Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

After the creative and dramatic pothole that was Black Widow, Marvel returns to form with Shang-Chi and the Ten Rings.  Simun Liu stars as Shawn, a slacker (by choice) who spends his days as a valet with (platonic) best friend and fellow karaoke enthusiast Katy (Awkwafina).  The past Shawn ran away from tracks him down, resulting in a bus ride that would have made even Sandra Bullock nervous.  From there, Shawn reunites with the sister he abandoned, Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), and the father he ran away from, Wenwu (Tony Leung).  After spending years hiding from his past, Shawn is forced to accept who he is, as well as confront his father, who’s plans may put the entire world in danger.

Like most Marvel origin stories, Shang-Chi follows the template, down to the obligatory training sequences that confirm what we already know.  Fortunately, Shang-Chi colors outside the lines in ways that make this MCU entry exciting and engaging.  Most importantly, the movie takes its time and gives scenes (and the audience) a chance to breathe, letting us become immersed in its world before the fireworks arrive in the end.  The acting is exceptional all around, and supporting turns by Michelle Yeoh (as Shawn’s aunt) and Ben Kingsley (as misfit actor Trevor Slattery) add texture and humanity to the proceedings.  Shang-Chi leaves the funny business to Awkwafina, who’s career ascent has been nothing short of remarkable.  The special effects here are truly special, creating a sense of wonder instead of merely underpinning action sequences.  Highly recommended.

I have a confession to make: I avoid reviewing Marvel movies.  Why?  Mainly because they are critic-proof.  Even those entries that I would politely describe as lackluster (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Captain Marvel, Ant Man and the Wasp, Thor: The Dark World, the Iron Man sequels) make at least $200 million in domestic BO.  Fans of the MCU (myself included) will see every entry at least once, regardless of what the critics think.  Twenty-five films in, I’m invested in this ongoing saga.  If I skip one entry, I’m afraid I won’t understand the next one and be forced to play catch-up.

Another reason why I avoid reviewing Marvel movies is their omnipresence.  Because Marvel movies are the game in town now, in terms of box office receipts, each entry is reviewed and analyzed by every film critic under the sun because, well, you can’t not weigh-in on the biggest trend in movies over the past dozen years.  Furthermore, how can a respected film critic not review what may end up being one of the biggest movies released in a given year?

(On a side note, I wish film critics who generally don’t like Marvel movies would resist the pressure to review them.  Whenever I read a review by a critic who clearly would rather be doing anything else than, say, reviewing the latest Spider-Man, their disdain is palpable.  Their reviews read like a food critic reviewing a Big Mac when they’d rather be reviewing a dinner at Smith & Wollensky.)

Since superhero movies in general (and Marvel movies in particular) are so overwhelmingly popular, they get reviewed, critiqued and analyzed a lot.  Taken into consideration, I end up feeling that my opinion on a given Marvel movie would end up being a drop in the ocean.  Whatever I could come up with in my reviews certainly would be an echo of twenty other reviews at least.  So even though I definitely enjoyed The Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame, I figured my time would be better spent writing about smaller movies that people may not know about, but might enjoy watching if they took a chance on them.

If I’m avoiding reviewing Marvel movies, why did I review Black Widow?  In that case I was profoundly disappointed in the movie and wanted to explain why in more detail than by saying “it sucked”.  Why am I reviewing Shang-Chi, then?  Fortunately, for the complete opposite reaction.  I definitely enjoyed the movie, and would rank it as one of the better origin stories in the MCU, up there with the initial Iron Man, Thor and Captain America entries.  (Doctor Strange probably still is my all time favorite origin story, though.)

If you’ve already seen the movie and don’t need a summary, please feel free to skip to the Analysis section below.  I’ve made the summary entertaining, though, so you might want to indulge in a flippant-yet-affectionate recap…

Movie Summary

Shang-Chi begins with a lengthy prologue for a Marvel movie, and it’s not even about Shang-Chi!  Instead we learn about Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung), Shang-Chi’s father, and how he was a man driven to amass power and basically rule the world from the shadows.  The source of Wenwu’s power are the Ten Rings, a set of bracelets that give the person who wields them incredible power and long life.  After a millennia of exerting power and influence, Wenwu isn’t satisfied.  He seeks the village of Ta Lo, a place that contains mythical creatures.  Wenwu believes he can increase his power by going there, and heads there with a few trusted advisers.  The three are overpowered by the fastest moving bamboo trees on Earth, and only Wenwu survives.  Wenwu meets Ying Li (Fala Chen), the protector of the village.  The two fight, but animosity quickly turns to courtship.  Face it, guys are suckers for beautiful women who kick butt.  (And yes, the movie at this point is a variation of How I Met Your Mother, Marvel style.)

Wenwu eventually wins Li’s heart, but his reputation precedes him and he is forbidden to enter Ta Lo.  Wenwu puts the Ten Rings away and Li leaves her village so that the two can marry and start a family.  After Li’s untimely death, Wenwu gets the Ten Rings out of storage and exacts revenge.  Over the next several years, Wenwu trains Shang-Chi to be a master of Kung Fu.  Desperate for his father’s love, Shang-Chi punches a tree until his knuckles are bloody.   (Shang-Chi’s sister, Xialing, trains on the sly.)  When Wenwu locates the man who ordered the hit on Li, he sends Shang-Chi to kill him.

In present day San Francisco, we find a grown-up Shang-Chi, who calls himself Shawn (Simu Liu).  Years ago, he ran away from his father and his former life, and now spends his days as a valet with best friend Katy (Awkwafina).  At night, the two hit the local bars for some off-key karaoke. The movie wants us to think the two are slackers, but if they are, they are the most hyper slackers I’ve ever seen.  Also, they are just friends.  Even though they’ve known each other for ten years.  And they aren’t seeing anyone else but each other.  Every day.  Just friends.  (More on that later.)

Shawn and Katy are attacked on a bus by some highly trained assassin types, one who goes by the name of “Razor Fist” and has a blade for a hand.  Shawn fights them all off and protects the other passengers, while Katy plays the Sandra Bullock role from Speed.  The choreography is great, but the action feels a bit tame after the likes of Nobody.  (None of the participants gets a broken bone, and no blood is spilt.)  The bad guys steal Shawn’s pendant, for reasons that will be explained later.

After their bus ride from hell, Katy stops at Shawn’s apartment to find him packing up.  He tells her that he believes Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) is in danger and shows her a postcard with a dragon on it.  The address on the postcard is in  Macau.  Katy shifts into side-kick mode and insists on tagging along.

In Macau, Shawn is tricked into participating in a fighting ring.  At first he thinks he’s going to fight a huge fish-beast-man, but Wong (Benedict Wong) is the fish-beast-man’s sparring partner.  (Later on we find out that Wong and his opponent had everything planned out, like a wrestling match.)  Shawn is set to take on the fight club’s big-big-bad, who turns out to be his sister.  Naturally, he doesn’t want to hurt her, but she’s still pissed that he left her behind and never came back for her.  Xialing takes Shawn out quickly, gaining a modicum of revenge.

Backstage, Shawn finds out that Xialing didn’t send him the postcard, and that their father was probably behind it.  A group of Ninja assassin types (probably different from the bus episode, but they all wear masks, so hard to tell) try to take out Shawn, and he holds them off for a while.  They all fight on scaffolding outside of the building, which is super dangerous but looks super cool.  Xialing comes to Shawn’s aid, but eventually the two are overpowered.  Wenwu arrives and congratulates Shawn on not dying.  He takes Xialing’s pendant, and shuttles his kids and Katy over to the Ten Rings compound.

Wenwu treats his guests to dinner and reveals that he always knew where his kids were.  (He definitely took those PSA’s to heart.)  In a funny bit, he tells Kathy that Shawn is actually Shang-Chi, and she mocks him for how lazy he was in picking a new name that sounds exactly like his actual name.  Wenwu uses the two pendants to reveal the location of Li’s village, which can only be entered on a specific date/time/etc.  (If at this point you were thinking of Raiders of the Lost Ark, you get a no-prize!)  Even though Li died, Wenwu has been hearing Li’s voice pleading to free her from her village.  Wenwu has never gotten over Li’s death, and is determined to be reunited with her again, and nothing will stand in his way.  Except Shang-Chi.  And Xialing.  And Katy.

Wenwu puts the trio into the compound dungeon, and there they meet up with the fake Wenwu, The Mandarin, a.k.a. Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley).  (Remember Iron Man 3?  The best part of it is back!)  He tells everyone how Wenwu broke him out of jail to kill him, but kept him alive because Wenu found his Shakespeare routines amusing.  Slattery has a “hundun” for a companion, which Katy describes as a “chicken-pig”.  The hundun can lead them to Ta Lo, and after a little parking garage dodge-em, they are off.

As we saw earlier, Ta Lo is guarded by the bamboo trees that not only can move, but move incredibly fast.  The group finds the village, and after an initial stand-off, are greeted by Shang-Chi’s Aunt, Ying Nan.  She relates the story behind the village, whose inhabitants protect the Earth from an evil creature (and its minions) hell-bent on devouring souls and conquering  Earth.  A dragon played a key part in winning eons ago, and hasn’t been seen since.  If Wenwu releases the creature, the villagers will do their best to prevent that from happening, but without the dragon, it may be a tough go.

Aunt Nan teaches Shang-Chi that he has more power than he realized, and Katy learns that she is an archer (!).  Wenwu arrives and the Ten Rings gang battle the villagers while Wenwu attempts to release what he believes is his wife from captivity.  Shang-Chi and Wenwu fight.  Wenwu is too powerful at first, but Shang-Chi begins collecting rings throughout the battle.  Eventually, Shang-Chi has all of the rings, but Wenwu dies at the hands of the soul-sucking monster.  Shang-Chi uses his newfound power and the Ten Rings to defeat the monster (with an assist from Katy) saving the village and the rest of the inhabitants of Earth from a tight spot.  Back in San Francisco, Wong has a conference call with Captain Marvel and Bruce Banner (!) about the nature of the rings.  They apparently are sending out a signal to someone/thing.  To be continued….

Analysis

On the surface, Shang-Chi is a Marvel superhero origin story in every sense of the word.  The movie follows a template that fans of the MCU would be very familiar with.  Shang-Chi succeeds because it extends that template in ways that engage our imagination and enrich the story being told.  Below, I explore the elements I felt made Shang-Chi more than a run-of-the-mill superhero origin story.

What worked

History

For the most part, Marvel superheroes emerge relatively quickly (a.k.a. instant superheroes).   Steve Rogers takes the super serum and becomes Captain America.  Bruce Banner is hit with gamma radiation and becomes the Hulk.  Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider.  Tony Stark thinks really hard and becomes Iron Man.  Captain Marvel survives a spaceship explosion.  When we were first introduced to Thor, Black Widow or Hawkeye, they were already fully-formed.  The movies really haven’t focused on the backstories of the heroes much.  When they have, the results have not been impressive (Captain Marvel, Black Widow).  Shang-Chi takes the road not traveled and begins by telling us that he is not a “just add water” superhero.  His path to superhero status stretches back a millennium, beginning with his father.  The movie takes its time setting up why we should be interested in Shang-Chi, as well as the Ten Rings.  Before we ever meet the adult Shang-Chi, we learn about his parents.  If Shang-Chi had just stumbled on the rings, put them on and became a bad-ass, the movie probably would have worked, but his transformation would have seemed rote.

A comedy duo

Nearly every Marvel superhero is quick-witted and funny in some way.  Tony Stark and Doctor Strange are essentially non-stop quip factories.  Thor and Hulk are usually the targets of humor.  Paul Rudd is basically Paul Rudd in an Ant-Man costume.  At times, this approach has given the Avengers movies the feeling they actually are a comedy troupe.  Captain America was the rare exception, where the characters around him played off his straight-laced persona.  Captain America: Winter Soldier is the perfect example of this, where Steve Rogers provided the gravitas and Natasha provided the wry comments.  The result is an effective two-hander, where the two characters complete each other.  Shang-Chi leverages the same pattern to great effect, where Shang-Chi deals with his family drama and Awkwafina lightens the mood and provides emotional support.  This is absolutely necessary because without Katy’s irreverence, Shang-Chi’s tragic backstory would have given the movie a dour tone.  In Shawn and Katy, they are two things that are fine separately, but great together.

Location, Location, Location

Sometimes it feels like every Marvel superhero lives in New York.  Scott Lang (Ant-Man) is the rare exception in that he’s out in San Francisco.  (Even though he’s there as well, I don’t know if Venom counts.)  Even though Shang-Chi begins in San Francisco, the movie quickly shifts the action to locations that are not American urban cities.  This gives the movie and its action sequences a fresh feel.  Shang-Chi and Katy head to Macau, which is new terrain for a Marvel movie.  From there, the movie spends time in unfamiliar terrain, including Xu Wenwu’s Ten Rings compound, then looking for and finding Xialing’s village.

Dad was a bad dude

Unlike Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok, Shang-Chi already knows his father did bad things.  This gives the initial on-screen meeting between Shang-Chi and Wenwu some dramatic heft because he is fully aware of the bad things his father has done.  Interestingly enough, each blames the other for Li’s death, even though neither was actually at fault.  Shang-Chi still loves his father though, and has some sympathy for him in his quest to bring their mother back from the dead.

Charisma

The knock against the MCU is that its villains sometimes are boring and forgettable.  Remember Obidiah Stane in Iron Man?  The Dark Elves in Thor: The Dark Word?  Kaecilius in Doctor Strange?  Ego in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2?  (That probably was uncalled for.  Who could ever forget Evil Kirk Russel?)  Even after seeing Captain Marvel twice, I had a hard time remembering that the villain in that one was Evil Annette Benning.  (Please Marvel, no more scenes of her dancing to Nirvana.  It’s triggering in all the wrong ways.)

Shang-Chi takes its time telling us about Wenwu, his quest for power and how his love for Li caused him to turn his life around.  Wenwu is one of the more complex villains in the MCU. Sure, he runs the ruthless Ten Rings organization, but he is driven to bring his beloved wife back from the dead.  As portrayed by Tony Leung, Wenwu has charisma to spare.

Special Effects that are actually special

Too many times, creatures rendered with CGI look completely fake.  Marvel usually excels in this department, but every now and then they hit a road-bump.  (Take the computerized rhinos in Black Panther, please!)

When our heroes arrive at Ta Lo, the mystical creatures they encountered looked real to me.  Or at least real enough.  The movie thankfully wasn’t trying to recreate an actual dog, lion or rhino.  Those recreations never work because, thanks to the zoo, Animal Planet and countless nature programs on television, we’re already familiar with how those animals look and move.  The point here is that if you’re going to use CGI to represent an animal or creature, you’re better off if the animal isn’t one that already exists in nature.

By the Power of the Ten Rings

The special effects used to bring the Ten Rings to life were very well done.  In the comics, the Ten Rings were actually rings worn on Shang-Chi’s fingers.  Thankfully, the filmmakers changed 

them into bracelets, which allows them to do more than just shimmer.  Unlike Thor’s hammer and Captain America’s shield, which are mainly inert objects, the rings have a distinctly visual flair to them.  They light up when used to produce energy blasts, and can also fly off and return to the wearer’s arms.  They reminded me of Doctor Strange’s cape in that they seem to have a mind of their own.  The first epilogue (or credit cookie) reveals that they have an inner power that is, at this point, completely unknown.

The return of Trevor Slattery

Ben Kingsley was great in Iron Man 3.  I’m probably in the minority, his Trevor Slattery character was the most interesting part of the movie.  I know Kingsley’s inspiration wasn’t Ringo, but it still seems like it to me.  Shang-Chi brilliantly uses Slattery as comic relief, while also giving his character a bit of redemption.  In a bit of self criticism, Wenwu sums up how his legend was used as the basis for The Mandarin.  Nobody in the west knew what Wenwu looked like, only that he was dangerous.  Slattery used this to his advantage, taking credit for Wenwu’s exploits to generate fear.  Later, when Slattery tells our heroes how Wenwu broke him out of prison to kill him, and that he managed to save himself with a bit of Shakespere (over)acting, I felt sorry for the guy.  He didn’t fully comprehend what he was doing, only that it was a good acting gig.  In the end, Slattery is still a bit oblivious to his situation, but at least he’s helpful.

What didn’t work

In a movie that does so many things right, there were a few parts that fell flat.  Overall, these are minor quibbles, and none of them, separately or individually, would cause me to not recommend the movie.  But nit-picking is fun, so here goes!

Superhero (B)Origins

Superhero origin stories are so commonplace, they’re a cliche.  White male obtains powers, spends time harnessing said powers (in training sequences), fights his first villain and loses, but ostensibly wins second time around.  If you’ve watched the Spider-Man movies, you’ve seen this story play out three times.  In the MCU, this essentially is the plot of Iron Man, Captain America, Doctor Strange and Ant-Man.  To its credit, Marvel doesn’t follow the script with every introductory superhero movie.  Thor was already a god.  Bruce Banner had become the Hulk prior to inclusion in the MCU.  Black Panther was already a superhero when he was introduced in Captain America: Civil War.

Shang-Chi follows a template similar to Captain Marvel in that when we meet grown-up Shawn (a.k.a. Shang-Chi) he already is a master of Kung Fu.  Anybody who has seen a couple of Kung Fu movies would immediately assume that Shawn spent years training to do what we see him do.  Nevertheless, the movie includes the obligatory training scenes in flashbacks, and compared to the rest of the movie, they are boring.  The movie should have trusted the audience and left out scenes of him punching a tree and getting hit with bamboo sticks.   They only serve to confirm what we already knew or suspected.

Let’s talk about Fight Club

Having the hero either fight someone they know, or fight a big big bad in an illegal fighting club has been done so many times, it’s lost its impact as a narrative trope.  Within the last couple of years, it was a plot point in both Thor: Ragnarok and The Mandalorian.  Fight clubs or illegal fighting dens are a waste of time because they don’t advance the plot in any meaningful way.  I knew the moment Shang-Chi found out he was fighting his sister, that they would end up working together.  Why not just have them reconnect in a way other than having them throw punches at each other?

Location Porn

San Francisco is a beautiful city.  Most people get that the action is taking place there with an establishing shot of the Golden Gate Bridge.  Just in case we don’t get where we are, Shang-Chi briefly shows us every landmark.  Alcatraz Island?  Check.  Lombard Street?  Check.  Transamerica Pyramid?  Check.  Coit Tower?  Check.  If you’re going to go to all that trouble, why not show some different landmarks, like Haight-Ashbury Street, Vesuvio Cafe, City Lights Booksellers or Amoeba Records?  Also, San Francisco already counts Ant-Man and Venom as residents.  It’s not that big of a city where I wouldn’t expect those guys to meet up at some point.

Yet another evil cabal

In the movie’s second credit cookie, Xialing is shown rebuilding the Ten Rings criminal organization instead of dismantling it or repurposing its purpose for good.  The Falcon and the Winter Soldier had a (very) similar plot twist with Sharon Carter.  Heck, even the Mandalorian had Boba Fett restarting Jabba’s empire.  Enough with secret underworld criminal enterprises!

Passion, wherefore art thou?

A recurring criticism of Marvel movies is their lack of human passion and romance.  The movies  rarely feature a kiss between romantic partners, giving them a chaste feeling.  Steve Rogers was the only character who had some form of a love life shown on screen.  Remember that dance he and Agent Carter shared at the end of Avengers: Endgame?  That definitely was an outlier in terms of Marvel’s depiction of romantic feelings, or the lack thereof.

Shang-Chi doubles down on the anti-romance trend in the MCU by having Shawn and Katy be best friends (going on ten years) who are completely platonic.  The only physical intimacy they have is when they share a microphone on karaoke night.  This isn’t to say that Shang-Chi would have been better if it featured a scene of the two of them rubbing limbs, but heck, it wouldn’t have hurt.  Simun Liu and Awkwafina have great on-screen chemistry, which makes their ten-year non-sexual relationship feel more than a bit implausible.  Maybe Marvel will allow some physical passion to be shown on screen at some point, but a dozen years in, and I’m not feeling hopeful.  Marvel certainly knows these movies are not seen by just thirteen year-old boys.  Kids can just fast-forward past the yucky parts when they watch the movie on Disney+.

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