Released: 3 September 2021
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Budget: $150 million
Stars: Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Meng’er Zhang, Florian Munteanu, and Tony Leung
Desiring a normal life away from his father, Xu Wenwu (Leung), who has led the terrorist organisation known as the “Ten Rings” for a thousand years thanks to his mysterious alien rings, Shang-Chi (Liu), a master kung fu, flees to San Francisco. However, his normal, everyday life is shattered when he is forced to confront his father, who has become obsessed with locating a lost mythical land.
Shang-Chi was created by Steve Englehart Jim Starlin and debuted in December 1973 to capitalise on the popularity of kung fu (and, specifically, the late Bruce Lee) during that time. Despite being a staple of Marvel Comics ever since, and me being a die-hard comic book reader and collector, I can’t really say that I have any experience of Shang-Chi at all beyond a few passing mentions and I am much more familiar with Danny Rand/Iron Fist, so I was surprised not only when a movie was announced but also to learn that the concept was kicked around in the 1980s and that an adaptation very nearly saw the light of day in 2004. Seeking to introduce new characters for the fourth phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), MCU producer Kevin Feige saw Shang-Chi as a way to not only do the Mandarin justice but to also expand the scope of the MCU into Asian territories and a whole new genre. Following delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings finally released to overwhelmingly positive reviews; critics praised the film’s martial arts and characters and regarded the film as a breath of fresh air for the MCU and the film managed to defy the pandemic by grossing almost $169 million at the box office.
The movie opens with a quick recap of the titular legend of the Ten Rings, which actually doubles as two legends in one; basically, Xu Wenwu found the mysterious and powerful, potentially alien, rings about a thousand years ago and they granted him immortality, everlasting youth, and the power to conquer and reign. Like all men with power, though, he craved even more and, upon learning of the lost land of Ta Lo, ventured there to learn the powers of the Gods. While Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley) was a complete mockery of everything the Mandarin stands for, Wenwu isn’t exactly a one-to-one interpretation of the fictional warlord either; rather than controlling different elemental powers and such, the ten rings function more as a kind of magnetic inexhaustible energy field that Wenwu manipulates like whips or uses to fire concussive bolts, propel himself through the air, or form shield. I can understand why (the actual ten rings are probably a little too close to the powers of the Infinity Stones, maybe), though, and it definitely makes for some unique action and fight scenes involving the character.
Crucially, however, Wenwu is a surprisingly complex and sympathetic character; in the comics, the Mandarin is generally always this power-hungry dictator who slaughters and destroys simply to feed his lust for power but Wenwu actually gave up his evil ways after meeting, being bested by, and subsequently falling in love with Ying Li (Fala Chen). Together, they sired two children and it was only after Ying Li died that Wenwu returned to the rings, rebuilt his criminal empire, and returned to amassing a formidable armed of well-trained assassins and terrorists. Having studied Ta Lo for years, Wenwu has become somewhat consumed by grief and guilt; he supplants the blame for Ying Li’s death into the people of Ta Lo and, later, even Shang-Chi himself and his entire motivation is based on the belief that storming Ta Lo and opening the “Dark Gate” they protect will return his love to him. Indeed, for the majority of the film, Wenwu is a well-spoken, intelligent, and even kind-hearted character; he’s stern and tough, and seen to be ruthless and uncompromising, and definitely has a dark past soaked in blood but it’s undeniable that he cares for his children, and his lost love, even if the allure of the ten rings is often more provocative for him.
As for Shang-Chi, after his mother died he was trained to be an assassin, like all of the men under Wenwu’s command; a highly adept and dangerous fighter, he was given his first assignment at fourteen and used it as an opportunity to escape from his father’s organisation. Fleeing to America and changing his name to “Sean”, Shang-Chi was content to hide from his true self and his true power and eke out a meagre living as a valet attendant alongside his oldest and closest friend, Katy (Awkwafina). However, when Wenwu’s goons come for him (specifically the jade pendant the wears around his neck, a gift from his late mother), Shang leaps into action to defend himself and Katy using his incredible (and largely unmatched) martial arts skill. Realising this his sister is in equal danger, he travels to Macau (with Katy in tow) and is forced to face his past in the process; ashamed of his upbringing, the heinous acts he has committed in his father’s name, and his inability to save his mother, Shang is reluctant to face his inner demons but nonetheless adamantly opposes his father’s plot to burn Ta Lo to the ground and is convinced that Wenwu has gone mad with grief and needs to be stopped.
Katy largely fills two very crucial roles in the film: she’s both the audience surrogate and the comic relief, two roles she fulfils beautifully. Her rapport and banter with Shang is genuinely affectionate and entertaining and she is often getting into amusing situations that he has to rescue her from since she’s not really a fighter. Her enthusiasm and kind nature more than make up for this, though; even after learning about Shang’s true name and past, she sticks by him and her faith in him is never shaken. In fact, it’s only bolstered when she sees how good a fighter he is and when they reach Ta Lo, she is eager to help out in the ensuing battle in her own way and ends up not only being a vital part of the finale but also a highlight of the film. Shang’s sister, Xu Xialing (Zhang), more than makes up for Katy’s lack of fighting prowess; a grim and independent young woman, she and Shang were close as children but she grew to resent him after he left and never returned for her, and after spending a lifetime being shunned by her father and denied the same fighting training her brother received. Nonetheless, she has self-taught herself to be as formidable a fighter as he, especially with a roped kunai, and the reforging of their relationship as brother and sister is a key subplot of the film. Though they join forces fairly quickly after reuniting and agree that their father has gone mad, it’s only through truly working together to oppose Wenwu that their tension and lingering issues come to be resolved.
Of course, the odds are fairly stacked against are three heroes; Wenwu sends his two top enforcers, Razor Fist (Munteanu) and Death Dealer (Andy Le), to acquire Shang and Xialing’s pendants, alongside dozens of nameless, faceless, disposable members of the Ten Rings. While Death Dealer is little more than an unnamed mute with a cool look and some swift moves, there’s discord between him and Shang since Death Dealer was so instrumental in Shang’s harsh and brutal training as a child. We get a touch more personality for Razor Fist, a hulking brute of a man with a blade for an arm who follows his orders relentlessly but is still smart enough to know when to withdraw or refocus his goals for his own survival. Rather than being depicted as strictly a terrorist organisation, the Ten Rings is painted as a global, adaptable organisation that can topple governments and change the course of history through many and varied means. The film even has Wenwu comment on the unfortunate situation with Slattery and philosophise on the power and meaning being names and reputations, though I honestly could have done without revisiting this lingering plot point as I wasn’t impressed with the way Iron Man 3 (Black, 2013) handled the character. Of course, there are a few familiar faces from the MCU to be found here as well; if you’ve seen the trailers, you know that both Wong (Benedict Wong) and Emil Blonsky/The Abomination (Tim Roth) appear in the film but this mainly boils down to a brief cameo in Xialing’s underground fight club where Wong tricks Abomination (who seems to be on friendly terms with the wizard) into knocking himself out (though it still makes for a fun little inclusion).
The Nitty-Gritty (Minor Spoilers Ahead):
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is an extremely visual film that is heavily seeped in Chinese lore and mythology; aesthetically, it stands out beautifully from other films in the MCU, especially in the fight choreography and the largely oriental setting of the film once the characters move away from san Francisco. Even then, fights and shots are framed in a way that is visually engaging and entertaining, with the camera being fluid and flowing as smoothly as Shang-Chi’s fast and elegant movements. Macau provides an alluring neon background for Xialing’s fight club while Wenwu’s compound embodies his centuries of age and experience. Of course, it is Ta Lo that really makes the film stand out; an alternate dimension of mythological wonders come to life, Ta Lo is a land untouched by the ravages and wars of man and heavily reliant upon the old ways of combat and the benefits of magical armaments. The closest MCU parallels I can draw are to Black Panther (Coogler, 2018) and Doctor Strange (Derrickson, 2016) for the way it mixes traditional oriental folklore and magic with advanced technology, at times, and the use of both to create a whole new corner of the MCU, one rich in notions such as chi and lost lands of wonders that potential hold more dangers for this interconnected world.
And then there are the fight scenes. Honestly, we haven’t seen fight scenes like this in the MCU at all, and they’re very rarely in cinema these days as well. Fights are fast-paced, kinetic, and full of energy, motion, emotion, and variety. Shang-Chi is every bit a living weapon, easily able to defend himself against numerous armed and unarmed foes even in close quarters like on a double-length bus or on a narrow scaffold while also being so away of his surroundings that has able to keep Katy safe from harm at the same time. At first, he is completely unmatched; even the hulking Razor Fist can’t hold to tough him so expert are his martial arts skills, but Xialing is able to defeat him in their cage fight thanks to Shang-Chi holding back against her and her having trained to be his equal. In Ta Lo, Shang-Chi learns additional martial arts skills, ones more focused on chi and serenity than anger and brute force, in order to stand toe-to-toe with his father, who is an accomplished fighter even without his magical ten rings. Thanks to a fluid camera and some truly incredible shots, Shang-Chi’s fights are a masterpiece of visual cinema that all seem to flow as one continuous shot and really highlight how talented the character (and the actors) are in their craft.
Similar to Black Panther, the film concludes with a dual sequence depicting Xialing and Katy battling alongside the residents of Ta Lo to defend it from the Ten Rings and Shang-Chi confronting his father in a series of escalating fist fights. The stakes become incredibly high as Wenwu fanatically pound son the Dark Gate, convinced that it will return Ying Li to him, only to unleash a swarm of demonic creatures that suck the souls from their victims! While Ta Lo and the Ten Rings are forced to fight together to fend off these winded demons, Shang-Chi desperately tries to talk sense into his father and to stop him from destroying the gate entirely. Thanks to Wenwu’s ten rings and his mad obsession, to say nothing of his centuries of experience and knowledge, to say that the would-be Mandarin is a formidable foe is more than an understatement. Shang-Chi, however, finds the strength to persevere and continue to battle against his father, even turning the power of the rings against him at one point and summoning one hell of a game-changing ally to aid in the fight, as he finally accepts his destiny and true self. While a lot of MCU films can have somewhat disappointing conclusions as the heroes battle a dark mirror of themselves Shang-Chi chooses an intense and emotionally charged finale that pits father against son. While the influx of gigantic CGI creatures can detract from this narrative, it doesn’t change how spectacular a debut and finale this is for the titular character, who makes an impactful first appearance in the MCU that appears as though it’ll have lasting ramifications for this shared universe of films.
Considering I absolutely nothing about Shang-Chi and was only really aware of three characters in this film (one of which being another vastly different interpretation of the Mandarin), I really enjoyed Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. The final battle was maybe a little overblown and dragged a bit and there were a few instances where we told things rather than being showed them but, overall, it was a very entertaining film. It feels like forever since I’ve seen a big budget kung fu film at the cinema and Shang-Chi definitely delivered on that front, showcasing easily the most fluid, complex, and impressive fight scene sin the MCU and shining a long-overdue spotlight on a hitherto unseen corner of Marvel’s interconnected world. Simu Liu is instantly likeable as the well-meaning, but flawed, main character, Awkwafina stole the show with her loveable and amusing escapades, and Tony Leung brought a depth and emotional complexity that I wasn’t expecting from one of Marvel’s most fearsome villains. With top-notch special effects, jaw-dropping fight scenes, and a focus on Chinese mythology and folklore, Shang-Chi has opened a door into even more spectacular territory for the MCU and I’m excited to see where the character and his world go next as Phase Four continues on.
Have you seen Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings? If so, what did you think to it? Are you a fan of the title character? What are some of your favourite Shang-Chi stories and moments from the comics? Which of the film’s fantastical creatures and cameos was your favourite? What did you think to this new interpretation of the Mandarin and the way the character’s been handled in the MCU? What’s your favourite kung fu movie? Whatever your thoughts, sign up and leave a comment or let me know on my social media.