Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Screenwriters: Dave Callaham, Destin Daniel Cretton, Andrew Lanham
Starring: Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Tony Leung, Meng’er Zhang, Fala Chen, Michelle Yeoh, Florian Muneanu, Andy Le, Benedict Wong
Shang-Chi has come a long way since his first appearance in Marvel Comics nearly 50 years ago. Originally created as the martial arts master son of Sax Rohmer’s hugely problematic literary villain Dr Fu Manchu, capitalising on the Kung Fu craze in the US in the mid-1970s, Shang-Chi has been a near-constant supporting player on Marvel’s pages for decades. Now, hot on the heels of Black Widow kicking off Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe on the big screen, film number 25 of this mega-franchise, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, belatedly introduces Marvel’s first Asian-American screen superhero in pretty spectacular fashion.
Trained from childhood to be a human weapon, Shang-Chi (Samu Liu) runs from the violent syndicate he was born into. Ten years later he is forced out of hiding in San Francisco in order to face his father Wenwu (Tony Lung), a magically-enhanced gangster-warlord who plans to bring his children back into the fold to continue his centuries-spanning legacy of brutal conquest and to help him find his way to the mythical city of Ta Lo for very personal reasons. Shang-Chi must face his demons, reconnect with his estranged family and consider his position as the heir to an immortal’s vast criminal empire.
Like the late, great Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther, Samu Liu seems born to bring to life a superhero that will connect with a community grossly under-represented on film, Asian-Americans who dream of seeing an iconic comic book hero who looks like them headlining a blockbuster. Liu – previously best-known for Korean-Canadian sitcom ‘Kim’s Convenience’, who has since gone on record as saying the show was not diverse enough in the writer’s room and came to be increasingly reliant upon Asian stereotypes – arrives fully-formed with warmth and charisma to spare, not to mention all the required action chops. Shang-Chi (or the unimaginative American alias “Shaun”) can usually be found joined at the hip with best friend Katy (Awkwafina, hilarious as always) who can be relied on to be loyal to the point of recklessness, endlessly supportive and on hand to suggest drunk Karaoke to unwind after saving the world. Their first stop on their way to Wenwu is an illegal meta-human fighting arena presided over by Shang-Chi’s younger, and equally-gifted-at-martial-arts sister Xialing (an attention-grabbing film debut from Meng’er Zhang). Before long, Wenwu’s Ten Rings organisation are on them.
That’s about all it’s safe to say about the plot without going into major spoilers, and it’s less than half the movie. Suffice to say there are plenty of surprises in store for both long time MCU devotees and martial arts movie fans alike, and that Chinese myths and legends will play a major part in the spectacle to come.
We have to talk about Tony Leung, one of the biggest stars in Hong Kong for the last 30 years, making his Hollywood debut as a Marvel villain. From the film’s opening moment when we see him riding a horse at an enemy army protected by a mystic forcefield, then proceeding to demolish legions single-handedly with his magic rings, you know he’s 100% committed to the film’s relatively ridiculous premise. Given his history of nuanced, award-winning performances working with revolutionary Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-Wai (In the Mood for Love and Chungking Express being two of their best collaborations) it comes as no great surprise that Leung also gives Wenwu (a take on Iron Man arch-nemesis The Mandarin) authority, depth and real heart. The film’s main themes of the significance of names and family legacy hang almost entirely on Leung and Liu’s characters’ contradictory relationship being compelling, and this dynamic miraculously holds its own in this noisy and dazzling world of epic fantasy battles, mythical creatures and powerful artifacts.
Some of the images in Shang-Chi are destined to take up permanent residency in your brain from the moment you leave the cinema. Wenwu’s first meeting with Shang-Chi’s mother Ying Li (Fala Chen) in a tranquil bamboo clearing – their encounter echoing House of Flying Daggers as it morphs from magic vs chi battle to a beautiful dance as they helplessly fall for one another – is one of many stunning sequences on display. Admittedly some of the more grandiose, fantastical sequences in the film’s final stretch verge on visual information overload, making it difficult to pick out all the wonderful little individual details on a first watch, but you can’t deny that the budget is all up there on the screen.
Let us take a moment to mark the tragic passing this year of Brad Allan, the creative and ridiculously talented stunt coordinator and choreographer who worked on Hellboy II, Scott Pilgrim, both Kingsman films and now Shang-Chi, which has sadly become one of his final films. Allan’s hard work with the actors and stunt team to produce beautifully flowing fight scenes is never obscured in a choppy edit as is so common in modern action filmmaking and, paired with Destin Daniel Cretton’s confident direction and cinematographer Bill Pope’s tightly controlled and dynamic camera work, results in some of the most enjoyable action sequences in any Marvel movie. We’re gifted a very modern, very slick fist (and machete-fist) fight on a bendy bus, a Jackie Chan-inspired acrobatic-slapstick skirmish on skyscraper scaffolding, a violent gangster clash shown in a distorted reflective surface and two epic wuxia battle scenes at the beginning and end of the film.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings hits a lot of the familiar beats we’ve come to expect of superhero origin stories, but stands out by being rooted in a distinct cultural voice and lovingly referencing a genre of action cinema Marvel hasn’t really ventured into on the big screen until now. Refreshingly, Shang-Chi, as well as being the first Asian lead superhero in the MCU, is also one of the franchise’s first heroes who doesn’t start off as a bit of a dick. Arrogance to humility is the default character arc for Marvel (Iron Man, Thor, Doctor Strange, ‘Loki’), so having Shang-Chi accept who he is and who he is not, and embracing both his considerable abilities and his responsibilities to the wider world instead, has far more in common with recent MCU projects like Black Panther and ‘The Falcon and The Winter Soldier’. Marvel’s first true martial arts film is endlessly thrilling, funny and heartfelt and not only lays the groundwork for an exciting future for the wider franchise but sets a new high benchmark for all its action scenes.