“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” Marvel’s first movie to center around an Asian superhero, brought storytelling, hand-to-hand combat and a beautiful music score unlike anything I’ve seen in a Marvel movie before.
It didn’t take long for me to forget I was watching a Marvel movie. The movie began by showing Ta Lo, a peaceful village brimming with mystical creatures and natural beauty. This is where Shang-Chi’s parents meet, with a fight that is flirtatious and romantic in every move. Unlike most love stories in the MCU, theirs is given a considerable amount of screen time and underscored by warm lighting and soft music. However, this tranquility doesn’t last long.
The real action begins after Shang-Chi is tricked into returning to China by his centuries-old father, Wenwu (Tony Leung), whose life has been extended by wearing the Ten Rings. Wenwu is convinced that his late wife is imprisoned in Ta Lo, and enlists his estranged children to help her. Shang-Chi and his sister, Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) don’t agree with the extremes Wenwu is willing to take, and find themselves fighting against him when he attacks Ta Lo.
The fight scenes that incorporate hand-to-hand martial arts combat are choreographed artfully. It’s almost like watching a dance. With the exclusion of Marvel’s typical frequent cuts in action scenes, it’s much easier to actually watch and enjoy. Between this, the heavy focus on visual beauty and characters’ relationships, “Shang-Chi” didn’t have the typical feel of a Marvel movie, and was all the better for it. The film also had elements of nonlinear storytelling and scenes shown through multiple perspectives, which I found fascinating.
Sadly, the beautifully-executed hand-to-hand combat is replaced in the climax by CGI dragons. However, even that is well done, with striking colors, visuals of nature and a soundtrack that swells along with the action.
While Wenwu is posed as the film’s antagonist, his story is complicated and tragic. He left behind his criminal empire for domestic bliss with his wife, but resumed to avenge her death, this time inflicting trauma onto his children. What humanizes him, however, is that he truly loved his wife and children, even if he didn’t really know how. His evil actions that we see through the majority of the film are all done out of love for his wife, which makes it a bit harder to hate him.
Wenwu also addresses Marvel’s problematic past in its portrayal of Asian characters, namely the Mandarin, a racist Chinese caricature that embodied the “yellow peril” of the 1960s. Wenwu, the real Mandarin (not the fake one that baited Tony Stark), mocks the character’s name and peoples’ fear of it, saying they’re afraid of a type of chicken. More importantly, his goal in this movie doesn’t concern conquering anything; he just wants to find his wife.
I do wish that we got to see more of Shang-Chi’s life in America, as well as his personality. What we do learn about him, we mostly learn from flashbacks or him giving drops of information to his friend, Katy (Awkwafina). However, this caused me to be far more interested in Xialing, who taught herself martial arts behind Wenwu’s back and escaped to run an underground fighting ring. She engages in hand-to-hand combat against men and carries herself with cool confidence, yet doesn’t lack personality.
Katy is meant to be the comic relief for much of the film, until we are reintroduced to Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley), who played the face of Mandarin International in “Iron Man 3” and is kept imprisoned by Wenwu as a jester. While the choice of casting Awkwafina was criticized for other reasons, I found Trevor to be genuinely funnier and more likeable. I did, however, see the merit in contrasting Awkwafina’s Chinese-American character with Chinese characters.
I would recommend “Shang-Chi” even to those who aren’t Marvel fans, because it’s so unlike anything I’ve seen before from Marvel. I would love to see more Marvel movies incorporate the elements that made it special, and I’m glad to finally see more Asian representation in the MCU.