The previous Marvel Cinematic Universe big screen release, “Black Widow,” was only eight weeks ago, but thanks to a backlog of pandemic-delayed films, we already have our next blockbuster: “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.”
This is Disney’s first coronavirus-era blockbuster that will not be put on streaming simultaneously with its theatrical premiere, and as a result, it may struggle at the box office. This is unfortunate because “Shang-Chi” is Marvel’s most physically spectacular and emotionally gratifying film to date.
“Shang-Chi” is the 25th feature film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and the sixth movie in Marvel’s “Phase 4,” which marks the beginning of the post-“Iron Man” period. The first episode of this phase, “Shang-Chi,” introduces a new superhero to the pantheon: Xu Shang-Chi, a Chinese-born superhero.
The film is a historic franchise first, similar to the origin narrative films “Black Panther” and “Captain Marvel.” Simu Liu is the first Asian lead in a Marvel film, and the film is also the first in the MCU to include a largely Asian and Asian American cast, as well as an Asian American writer (Dave Callaham) and director (Destin Daniel Cretton).
Shang-Chi, a comic book character, isn’t exactly a leading contender for a big-budget film. The superhero was created in 1973 to capitalize on the increasing kung-fu film craze, and it is a hodgepodge of horrible stereotypes set in often shamefully racist tales.
(An era-appropriate character, Iron Fist, a white savior hero with “kung fu superpowers,” was already Netflix’s biggest flop as part of Marvel’s first foray into streaming.) A decade later, the persona was completely forgotten, and the title was withdrawn. However, the film takes advantage of this by completely redesigning Shang-Chi.
The plot is straightforward, as it is in most superhero films: Shang-Chi (Liu) must transform from an immature valet to a man who believes in himself and, in doing so, defend the world from evil.
In this scenario, the villain is his own estranged father, Wenwu (Tony Leung), the 1,000-year-old commander of the powerful Ten Rings organization, also known as The Mandarin in America. Shang-Chi has a fling with Katy (Awkwafina), a fellow slacker in need of maturation who travels with him for plot exposition purposes.
After being undervalued and belittled owing to her gender, his sister, Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), who he left behind when he fled away, must also learn to trust in herself.
Shang-Chi, Xialing, and Katy eventually band together to combat mythological soul suckers, mature a little, and even offer a redemption arc for dear old dad.
However, the treatment of this well-known material via the perspective of Chinese culture results in a completely unique product that white superhero origin stories lack.
The most noticeable is the visual language. Shang-action Chi’s sequences are reminiscent of some of Jackie Chan’s best blockbusters, while Wenwu’s tale reflects the wuxia heritage of martial arts fantasy.
(In fact, the hero’s fighting talents are the result of his father’s vicious and abusive training regimen, not a superpower.) Even the titular “Ten Rings” weaponry, which Wenwu wields and which grants him an unusually long life, is transformed from comic-book finger rings to power bracelets right out of Stephen Chow’s “Kung-Fu Hustle.”
As the protagonists go to a secluded village guarded by a violent bamboo forest where magical hybrid animals from Chinese fairy tales like pixiu, dijiang, and longma roam the terrain, the influence of Chinese mythology becomes even more apparent.
The film’s emphasis on family and tradition sets it apart from previous Marvel films. After being rejected, ignored, or removed from their birth parents, most superhero origin stories revolve around found families, with the hero surrounding themselves with like-minded pals.
Shang-Chi appears to follow in the pattern of the “evil father” at first glance, yet even this stereotype has layers. The path to atonement is paved through the discovery and acceptance of family members, including a long-lost aunt named Ying Nan (Michelle Yeoh).
It also helps that Leung, a living icon, gives his role a lot of depth. This is a villain, like Erik Killmonger in “Black Panther,” whose motivations are based on true suffering.
The outcome is a figure that is less of a megalomaniac by default and more of a person who is continually on the verge of choosing good over evil before almost always making the wrong decision.
The 25th sequel to anything was often considered the ultimate Hollywood punchline, symbolizing an industry devoid of imagination. In contrast, “Shang-Chi” is tearing down the walls, following on the heels of the comfortable blanket of familiarity that was “Black Widow.”
If this is what Marvel fans may expect in the future, the following 25 films may be the best yet.