Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Cast: Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Fala Chen, Tony Leung, Meng’er Zhang, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Yeoh
As Marvel expands its universe with a Chinese superhero and an Asia-set film, there’s a lot riding on Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. The character begins with a clean slate with no background from the existing Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it comes with the baggage of cultural representation and diversity debates that have surrounded superhero movies for a while. You cannot just dazzle the audience with brilliantly choreographed action scenes, each kung fu move will be watched closely for technical accuracy.
But Marvel prove they are doing things differently this time with the long opening sequence set in China and entirely in Mandarin. You begin to wonder if the movie is in English at all, when the action finally moves to San Francisco and English dialogues come in.
The storyline of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a templated one. A teenager runs away from home to prevent his revenge-driven father Wenwu (Tony Leung) from forcing him to become a killer. He seems to be leading a pretty content life in San Francisco as a valet parking cars and occasionally racing them, too, until his past comes chasing after him. And then he must embrace his real identity and face the father and responsibilities he’s been running from.
Only that the father is a legendary crime lord with godlike strength and immortality, and a mysterious band of assassins called Ten Rings. He is singularly focused on getting what he wants, and does not hesitate in putting his children’s lives in danger. The rest is the expected tug of war between family ties and righteousness, sacrifice and self-servitude.
One of the film’s major achievements is that despite the dramatic background of Shang-Chi’s character, he becomes relatable from the get-go. His life of no worries in San Francisco and his motormouth friend Katy (Awkwafina), who can’t speak her native language, present realistic portrayals of millennial immigrants. And so, it’s easier for him to stun people when he single-handedly saves a bus full of passengers from a band of deadly assassins.
The bus scene is one of the most engaging action sequences, with a brilliant display of Simu Liu’s martial arts skills. Despite coming from a CGI dependent superhero universe, Shang-Chi relies, for a large part, on human strength and agility – borrowing from the wuxia genre of movies. A brilliant example of it is Wenwu’s elaborate introduction scene.
Although this is an origin story, hints of various elements did exist in previous MCU films like Iron Man and Doctor Strange. If you are not deep into the Marvel universe, connecting some dots might be a problem. It does tie back to the larger Marvel universe with explanations, et al, to tell you that this is not a disconnected turn of events after all.
What you can enjoy without any background is the hardly-seen-before visual spectacle and action scenes. Shang-Chi is one of the most visually stunning Marvel movies ever made. The change in setting has allowed production design to be infused with new flavours. The concrete jungle backdrop usually seen in other superhero movies has been replaced by magical outdoors and a burst of beautiful colours, heightening the big screen experience.
Daddy issues have been central to the MCU, right from Tony Stark’s baggage about Howard Stark’s legacy to Loki’s striving to prove himself to his adoptive father, Odin. It becomes the core of Shang-Chi, driven by Wenwu’s conflicted character who has all the power in the world but has lost the one thing that his heart desires. The story of Shang-Chi works even without the glitz and gloss of the superhero genre.
There’s also something peculiar about surrounding the titular character with so many others who are stronger and charismatic, in an almost deliberate attempt to set him apart from other superheroes in the MCU. Besides Leung, Michelle Yeoh, Awkwafina and Meng’ er Zhang – all seem to one-up Simu Liu on occasions. Let’s hope the future films give us more opportunities to cheer for Shang-Chi than chuckle at his expense.