Featuring Simu Liu (TV’s Kim’s Convenience) as the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first Asian headliner, can Shang-Chi reach the heights of past Marvel entries?
Return to the MCU
In the days before Covid-19 upended the world, superhero mania had gotten to the point that fans could reliably expect two to three Marvel Cinematic Universe entries a year. 18 months later, despite filming and release schedules disrupted by Covid, the Marvel brand is as popular as ever, with the introduction of Disney+ providing opportunities for new narrative wrinkles across multiple formats. With Philippine cinemas’ recent reopening giving studios the chance to play catch up at the box office, the House of Mouse kicked things off with Black Widow and is now set to bow Shang-Chi: The Legend of the Ten Rings.
When we first meet Shang-Chi, he’s hiding out in San Francisco as Shaun, an underachieving immigrant who spends his days as a valet for the Fairmont Hotel, before drinking away his evenings with his best friend, Katy (Awkwafina, Raya, Crazy Rich Asians). Their lives are thrown into disarray when an attack by assassins (including Creed 2’s Florian Munteanu, sporting a bionic machete for a hand) reveals Shaun to be the son of Wen Wu (Tony Leung, In the Mood For Love, Hard Boiled), an immortal warlord with a thirst for power.
With Wen Wu on a quest to resurrect his long-dead wife (Fala Chen, Secret Treasure), Shang-Chi sets out to find his long-lost sister, Xialing (Meng’er Zhang). What follows is a journey that will take them to the very origins of the Ten Rings terrorist organization (first shown in Iron Man, way back in 2008), before culminating in a mystical showdown with nothing less than (what else?) the fate of the world hanging in the balance. As they encounter MCU faces old and new, the siblings will be forced to contend with the past they tried so hard to leave behind.
A new kind of hero
Where Black Widow served as a prequel/epilogue of sorts for Scarlett Johansson’s popular super-spy, Shang-Chi represents a fresh start for the MCU in more ways than one, as its main plot doesn’t rely on pre-existing narratives. With the nods to the larger universe relegated to peripheral references and a couple of cameos, Shang-Chi is, for the most part, free to chart its own path.
Nowhere to be found is the sort of life-changing trauma that shaped Brue Banner or Stephen Strange, nor is there the specialized technology that Tony Stark or Ant-Man rely on. This is an altogether different kind of origin story, with our hero’s main source of conflict stemming from attempting to reconcile his rigid upbringing with the freewheeling American existence he’s grown accustomed to.
The Chinese connection(s)
Adding to the overall feeling of freshness is the much-lauded incorporation of Chinese culture, as told largely from the ABC (American-Born Chinese) perspective, which is commented upon several times. From start to end, the film references everything from vintage wuxia sequences to classic Chinese mythology. But while the film is a fun adventure story in the MCU mold, but there’s no denying that it could have done more, especially when compared to the likes of Black Panther, which actually had something to say about the culture it was depicting. Admittedly, the film shows infinitely more reverence for its inspirations than last year’s misguided Mulan remake, but at this point, just getting the references right should be considered the bare minimum.
Story-wise, much is made of Shaun’s exodus from his father’s influence, but not enough time is given to just why Wen Wu would cease his centuries-long crusade, much less why his wife was so willing to give up her life and responsibilities in Ta Lo for him. In any case, these would be fascinating subjects to explore for the inevitable sequel (and, to be honest, we’ll take pretty much any excuse to see more of Leung).
Masters of Kung Fu
As Shaun/Shang-Chi, Liu is easy-going, displaying the same affable charm and propensity to go shirtless as he did on Kim’s Convenience. His martial arts moves may be a bit stiff, but his humorous interactions with Awkwafina’s Katy more than make up for his need for stunt doubles (digital or otherwise). Affably likable as he is, the titular character is rarely the one moving the plot forward – that honor goes to the majority of the film’s supporting cast, not the least of which is his battle-hardened father, whom Leung brings to life through the power of sheer charisma. In scene after scene, Leung imbues his character with more dignity and presence than the script probably called for, making his character’s (somewhat flimsy) motivations seem halfway plausible.
As Katy, Awkwafina is in her element, providing sarcasm and comic relief in equal measure. Making more of an impression is Meng’er Zhang as Xialing, whose frustrations at being sidelined for the majority of her life are expressed through explosive bouts of martial fury.
Chinese cinematic roots
Structurally, Shang-Chi’s sections are distinguished by their fights (choreographed by former Jackie Chan Stunt Team alumnus Brad Allan, who passed away before the film’s release), with each bout representing different eras of Chinese cinema. The opening of the film, with its wirework and romanticized combat, takes cues from the wuxia craze of the 70s, as well as its early 2000s renaissance, while the San Francisco portion borrows liberally from the intricately-choreographed Jackie Chan fights from the 80s and 90s that had him take on multiple opponents in intricate and amusing ways.
By the time we get to Macau, we’re in the slick, shiny 2000s, where traditional techniques and slick editing met big-budget, high-tech backdrops. The final third of the film, set in the mystical village of Ta Lo, pays homage to the nationalistic special effects fests that the mainland’s been cranking out for the last decade or so, albeit with the decidedly-Marvelesque trope of the disposable minion army descending from the sky. For old-school fans, the inclusion of martial arts mainstays Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Star Trek: Discovery) and Yuen Wah (Dragons Forever, Kung Fu Hustle) to the proceedings is a bonus.
MCU connections (SPOILER WARNING!)
Just as Avengers: Endgame and Wandavision validated story elements in Thor 2 and Avengers: Age of Ultron, respectively, Shang-Chi does the same for Iron Man 3 by addressing the controversy behind Ben Kingsley’s ill-fated take on the Mandarin. Originally conceived to circumvent the inherently racist nature of the original character (being based on offensive stereotypes), the reveal of that film’s big bad as a struggling Liverpudian actor named Trevor was a twist that made Tilda Swinton’s later turn as Doctor Strange’s Tibetan mentor seem positively inspired by comparison. Last seen in an MCU short film entitled, “Hail to the King”, where members of the Ten Rings organization menacingly confronted him in prison, Kingsley’s performance here is worth the price of admission, as the Academy Award-winning thespian milks laughs from his character’s abject obliviousness.
Post credits-wise, aside from a perplexing peek at Wong’s underground fighting career, the Shang-Chi cast doesn’t actually interact with any of the Avengers until the end credits, when Earth’s Mightiest Heroes take an interest in Wen Wu’s signature weapons. Where the story goes from here is anybody’s guess, but we’re guessing that whatever signal the rings are putting out will be a catalyst for whatever all-encompassing threat Phase 4 has in store.
The bottom line
Shang-Chi is a fun, spirited adventure that shows off a different side of the MCU, riffing on the martial arts flicks of years past while putting its own, super-powered spin on things. Seeing as a sequel is all but assured at this point, we’re just hoping that any follow-ups include a deeper dive into both the characters and the lore.
Shang-Chi opens at Philippine cinemas today.