“If you aim at nothing, you hit nothing.”
I hear there’s been some sort of pandemic? I hadn’t noticed. I had always been planning to spend the last 2 years at home. Regardless, when the time came for the service and hospitality industry to re-open, movie companies began to line up their releases to test the waters for the return of audiences. With Black Widow landing a dual-release on Disney+ alongside a theatrical release in markets where cinemas had re-opened, Disney and Marvel were keen to get their newest release to as many theatres as possible; but with a risk – given that it’s the first outing for a superhero who is arguably the least well-known to more casual comics fans in Shang-Chi. Did the risk pay off?
In Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings, we join Shaun (Simu Liu) in San Francisco, enjoying a quiet life with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina). When his father Xu Wenwu (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung), the leader of the legendary Ten Rings criminal organisation, sends assassins to find him and a steal pendant given to him by his deceased mother Li (Fala Chen); Shaun reveals his true identity to be that of Shang-Chi, and begins a journey to save his sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) and stop his father’s plans…
In the history of Marvel comics, Shang-Chi is known as The Master Of Kung-Fu, and is a character who dates back to the 1970’s. His history includes teaching Spider-Man how to fight in a way that best utilises his spider abilities, membership of The Avengers, and as a founding member of The Protectors. However; Shang-Chi’s comics backstory has been reworked and partially disregarded for the film version (in part due to him being created by white guys in the 70’s), so the interpretation presented by writers Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham and writer and director Destin Daniel Cretton was in part influenced by a license from Marvel to rework the character’s personality and lore to better represent the experiences of the modern Asian community, encapsulating the experiences of first, second and third generation Asian-American immigrants as a part of the history of the character. Shang-Chi himself is, technically, a first generation immigrant; while Katy is third generation Asian-American, and the differing experiences they have in relation to their family history is quietly layered into their relationship in a warm and affectionate way. Awkwafina and Liu have great chemistry, which boosts the dialogue & direction from Cretton and sells the relationship wonderfully, to the level that in the moment, I didn’t stop to question why Katy would voluntarily tag along with Shang-Chi as he endeavoured to travel halfway around the world and save his sister from his father’s mercenaries.
Shang-Chi doesn’t just play on the immigrant experience in its reverence to Asian culture, but also takes influence from traditional Asian cinema, especially Hong Kong martial arts films in its construction of the fight scenes (but also influences from Korean and Japanese cinema too). Shang-Chi lives up to his name as The Master Of The Martial Arts in this piece, and the first scene where we see him throw hands (set on a San Francisco bus) is a slick and well-crafted sequence, showing off Simu Liu’s impressive fighting skills, and showcasing superhero fight scenes in a way that gives a different feel to many of the action sequences in previous Marvel outings; with everything from soundtrack to cinematography style feeling fresh and inspired. That feeling continues throughout most of the film; with only the more bombastic and fantastical final act allowing itself to revert back to the traditional Marvel formula a little more; but even that sequence carries a certain flair and subtle variations of style and execution that keep that fresh feeling until the film’s climax.
The casting for Shang-Chi is noteworthy for a number of reasons beyond the chemistry between Liu and Awkwafina. Liu’s big screen debut demonstrates that he is well suited as a film lead; with his natural warmth, charisma and comic timing all coming through. While his chemistry with Awkwafina is a highlight, it is not his only strong on-screen relationship, as he demonstrates great chemistry with all of the extended cast, especially Meng’er Xang and Tony Leung. Meng’er Zhang is also a noteworthy casting choice here, as not only is this her big screen debut; it’s her any screen debut (though she does have a history in Chinese theatre). There are no signs that she has never acted for screen before; whether it be raw talent or the direction and assistance of Cretton and her more experienced castmates, Zhang flourishes in her role and brings a level of charisma and passion to rival that of Liu and Awkwafina, giving us glimpses through Xialing’s ice-queen exterior to a warmth underneath at appropriate moments, and arguably putting in a more impressive display than Liu does in the action sequences, which has a certain dramatic irony when considering the stories each character tells about their upbringing (but you’ll have to watch the movie to understand what I mean here. No spoilers).
Tony Leung, a legend of Hong Kong cinema, makes his Hollywood debut in Shang-Chi after a prestigious 40 year career, and demonstrates to Western audiences why he is held in such high regard in Eastern cinema. His cool, calm and considered portrayal of Xu Wenwu fits perfectly into Marvel’s underlying theme of Dads Who Don’t Know How To Dad, and he poignantly and acutely demonstrates the depth and complexity of emotion Wenwu has around his wife and children with as a little as a look; cruising through scenes and commanding attention from the audience every time he is on screen. The rest of the principal cast seem almost as transfixed in their scenes with him, and it is obvious that Liu and Zhang made the most of the opportunity to work with an actor of Leung’s calibre. Even with the CGI nonsense adding a fantastical level to Leung’s action scenes, his skill as a martial artist still comes through; and one particular showdown with Shang-Chi rivals the aforementioned San Francisco bus scene in terms of its power of engagement.
The rest of the supporting cast is rounded out by both more high-status Asian actors and up-and-coming Asian stars; including the legendary Michelle Yeoh as Ying Nan on one end (a role which gives Yeoh a chance to display her own martial arts skills, alongside her signature brand of empathetic acting), and The Daily Show correspondent and up-and-coming comedian and actor Ronny Chieng on the other (Chieng, in particular, does a lot with a relatively small amount of screen time and would be a very welcome returning character in any potential sequel movies or series down the line). Florian Munteanu and Andy Le both put in strong action performances as Razor Fist and Death Dealer; with Munteanu also getting a few opportunities to show off his own comedic chops at points.
Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings is both an exciting return to the big screen for Marvel, and the suggestion that Marvel may be looking to experiment with the formula as we move into Phase 4 and away from the after effects of Avengers: Endgame. Strong, charismatic performances from the central cast, interesting and exciting direction from Destin Daniel Cretton and a story that blends cosmic Marvel nonsense with elements of traditional folklore from a variety of Asian cultures; Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings not only breaks conventions in terms of Hollywood film production, but also presents one of the most interesting, engaging and diverse films out of Marvel since Black Panther; something that works to the benefit of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole. If you like Marvel movies; watch this movie. If you like martial arts movies, watch this movie.