Shang-Chi, both the man and the movie, are in a conflict with the past. The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s 25th film — oh, how the time has flown — is fiercely reliant on the franchise’s now-foolproof formula, but also quite prepared to get freaky if and when the situation demands. While Shang-Chi, the character, reckons with the villainous ways of his father, director Destin Daniel Cretton’s massively entertaining movie attempts to undo mistakes committed by its own parent, the MCU.
It’s a Marvel film for a Gen-Z crowd, ashamed of the more archaic avenues that the franchise has previously walked down, but also willing to engage with and ultimately embrace woke-minded alternatives.
Watch the Shang-Chi trailer here:
Shakespearean in its themes of family and visually flashy like the wuxia epics of Zhang Yimou, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a welcome return to form for the MCU after the unbearably impersonal Black Widow. The two movies could be case studies for how the same basic structure can be moulded into different stories.
In Cretton’s hands, the sort of origin tale we’ve seen spun dozens of times before takes on a freshness that had been missing from the MCU since Black Panther. Besides the Avengers movies, Marvel’s most recent solo offerings — the two Spider-Man films, Captain Marvel and the contractually-obligated blob of nothingness that was Black Widow — have been indistinguishable from each other. Shang-Chi, although it treads familiar thematic ground, feels positively radical in both its style and texture.
But as critical as it is of cultural appropriation, I’m not it sure adequately earns the right to call certain things out. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is the MCU’s first film with an Asian lead, but it is — and let’s not forget this — a Disney production filmed in Australia. Nor can I condone the slanderous tone it takes against Iron Man 3, which remains one of the final examples of the Marvel’s more risk-friendly past, and among my favourite things that the studio has ever done.
I must skirt around plot details for obvious reasons, especially since the trailers have done a great job at keeping several key developments a secret. For instance, none of the third act insanity has been spoiled at all, and even though it is envelope-pushing not just by MCU standards but also in the context of Shang-Chi, it feels in line with the film’s internal logic.
But before that epic showdown, Shang-Chi’s action is a mixture of intense close-combat and fluid, Crouching Tiger-inspired fights — all courtesy the late stunt coordinator Brad Allan, to whom the film is dedicated. This is all very unusual for the MCU, which has unfortunately been rather unimaginative when it comes to action, having settled for CGI spectacle and generic quick-cutting. And who can ignore the stories of how some sequences in Marvel projects are pre-visualised in computers even before a script has been written?
But more than the action in Shang-Chi, it’s the film’s strong emotional centre that took me by surprise. At its core, it’s a film about family and legacy, and the relationship between a grieving father and his two children, who have had wildly different reactions to the abandonment they’ve suffered at his hands.
Played by the great Tony Leung, Wenwu is the film’s secret weapon, and easily the best antagonist Marvel has created since Black Panther’s Killmonger. Swatting away the franchise’s long-running ‘villain problem’ — which is code for when a Marvel movie pits a hero against someone who is simply their evil clone — Wenwu’s arc in the film, I would argue, is more resonant than even Shang-Chi’s.
He is driven not by hate, but by love. There is no better antagonist than one whose journey you can empathise with, and although Wenwu’s actions are often reprehensible, you can always understand (if not agree with) his motivations. It also doesn’t hurt that Cretton, in one of the series’ biggest casting coups, somehow convinced Leung to join the party, and not just for a glorified cameo. A scene in which he sits across the table from his kids and talks to them about what he does for a living is truly excellent.
It captures the strained relationship that he has with them. After their mother’s death, Shang-Chi fled to the United States and assumed a new identity — Shaun — and his sister Xialing started a fight club in Macau. They’re reunited as adults when they learn that their father is putting together a quest to locate and infiltrate Ta Lo, a mythical land that their mother used to tell them stories about.
As both an action star and as a dramatic performer, Simu Liu is a natural; he possesses all the qualities that Marvel looks for while casting its net for leading men and women — an easy charisma, a strong physical presence, and most importantly, instant relatability. As good as Liu is in his scenes with both his father and his best friend Katy (Awkwafina), the truest indication of his talents comes in a genuinely moving third-act admission by Shang-Chi.
Minor quibbles aside — Awkwafina’s character has no reason to be involved in the plot for as long as she is, and some of the CGI can feel a little gooey — Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is exactly the sort of refined entertainment that you’d expect from a Hollywood film of this scale.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Director – Destin Daniel Cretton
Cast – Simu Liu, Tony Leung, Awkwafina, Michelle Yeoh, Meng’er Zhang
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The author tweets @RohanNaahar