Movie Curiosities: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

This is one of those times when I had to write a whole ‘nother blog entry before I even saw Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. There’s a lot to sink our teeth into with regards to who Shang-Chi (pronounced “SHONG-chi”) is and how we got to this point. I’m at a loss for how I can sum it all up in a single paragraph, and we’ve got more than enough to get through besides. So let’s just assume you’ve read the previous blog entry (or maybe you already know or don’t care about all that) and hit the ground running.

Let’s start with the ten rings. In the comics, the Mandarin wore ten rings of alien origin, one on each finger, each one with a different power. Here in the film, they’re more like ten bracelets that serve as highly versatile energy weapons. They can fire energy blasts, they can be chained together into whips or force fields, and they can fly around telekinetically for all sorts of purposes. Perhaps most importantly, they provide immortality, to the extent that the Mandarin himself (played by Tony Leung) has barely aged a day in a thousand years.

As to where the rings came from or how they work… well, that’s a mystery for another film, apparently.

Moving on, the title of “The Mandarin” was apparently made up by Aldrich Killian back in Iron Man 3. The film openly mocks that racist title, instead typically referring to him as Xu Wenwu. That said, it’s worth noting that Wenwu has taken on multiple names and titles while building up his Ten Rings empire over the centuries.

Wenwu had more or less taken over the entire world by the mid-90s, so he turned his attention toward the uncharted land of Ta Lo, an village reputed to be a harbor for mystical creatures and magical crafts unknown to the world at large. Upon arrival, he’s quickly turned back by Ying Li (Fala Chen), who guards the gates to Ta Lo. However, the two of them hit it off.

Ying Li leaves her homeland to join the outside world, Wenwu gives up the Ten Rings for an honest civilian life, and the two of them get married. In short order, Ying Li gives birth to siblings Shang-Chi (played at various ages by Simu Lu, Jayden Zhang, and Arnold Sun) and Xu Xialing (played at various ages by Meng’er Zhang, Elodie Fong, and Harmonie He).

To make a totally separate long story short, Ying Li died and Wenwu went back to his criminal ways. He then proceeded to train his son into an unstoppable killing machine. Flash forward to the modern day, in a post-Endgame MCU, and Shang-Chi has been on the outs with his family for the past ten years. No, I will not go into details about how we got from Point A to Point B, but I assure you that the film goes into that at length.

Suffice to say that when Shang-Chi — now “Shaun” — first arrived in San Francisco at the tender age of 14, he quickly found a best friend in Katy (Awkwafina), whose family took him under their wing as a surrogate son. The two of them are still platonic partners in crime, wasting their education and talent as valet attendants in between illicit joyrides and late-night karaoke binges. Basically put, the two of them are trying to hold onto their carefree lifestyles for as long as they can.

To make another long story short, Wenwu manipulates events to bring his wayward children (plus an errant Katy) back into the fold. And he’s done this because he’s supposedly found a way into Ta Lo, where he claims he can bring Ying Li back to life.

For reference, the canonical Shang-Chi was trained by his father to be a world-class martial artist, then became disillusioned with his father and turned against his family. I’m pretty sure this is the only point of comparison between the movie and the source material. Other aspects, like The Mandarin, Ta Lo, and the Dweller-in-Darkness (more on him later) were apparently carried over from other Marvel comics properties with heavy modifications. Also, I can’t find any evidence that Katy, Xialing, Ying Li, or “Xu Wenwu” as the Mandarin’s real name have any basis in the comics.

Then again, it’s not like there are many hardcore fans of Shang-Chi out there, even among the comic fanboy elite. And as I’ve discussed before, Shang-Chi and the Mandarin are both steeped so heavily in outdated racism that this is the level of overhauling it took to make them palatable for a mainstream audience. So kudos to the filmmakers for taking full advantage of all the liberties that come with adapting a lesser-known character.

Anyway, if the above plot rundown sounds like a lot to get through in 130 minutes, that’s because it is. Yet the filmmakers do a stellar job of conveying so much exposition with economical speed through pinpoint editing and masterful use of flashbacks. Surprisingly, the fight scenes help a lot as well.

At the start of the film, Wenwu and Ying Li court each other even as they fight each other. In the climax, Shang-Chi finally discovers the courage and fortitude to confront his father. Literally from start to finish and at all points in between, the fight scenes are expertly and artfully used to advance the plot and develop the characters. Not even Team John Wick has ever done such an immaculate job of telling a story through combat. Couple that with complex choreography, impeccable camerawork and editing, inventive use of weapons and CGI elements… the fight scenes in this movie are worthy of (arguably) the greatest martial arts expert in the Marvel canon, and that’s to be read as exceedingly high praise.

(Side note: The fight scenes’ quality is due in no small part to maestro Brad Allan. A former protege of Jackie Chan himself, Allan previously helped coordinate stunts and action scenes for such badass films as Kick-Ass, Pacific Rim, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and all three films in the Kingsman series to date. Alas, Allan died of undisclosed causes earlier this year, and at the woefully young age of 48. This film is dedicated to his memory. RIP.)

Moving on, another reason why the film does such a great job at staying focused through so much exposition is the pinpoint focus on family-related themes. A pivotal scene comes when we meet Katy’s family early on, complete with typical Asian family stereotypes about overbearing parents pushing children toward unreasonable goals, the pressure to get married and raise a family at an early age, the difficulty in letting go of a loved one (a concept here explicitly labeled “an American thing”), and so on. Luckily, director/co-writer Destin Daniel Crettin is half-Japanese and co-writer David Callaham is half-Chinese on his mother’s side, so we know that this is coming from an authentic place of love. Additionally, because family is such a central concept to so many Asian cultures, this film explores related themes with a perspective unusual among Western-made films.

More importantly, this scene sets the tone for the rest of the film. All of these themes are introduced in a mundane context, which pays off in a big way when they play out in a superpowered context with the fate of the world at stake. Katy’s family and Shang-Chi’s family are dealing with the exact same issues, it’s only a matter of degree.

Wenwu attained everything he had through the power of the Ten Rings, he gave that up to raise a family with Ying Li, and it meant that he didn’t have the power to save her when it really mattered. He’s still grappling with that guilt, and he’s never going to repeat the mistake of giving up an inch of power. Moreover, Ying Li was Wenwu’s last remaining tether to humanity, and he’s desperate to recover that by any means necessary. In short, Wenwu is pathologically incapable of letting go and accepting his wife’s death.

Additionally, Wenwu has been kicking ass for a thousand years, and he’s still alive after so many of his adversaries have bitten the dust. He’s an intelligent man of immense power and wealth, with an international army of terrorists and cutthroats ready to do his bidding at a moment’s notice. In other words, he’s a man who’s used to getting his own way and used to being right all the time, to the point where he’s mentally incapable of taking “no” for an answer or considering the possibility that he might be wrong about something. Yet as powerful and ruthless as Wenwu is, it’s made abundantly clear that everything he does is for his wife and children. His heart’s in the right place, but his methods are outright psychotic.

In summary, he’s a manipulative narcissist and ultimately a victim of his own hubris. He’s a man with godlike power and delusions of infallibility, so his mistakes are potentially apocalyptic in scale. Tony Leung is a bona fide acting legend in his native Hong Kong, and his turn here is more than good enough to slap the bitter aftertaste of Iron Man 3 out of anyone’s mouth. But we’ll come back to that in a minute.

As for Shang-Chi, here we have a young man running from his legacy because he can’t stand all the evil shit that his father was directly responsible for. In fact, as a direct result of his abusive upbringing, Shang-Chi himself was pressured to do terrible things that he’s still trying to bury. Also, Shang-Chi saw his own mother killed right in front of him, so throw that trauma on the pile.

But on the other hand, for better or worse, Wenwu is also directly responsible for making Shang-Chi into the world-class martial artist that he is, more than capable of defending his loved ones and potentially the world. Plus, he’s got many years’ worth of fond childhood memories regarding his mother and all the things she taught him, in addition to his Ta Lo lineage. Does he really want to run away from all of that as well?

Shang-Chi’s development arc is all about learning how to accept the good with the bad, shaping all of the above into his own image. It’s a fine development arc, beautifully portrayed. Of course, it also helps that Simu Liu is equally capable of portraying the character’s pathos, kicking ass against a horde of stuntmen, and getting into comedic hijinks. It’s a dynamic performance and Liu has more than earned his place in the MCU pantheon.

Speaking of which, I was honestly concerned with the issue of selling Shang-Chi as a worthy addition to the Avengers. How could a martial arts expert plausibly stand with so many magical and/or high-tech demigods in the face of a multi-universal evil? I mean, say what you will about Hawkeye, but even he doesn’t go into a battlefield empty-handed! Well, I don’t want to spoil too much, but the movie absolutely succeeds on that front. By the end of the film, you will absolutely believe that Shang-Chi could pull his weight in a team effort against an Avengers-level threat.

But you know what’s even better than the film’s male leads? The female leads.

I was skeptical about the notion of Awkwafina playing a love interest, and I’m happy to report that she really doesn’t. Through most of the film, Awkwafina and Liu have such an easy rapport that it’s effortless to believe that they’re lifelong friends and partners in mischief without any romantic attachment. But then the plot unfolds and the two characters start to develop.

Shang-Chi and Katy are both alike in that they’re aimlessly wandering through life, running from the disappointment of their parents, struggling to figure out who they are. Both characters have to figure out who they really are and who they want to be, and they each have their own independent paths to figuring that out. Thus, while the two follow parallel development tracks, the female costar is NOT dependent on her male lead or vice versa. I might add that while Katy is hardly a capable martial arts expert, she is proactive in her own way, constantly looking for ways to help Shang-Chi or to get herself out of trouble without distracting him in mid-fight.

By the end, Katy and Shang-Chi both develop into people who are worthy of each other, and their romantic involvement becomes much easier to swallow. She starts out as a comic relief second banana and ends the film as a hero in her own right. And Awkafina sells every step of that development like a goddamn champion. I know her career is blowing up in a huge way, but she’s still a supremely underrated talent.

Then we have Meng’er Zhang in the role of Xialing, who makes for a fascinating contrast with her brother. Shang-Chi was forced to directly learn martial arts from a crew of badasses, while Xialing was forbidden from playing with the boys and thus had to teach herself through obsessive observation and repetition. Shang-Chi went underground, doing his best to hide his abilities and live among commoners; while Xialing went underground and used her abilities to develop her own secret criminal enterprise. Shang-Chi was given the keys to his father’s kingdom and he threw it away; Xialing couldn’t inherit her daddy’s empire and so built her own. The contrast makes for a fascinating interplay between them, and of course it was wonderful to see Zhang kicking ass all up and down the screen.

Which brings me to the OG herself, Michelle Yeoh. She plays the estranged sister to Ying Li, so spoilers prevent me from going into too much detail. Suffice to say that Auntie Nan’s arrival is a game-changer in a big way, and Yeoh thoroughly dominates. In particular, her training montage with Shang-Chi is a showstopper, yet another example of the movie’s mind-blowing flair for storytelling through combat.

But for all this talk about character development, pathos, fight scenes, and whatnot, it’s tough to overstate the film’s comic relief. After all, this is a movie with Akwafina as the main female lead — that says a lot about this movie’s sense of humor. But the comic relief kicks up in a big way with the introduction of Ben Kingsley, once again playing the hapless Trevor Slattery. Bringing him in to close the book on Iron Man 3 was a brilliant move, and it would certainly be a huge help to those moviegoers who’ve sat through every Marvel film in theaters, but didn’t buy the Blu-Ray for Thor: The Dark World. (On a related note, why would anyone buy the Blu-Ray for Thor: The Dark World?)

Again, I’m loathe to go into details about Trevor Slattery and his role in the proceedings. Suffice to say that Kingsley plays to the cheap seats with this one and he’s clearly having the time of his goddamn life. He gets so many laugh-out-loud moments in this movie, he really is the film’s secret weapon.

To recap, we’ve got a movie with stellar action scenes, compelling themes, and multifaceted characters played by a phenomenal cast. Are there any drawbacks? There is most certainly one, and it’s a doozy.

Invested as I was in this movie, I clocked out altogether at the 70-minute mark. At this point, the plot comes to a dead halt so Auntie Nan can unload a metric ton of exposition about the Great Protector, the Dweller-in-Darkness, and a whole bunch of other bullshit. The presentation implies that all of this somehow ties into the greater Marvel lore, but fuck if I could tell you how. All that really matters is that there’s a giant CGI monster that wants to protect the world for some reason, and there’s a giant CGI monster with a bunch of smaller CGI monster helpers who all want to destroy the world for some reason.

Yes, I will admit that this new wrinkle adds to the scale of the film and gives the conflict some global stakes. But even without that, we already had an epic battle on par with the climax of Black Panther, in addition to ten rings that grant godlike power and freaking immortality! More importantly, I came here for the human characters with dimension and pathos, working out their problems through immaculate fight choreography. At this point in the film, it’s significantly harder to give a shit about giant CGI monsters with no personality or clear motivation, the both of them dropped into our laps out of nowhere.

To be entirely clear, there’s still more than enough interpersonal drama and character development to power the back half. It isn’t all about the weird battle between two giant CGI monsters. But that battle does become the main focus in the back half of the climax, and the film’s overall quality takes a noticeable dip in those minutes.

(Side note: In case anyone else out there was wondering, the underwater dragon seen in the trailers is most certainly NOT Fin Fang Foom. That said, I’d be very interested to see how these particular filmmakers would adapt that particular character. Fingers crossed for the sequel!)

Wrapping up with some miscellaneous notes, I suppose I should address the ties to the greater Marvel continuity. To start with, Abomination appears in an underground fighting ring that features superpowered individuals. Which is a pretty neat concept to introduce, given the consequences of everything that’s happened in the MCU to date. We also get a brief glimpse of what “post-Blip anxiety” is like, but nothing that even skims the surface of what “Falcon and the Winter Soldier” covered on Disney+.

Getting back to Abomination, he doesn’t even get a line, he’s been redesigned to the point where he’s barely recognizable, and he could’ve been swapped out with pretty much any other superpowered character. In fact, I’m disappointed that Marvel didn’t take the opportunity to fit more Z-tier Easter Eggs into that fight club. (see also: Howard the Duck) Still, it’s nice to see Marvel following up on Abomination, confirming what’s happened to him and why we haven’t seen him around. Shame we may never get that same kind of closure with Samuel Sterns, though.

Easily the film’s strongest tie with the greater MCU is Benedict Wong, stepping in once again to play the character Wong. Because the most Asian-centric film of the MCU to date simply wouldn’t be complete without the MCU’s most prominent and powerful Asian character of the prior films (not counting “Agents of SHIELD”, whose canon status is up for debate at this point). Damn shame they couldn’t find a way to get Randall Park’s character in there, though. Not even a cameo to investigate the aftermath of that bus fight scene?

I might add that Doctor Strange doesn’t even get a mention, likely because he’s busy helping Scarlet Witch and Spider-Man. Between those two other films and this one, it’s frankly astounding how the Sanctum Santorum has become the fulcrum of Phase Four. It’s a sign of big things coming, no doubt about that.

In any case, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a blast. It’s superbly acted, expertly paced, and every single character is compelling to watch. (Yes, even a couple of heavies get noteworthy moments.) The themes are heartfelt, the fight scenes are jaw-dropping, and the comic relief is genuinely funny. What’s more, while this is a film that rewards longtime MCU watchers, it’s independent enough from the greater lore to be enjoyed on its own merits, and we’re going to need movies like that as the superfranchise grows perilously large to the point of unwieldy.

The film loses a few points for some CGI bullshit in the climax, but that’s still not enough to distract from what’s otherwise a damn good movie. This one comes strongly recommended.

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2 thoughts on “Movie Curiosities: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

  1. Would you mind the off-chance of me reviewing this movie as well, since I already reviewed some of Simu Liu’s previous work? I don’t know if you read any of my articles already.

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