Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings marks the first Marvel Cinematic Universe movie I’ve seen from Phase 4, the first I saw theatrically since Spider-Man: Far From Home, and the first I watched on an IMAX screen since Guardians of the Galaxy.  When 2018 brought word that Marvel Studios would give Shang-Chi, Master of Kung-Fu, his own movie, it designated the fourth known attempt to bring him to the big screen.  Previous attempts included aborted projects from the 1980s and 2000s, followed by a deleted cameo from The Avengers. (The first project, in particular, would’ve starred Bruce Lee’s son, Brandon Lee.) The timing for this latest try seemed mainly like Marvel wanting to cash-in on the public’s growing appreciation for films cast either mostly or entirely with Asian-descended performers, especially after Marvel roped in Crazy Rich Asians cast members.  Major Shang-Chi comic appearances I read prior to The Legend‘s release include Master of Kung-Fu Epic Collection Vol. 1: Weapon of the Soul (1973-77, by Steve Englehart and Doug Moench), five storylines teaming him up with other Asian crimefighters (2017-20, by Greg Pak), and Shang-Chi Vol. 1: Brothers and Sisters (2020-21, by Gene Luen Yang).

With the fluctuating quality of Marvel Studios’ Infinity Saga in mind, Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings intrigued me mainly because it could give additional exposure to Asian-descended filmmakers, and inspire additional, potentially better movies about Asian superheroes.  Non-Marvel films I would watch from director/writer Destin Daniel Cretton before the premiere included the compelling Short Term 12 and the thought-provoking Just Mercy, which demonstrated his skills at intimately and emotionally presenting character dramas of varying scales.  When the 2020s rolled around, the need for empowering media portrayals of Asians and Asian-Americans grew even more apparent, as the COVID-19 pandemic sparked an alarming increase in hate crimes against Asian-Americans.  Since The Legend began filming before the pandemic, looks like I’ll have to wait for either a sequel or a spin-off to address this crisis. (It would probably only do so indirectly.) Regardless, even if Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings doesn’t mark my favorite Marvel movie, sometimes it feels too good for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings

Release: September 3, 2021
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Writers: David Callaham, Destin Daniel Cretton, & Andrew Lanham

I’m not who you think I am.-Xu Shang-Chi

“Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) must face the past he thought he left behind and confront his father (Tony Leung), leader of the dangerous Ten Rings organization.” (Disney+ description)

Marvel Studios movies and shows usually have a tendency to under-utilize or sideline Asian characters.  The hiring of Japanese-Hawaiian Destin Daniel Cretton to direct and help write Legend of The Ten Rings made me hope that it would provide an exception, especially after the first two movies I saw of his successfully invested viewers in other examples of protagonists under-represented in Hollywood. (Female-led Short Term 12 stars Brie Larson, who’s since appeared in everything Cretton directs, while Just Mercy stars African-American Michael B. Jordan.) With his supervision, the respective quests of Shang-Chi, his best friend Katy (Awkwafina, the cast member whose filmography I feel the most familiar with), and his sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) to make names for themselves provide a refreshing diversion from Marvel’s efforts to find direct successors to the founding Avengers.  Even though no one in The Legend calls Shang-Chi, “Master of Kung-Fu”, the most inventive and dynamic hand-to-hand combat sequences could help deem him worthy of the title.  Cretton and his performers also feel more successful than lesser Marvel director/cast combos at integrating comedy into a story with tragic and action-packed elements.

By fulfilling his dream of becoming a Marvel superhero, Simu Liu passionately balances charisma he exhibited across various sitcom appearances with more dramatic material.  Shang-Chi shares an archetype with the likes of Black Widow and Gamora, as an assassin on a path towards redemptive heroism.  Compared to them, and his portrayal in the original Master of Kung-Fu comics, he stands out for embarking on that path without ever taking orders from a white man.  While Shang-Chi impresses with his selflessness, athleticism, and resourcefulness, his leisurely persona, insecurity as an immigrant, and occasional need for a relative or friend to help him out of a jam ensure that he still feels human.  Liu’s dedication for portraying Shang-Chi as both commendable, and as realistic as The Legend allows, ensures an engaging first impression for the character.

Katy and Xialing benefit from Cretton’s ability to provide female characters with intriguing dilemmas, that don’t revolve around their love lives or beauty.  Katy seems less powerful or knowledgeable of Chinese culture than do Shang-Chi and Xialing, but she otherwise proves an intellectual and resourceful match for Shang-Chi.  While Katy’s storyline about learning not to squander her potential feels predictable, it helps the audience form a connection to her.  Xialing effectively fulfills the need for a physically tough woman on Shang-Chi’s side, while earning the viewer’s admiration for overcoming negligence from her male family members.  Together, these fast gal-pals turn The Legend into what feels like one of Marvel Studios’ few movies in which two women change for the better by the end.

In the standout role of Shang-Chi’s conquering father Wenwu, Tony Leung provides a pleasant surprise.  I hadn’t seen the In the Mood For Love co-star act in English before, but he enhances his scenes of The Legend with evocative, bilingual line deliveries, and universally-understandable facial expressions of poignancy.  Unexpectedly, he elicits a rather high level of sympathy as the fearsome, yet romantic, wielder of the magical Ten Rings.  It never sounded that difficult for screenwriters Cretton, his recurring partner Andrew Lanham, and David Callaham to depict Shang-Chi’s father more sensitively than did the original comics, but it did sound hard to do so in a positively memorable manner.  After The Legend‘s initial public announcement, skeptical reactions of “Marvel’s making a movie about Fu Manchu’s son?” suggested that Marvel Comics’ copyright-induced efforts to replace the Yellow Peril caricature, with the sorcerer Zheng Zhu, failed to leave an impression on readers.  Despite Marvel Studios’ spotty track record for engrossing antagonists, Leung and the writers truly impress for giving The Legend a patriarch capable of endearment and mercy as well as intimidation.

Given Marvel Studios’ tendency to stumble near or at the end of their stories, it didn’t necessarily disappoint me that The Legend takes a drastic tonal shift in its third act.  The middle feels so grounded compared to the fantastical opening, that it feels jarring – especially for unspoiled first-time viewers – to return to the fantastical tone well over an hour later.  The third act does reinforce agreeable themes, demonstrating the need for a balance between holding connections to the past, and looking towards the future.  Unlike assassins who increased their chances of redemption the further they distanced themselves from their roots, Shang-Chi and Xialing draw more power from reconnecting with their parents’ customs. Even if most Asian-Americans don’t come from magical backgrounds, the need to maintain a knowledge and appreciation of ancestral culture, even when growing up in conditions geographically and socially disconnected from the previous generation, feels profoundly relatable.

The next two paragraphs contain this review’s biggest spoilers.

Meanwhile, Wenwu’s obsession with relieving an amorous yesteryear leads to his demise.  Marvel Studios’ writers can’t seem to agree how severely to punish characters who take extreme measures to reunite with a deceased lover.  Steve Rogers created another timeline to marry Peggy Carter, and suffers no negative repercussions.  Wanda Maximoff brainwashed the town of Westview while forming a nuclear family with Vision, and even though she escaped punishment from the townspeople, her now-scattered family seems unable to ever achieve Wanda’s dreams of domestic bliss.  Wenwu unleashes monsters out of futile hope in freeing his murdered wife, Ying Li (Fala Chen), from a non-existent trap, and gets his soul sucked out by the Dweller in Darkness.  Initially, I deemed it unfair for him to receive the deadliest fate.

Eventually, I acknowledged that the reasons Wenwu had to die outnumber possible justifications for keeping him alive.  Most obviously, it allows Shang-Chi and Xialing to inherit his literal and metaphorical power, respectively.  Thematically, it discourages the prospect of living completely in reminiscence, the extreme opposite of Shang-Chi’s efforts to abandon his heritage.  Wenwu’s refusal to heed warnings that the Dweller’s cave doesn’t contain Li could make his fate seem like a demonstration of the needs to both truly respect her people’s history, and for the younger generation to learn from their predecessors’ mistakes.  Ironically, the Dweller’s victory over Wenwu increases the latter’s chances of reuniting with Li.  At worst, this ending for his arc lessens Marvel’s opportunities to again utilize Tony Leung’s charms in a live-action film.

During and after the end credits, the stingers firmly establish Shang-Chi, Katy, and Xialing as pawns in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s greater plans.  As Shang-Chi and Katy meet other MCU crimefighters, and Xialing accepts an influential position, the question arises of how well their subsequent appearances will build upon this one.  Marvel Studios’ tendency to under-utilize Asian characters has unfortunately continued beyond the Infinity Saga; WandaVision never allowed Jimmy Woo to contribute anything important to any Wanda-centric episode’s A-Plot, or to at least finish his own subplot to find a missing FBI witness in Westview.  Since it feels like quite a while before Marvel Studios will release another crossover in the vein of The Avengers, one can only hope that their writers will learn by then how to do Shang-Chi and his allies justice. (Unlike Black Panther and Captain Marvel, whose relatively small Avengers appearances Marvel wrote and filmed before Black Panther and Captain Marvel exceeded the studio’s box office expectations.) In the meantime, the enjoyable and captivating Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings feels harder than most MCU productions to lobby serious criticisms against.

Plug

Violence towards Asian-Americans has reached alarming levels.  I’ve donated to charities dedicated to eliminating hate crimes towards AAPI people, and would like my readers to do the same, even if I personally take no share of the funds:

By NJ

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