Shang-Chi began life in 1973 as Marvel’s own ‘Master of Kung Fu’, aiming to capitalise on the popularity of Bruce Lee and martial arts movies at the time. The character was problematic by today’s standards, particularly as Marvel acquired the rights to racist caricature Fu Manchu and decided to make Shang-Chi his son, and then the kung fu craze was over and his solo adventures ended in 1983. Shang-Chi’s appeared in print sporadically since then, but now Marvel Studios have revived the character for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which hopes to do for Asian representation what Black Panther (2018) did for the black community.
A flashback sets up the backstory that warlord Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung) came to dominate the Ancient World thanks to his possession of the titular ‘Ten Rings’; forearm-sized bracelets that grant the wearer immortality and incredible power in combat. Centuries later, Wenwu has become the leader of a criminal army manipulating governments, but is restless and wants to expand his power by conquering the mystical village of Ta Lo. But in his attempt, he falls in love with gatekeeper Yin Li (Fala Chen), decides to give up his dark past for her, and together they have two children: Shang-Chi (Jayden Zhang) and Xialing (Elodie Fong). But after Yin Li’s death, Wenwu falls back into old habits and starts training his son to become heir to his criminal empire, which eventually forces Shang-Chi to run away to San Francisco, where he grows up to become unassuming parking valet “Shaun” (Simu Liu).
The 25th Marvel Studios movie, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings comes with a lot of hope and expectations, not least for providing Asian audiences with a new hero they can identify with better. There’s a strong risk of formula creeping into Marvel after 13 years, if it hasn’t already, and it’s doesn’t help that Black Widow (2021) launched ‘Phase Four’ of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) on a backwards-facing note. Thankfully, writers Dave Callaham (Wonder Woman 1984), Andrew Lanham, and Destin Daniel Cretton (who also directs) craft a compelling adventure that weaves together fantasy and martial arts, with Marvel’s usual tongue-in-cheek humour and dazzling visuals. It follows Black Panther’s playbook closely, only with a stronger focus on its father-son relationship.
The emotional backbone of Legend of the Ten Rings is thankfully given the most attention, aided by a wonderful performance from Hong Kong star Tony Leung (Hard Boiled), here making his Hollywood debut as the “Mandarin” controversially teased in Iron Man 3 (2013). It helps that the storyline is mostly a present-day adventure with Shang-Chi and his friend Katy (Awkwafina) coming under attack from Wenwu’s men (who are after two green pendants), which means audience surrogate Katy’s eyes are opened to her pal’s bizarre family history. And we’re occasionally given more flashbacks that explain exactly what happened with Shang-Chi’s family to make him leave his widowed dad behind for a new life. The parallel storytelling works well to give the illusion of depth to what’s ultimately a straightforward tale, but for once Marvel’s marketing hasn’t spoiled many of the bigger surprises and much of what the third act involves.
Simu Liu makes for a personable lead, as he’s both a talented comic actor and a brilliant martial artist, ably supported by the more outwardly amusing Awkwafina (Crazy Rich Asians). I particularly appreciated how they’re not romantically entangled, but best friends who enjoy getting drunk together and going to karaoke bars. It immediately grounds Shang-Chi and makes him more relatable than other superheroes in Marvel’s repository, and even the fact he’s an ordinary guy without super-powers worked—when it’s often a problem being expected to believe humans can hold their own against gods and monsters. The addition of the Ten Rings as a magical garment also proves useful, later on, of course.
Tony Leung steals the movie from under everyone’s nose, as it’s rare to have a villain this sympathetic and likable, albeit cursed by his comfort in chasing power and his grief. You really want him to see the error of his ways and atone for his sins, thanks to his son’s positive influence, much like Darth Vader with Luke Skywalker. Legend of the Ten Rings is fundamentally about the darkness inside Shang-Chi’s father, in contrast with the light that filled his mother’s soul, and how their children are a combination of both people who must learn to walk their own path in life. This is nothing particularly fresh to explore, but it’s handled well and there’s some fun gender politics added after we meet Shang-Chi’s grown-up sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), who was always in her brother’s shadow but ran away to start her own underground fight club empire.
Similarities to Black Panther abound, even if the world-building isn’t as strong as that film’s potent use of Afrofuturism. It eventually builds to an extended action set-piece in Shang-Chi’s version of Wakanda — the ancient village of Ta Lo, filled with warriors in dragon-scale armour (Michelle Yeoh amongst them) living amongst fabled creatures. It’s even protected from outsiders by an ever-changing forest maze, so can be seen as a low-tech version of Wakanda in many ways. But while some may complain the climax devolves into yet another CGI extravaganza, it’s worth remembering that everything taking place is anchored by the relationships and character dynamics the story’s spent well over an hour setting up. The fights always tell a story (Wenwu even falls in love during a playful skirmish), and even by the end things don’t turn into repetitive punching and fighting. You really do care what happens to everyone, and who survives isn’t too predictable. The only regrettable thing is that Awkwafina becomes less important as the story develops, especially once her role use as comic relief is replaced by a surprise returning character from the MCU.
Overall, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings takes lessons learned from Black Panther and applies them to Asian culture, while remembering there’s strength in characters most people have no pre-existing attachment to, much like Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) discovered to its benefit. It’s fast-paced, action-packed, funny, soulful, surprising, and marks another example of Marvel’s skill at making accessible blockbuster entertainment. Simu Liu does get overshadowed by his screen father at times, and some of the flashbacks interrupt the flow of the present-day story a little too much, but director Destin Daniel Cretton successfully levels up from low-budget fare like Short Term 12 (2013) and The Glass Castle (2017).
USA • AUSTRALIA | 2021 | 132 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
director: Destin Daniel Cretton.
writers: Dave Callaham, Destin Daniel Cretton & Andrew Lanham (story by Dave Callaham & Destin Daniel Cretton; based on the Marvel Comics).
starring: Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Meng’er Zhang, Fala Chen, Florian Munteanu, Benedict Wong, Michelle Yeoh & Tony Leung.