So, I never would have expected Marvel Studios to pull off a feature as incredible as Black Panther years ago. Ryan Coogler and his black cast stole the show by representing black culture, exploring excellent themes, and a subtle evaluation of how colonialism gave rise to the oppressed themselves. Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, and (arguably) Black Widow indicate how we should allow women to become the stars and take advantage of their backstories (rather than be regulated as sidekicks in the team-up blockbusters).
Now, Marvel has ventured out by giving a film to Shang-Chi, one of the most obscure (and complex) heroes in the lore. In the comics, he was the son of Fu Manchu, a character ingrained in stereotypical Chinese villainy. For years, the character has remained lost in the shuffle as the beloved heroes like Spider-Man, Superman, and Batman took over the screen. And since Marvel Studios bravely continues to risk giving audiences new superheroes to root for, they once again hit a home run.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a fine addition to the vibrant Marvel Cinematic Universe, with some of the best action choreography, a tremendous Asian-led cast, and a solid screenplay. Marvel Studios, your streak continues to 25-0.
The film has two identities at its core: the first deals with Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), the son of an immortal crime lord with ten stylistic rings Wenwu (Tony Leung), who deserted his father’s empire to seek a new life in San Francisco working as a car valet alongside his friend Katy (Awkwafina). The second tackles the Marvel formula by bringing a spin on Chinese and Asian American culture, with martial-arts action and fairy tales. It all melds together to become a fresh product in the evolving superhero genre.
Destin Daniel Cretton, director of Just Mercy and Short Term 12, distinguishes his tale with potent family drama and eye-dropping martial arts sequences. The latter emphasizes precision and agility instead of absurd CGI trickery (even though the third act does fall to this problem). The fights on the bus, the final act, and even the opening few minutes are wonderfully shot. Cretton mentioned he became inspired by the Jackie Chan action films, Ip Man series, and Tai Chi Master. Proof of that is at one fight sequence (a la Jackie Chan’s stunt work in Rush Hour 2).
The family drama comes from the flashbacks progressively dispersed. Wenwu got in love with Li (Fala Chen), and they raised a family. Simultaneously, they relinquished their powers to remain together. When Li, unfortunately, was murdered by a Chinese gang, Wenwu returned to the power-hungry father status by wielding his immortal rings and taught his son Shang-Chi to become a brick-hearted student-built like a killing machine. Shang-Chi’s sister, Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), learns to practice independently and becomes estranged from her brother after he abandoned her as a kid. Shang-Chi, Xialing, and Katy must work together and find a secret magical area to prevent Wenwu from destroying it and unleashing unspeakable evil.
Liu embodies the character of Shang-Chi astonishingly, battling his good vs. evil dilemma while seeking to move out from his father’s shadow. He has a likable persona, wishing to do good for the world. Awkwafina is a fine addition, and Meng’er Zhang deserves praise for her performance. Tony Leung as the main villain, will surprise many because he has a soul and commanding presence. He grounds the work’s fanciness with calm malice due to his unlimited power and asserts his anguish over the loss of his wife.
Of course, this is a Marvel film, and while it plays up to its strengths, the weaknesses become highly apparent when looking at the overall presentation. The main issue is that the storytelling becomes elaborate and a little too sophisticated for the audience to handle. We get it, it’s a lot to take in, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be.
Iron Man works because of an egocentric billionaire learning to do more than worshipping himself. Captain America: The First Avenger illustrates how a man wants to preserve his good traits amidst a chaotic war. Thor explains that we all must make the proper choices to become worthy. Shang Chi’s tale here combines the Fast & Furious series, a Disney live-action fairy tale remake, and something along the lines of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The rushed ending also feels cheap, and the third act gets blown up by too much CGI and chaotic effects (nearly every Marvel movie tends to do this now).
Still, the journey to the end is tremendous, and much praise must go to Marvel Studios once again. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a fun and stylistic romp that almost breaks free of the systematic Marvel formula. Like Black Panther, it enhances its presentation with a strong rendition of a nonwhite culture. It is no experiment, folks; this is a win for Asian-American culture.