he knows he has done many bad things in the past in a personal quest for power. He gave all that up when he met their mother, but reverted back to his ways after her death. And in that time trained Shang-Chi to be an instrument of death by training him in every form of martial art.
Revealing much more after that will give away too much plot details. In fact, there is not much wasted in this film and an odd side effect of that is that the not so great trailers were the way they were because showing more would give away too much of the plot. And there is a nice plot going on with some drama and performances that stand out more than is not usually seen in films based on comic books. The family dynamic here is believable, much more than what is portrayed in Black Widow which wavered from fake to just jokes. And much of that believability belongs to Tony Leung, who lends a majestic gravitas to his performance as man who has lived for over a thousand years because of the power granted to him by the Ten Rings. Tony Leung is a legend of an actor and if you have not had a chance to see any of his films, especially ones directed by Wong Kar Wai, I highly recommend you seek them out.
Not content to have only one regal supporting role from Asian cinema’s legends, we also graced with MIchelle Yeoh, who plays the aunt of Shang-Chi and Xialing and who wants to stop Wenwu. As in everything that she has done lately, Michelle Yeoh instantly classes the place up. Whether it’s in the high profile Crazy Rich Asians or the little rom-com Last Christmas she provides an air of legitimacy to the more fantastical elements of the plot latter. Yeoh plays the protector of a village that holds a secret that Wenwu desperately wishes for. As is often the case, be careful what you wish for. Though his motivations are not unsound, his reasonings definitely are relatable.
At one point, the movie has to acknowledge that it’s a Marvel film and, for better or worse, we have the inevitable effects laden last battle that has become not only a mainstay of Marvel movies, but comic book movies on the whole. I would understand those that check out at this point because the movie goes full on fantastical. We are treated to mystical creatures straight out of Chinese mythology and a CGI filled battle between multiple forces that humans and non-humans. But bare with me, what still keeps this interesting is the family conflict between father and son. Shang-Chi must inevitably battle his father and yet there is an emotional honesty between their conflict. Neither wants this but they have to do what they have to do. And it is a testament to Tony Leung power as an actor, who has never been featured in a Hollywood movie, to provide us with a character that is human and sympathetic instead of a two-dimensional villain who merely wants power.
It is both a good and bad thing that this is a Marvel film. It does fit well into the Marvel universe. But unfortunately it also has to be part of that larger narrative and as such the Ten Rings will indeed be very important. We don’t know where they truly come from, only that they are very old and they are very powerful. Don’t bother checking up wiki or YouTube because any explanation of them you’ll find are from the comics and the actual powers are fully explored yet. And of course there is the heavy CG battle that was mentioned previously. For some this may come as a heavy break from the relatively grounded fights from earlier. This, for me, nails the multiple genres of Chinese martial arts films and manages to balance the two of fantasy kung fu with grounded fights. This is a genuine martial arts fantasy that does not render itself into absurdity.
Simu Liu is a true breakout star in this vehicle. His character is not the usual arrogant flippant quip filled protagonist who has to be humbled like a Tony Stark or Stephen Strange. He is pretty much a guy who enjoys his working class life until he has to step up. Now, Awkwafina, who I have been a fan with her performances in Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell, is there to not only provide the comic relief but is also there as our anchor from the normal world to this fantastical world of mysticism and martial arts. And against typical trope, she does not serve as the typical love interest for the hero, they are best friends and she is not afraid to call him out for doing something stupid, such as choosing the name Shaun from Shang-Chi to hide from his father. Meng’er Zhang, who has mostly done stage work in China, is another breakout star of the film as Xialing, Shang-Chi’s sister. Fala Chan manages to hold her own against Tony Leung, playing his wife and the mother of Shang-Chi and Xialing. Needless to say, this movie does really well in its portrayal of women who are able to hold their own.
Director, Destin Daniel Cretton makes his big-budget debut with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. His previous film, Just Mercy, featured performances from MCU alums Michael B. Jordan and Brie Larson (who was also in Cretton’s Short Term 12). He made a very conscious and rather brave choice to have the actors speak much of their lines in Mandarin and it gives the film an air of authenticity. He also contributed to the screenplay with Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham. This is not only the first Marvel film with a predominantly Asian cast, it’s the first one with an Asian director. Chloe Zhao will be Marvel’s first Asian woman, and first Academy Award winning director when The Eternals comes out. Cretton very consciously breaks away from Asian stereotypes yet still manages to add the touches of Asian culture that is authentic, such as what many typical Chinese household have for breakfast.
Yes, representation matters, both in front and behind the camera. Shang-Chi feels Asian in not only it’s the performance off its actors but from the production as well. There are subtle details that add verisimilitude to not only Asians but Asian Americans as well, such as that one point that Wenwu addresses Katy as “American Girl” and asks her if she even knows her own Chinese name. This is actually a big thing about the Chinese and Chinese American experience. Katy is not just the outlet for the outsider to this world, but she is the outsider to the Chinese. Her family is inhabited by three generations, hers, her mother, and her grandmother. The grandmother speaks Mandarin, while the mother speaks slightly accented English. Katy is straight up ABC (American Born Chinese). There’s even a joke when Katy and Shang-Chi meet a character who speaks Mandarin to her, he pauses and says “Don’t worry, I speak ABC.”
I highly recommend this movie, not just because it’s part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it’s a damn good film that is enjoyable on its own as a martial arts film that genuinely entertains. Forget what you know from the 70s comics and even the modern ones for a bit. You may be feeling a bit of Marvel fatigue, you may be feeling superhero fatigue, but if you pass up seeing this, preferably in a theater, you are missing out on something that is genuinely fun to watch. Yes, see this in the theater if you feel safe to do so. And need I say that you have to stay through the very end as there is a mid credits scene and a post credit scene? Yes, it’s Marvel.