Shang-Chi debuted in the 1973 comic, Special Marvel Edition #15, written by Steve Englehart and illustrated by Jim Starlin. Here was an ass-kicking kung fu prodigy; a complicated father-son relationship; the widely feared Fu Manchu. Steeped in Asian stereotypes and lacking the depth of its contemporaries, Shang-Chi remained in the shadows for years.
His entrance into the MCU with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings changes all that. The Shang-Chi of 2021 is unrecognizable from his earlier rendition. Dashing, chiseled, brave, Simu Liu’s Shang-Chi is a normal San Franciscan just trying to get by. Only his prodigious kung fu skills and Shakespearean dynamic with his father remain from the comics.
The film marks a reset for the MCU, the true beginning of Phase 4, following this summer’s Black Widow. Fast-paced, bursting with unique action sequences and juicy family drama, Shang-Chi is a welcome introduction of a long-forgotten hero who is set to become a fixture in the Marvel milieu for years to come.
A Ride to Remember
The MCU is not typically adored for cogent, engaging action scenes, instead relying on mind-numbing, blurry, hard-to-follow CGI. But Shang-Chi features several sequences that rank among the finest Hollywood produced in recent years, offering a counterpoint to the assertion that Marvel is incapable of staging engrossing and intelligible action.
In the film’s opening minutes, after it introduces the titular character’s working-class world of valet driving and nighttime karaoke, Shang (which he not-so-subtly changed to Shaun after moving from China to America) and his best friend Katy, played by the oft-comedic sidekick Awkwafina, get ambushed by a pack of trained assassins on a city bus.
Unbeknownst to Katy, Shang packs a punch. He swiftly dispatches several baddies as the bus descends San Francisco’s hilly streets. Razor Fist, a recurring villain in the comics, shows up, slicing up half the bus with his sword-enhanced arm while attempting to capture Shang and steal the glowing green pendant draped around his neck.
Chaos ensues as Shang, Razor Fist, and his cronies duke it out. The action unfurls quickly, the stakes are high, and the scene has some of the film’s funniest moments. Liu is at his best in this scene. The former stunt man masterfully and creatively fends off his pursuers while shepherding the bus and its shrieking patrons to a soft landing.
But the action, easily one of the film’s bright spots, doesn’t end there. Shang and Katy, newly educated on her best friend’s complex past through several gut-wrenching flashbacks, head to Macau, where Shang believes his estranged sister is waiting for him.
After a not-quite-as-planned reunion with his sister, Xialing, Shang finds himself chased after by the same goons that targeted him in San Francisco. Those are the members of the Ten Rings, the centuries-old criminal syndicate led by his father. The scaffolding of a Macau skyscraper is the setting for the film’s second and perhaps finest fight.
Shang’s father, the immortal Wenwu, played perfectly by Hong Kong megastar Tony Leung, is another of the film’s successes. Driven by grief following the death of his wife, and a misguided hunch that his son is to blame, Wenwu pursues his children, for their previously mentioned green pendants and their renewed loyalty after a ten-year estrangement.
If Wenwu is any indication, the MCU may have finally fixed its villain problem. Cold, calculating, and all-powerful, Wenwu is a fearful presence. His unmatched kung fu skills are augmented by the mysterious ten rings that adorn his forearms. Unlike the paper-thin and soulless villains typical in the Marvel universe, Wenwu is more than an embodiment of evil.
He’s a grieving widow driven to madness by the memory of his wife, Ying Li, played by Fala Chen, the only fighter to ever best Wenwu in a fight; he’s a demanding father, convinced of his love for his children despite their abusive childhood. Leung injects the multi-faceted character with chilling charm and magnetic menace.
Justice for Shang-Chi
An inescapable question looming over Shang-Chi before its release was how the film would tackle the character’s racist history in the comics. Bursting onto the scene in the 1970s Shang-Chi and, even more viscerally, his father, were products of the time, caricatures that closely embraced the worst Asian tropes of the day.
Over four decades later, the character and the world he inhabits finally get their just due. Writer-Director Destin Daniel Cretton and his co-writer Dave Callaham have spoken at length in promotional interviews about their desire to right the past wrongs perpetrated in the Shang-Chi comics.
Cretton and Callaham, both Asian-Americans, pull together several threads to create their immersive world: the films of Zhang Yimou, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the comedic thrust of Kung Fu Hustle. Their influences are evident throughout. Its humor, largely courtesy of Awkwafina and the startlingly funny Ben Kingsley, gives the film much-needed levity.
Its fighting sequences range from Jackie Chan-style acrobatics to the elegant leg sweeps and pseudo-magical swishes of Chinese wuxia classics. And Chinese culture – good chunks of the film’s dialogue is in Mandarin – seeps through the film. Giving it a depth that was certainly lacking in the comics and in the MCU writ large.
Marvel Gonna Marvel
Not everything works, however. This wouldn’t be a Marvel film without a few egregious instances of computer-generated chaos. The final sequence, a Seven Samurai-style showdown, takes place in Ta Lo, the mythical village of magical beasts and ancestral home of Shang-Chi and Xialing.
Ta Lo, with its placid lake, pagodas, and dedicated warrior inhabitants, is lushly rendered. But the human element the film takes pains to develop for the first two-thirds of the running time is suddenly dwarfed by two growling and screeching mega-monsters. This also is the source of the film’s biggest failing–the conclusion of Shang-Chi’s relationship with his father.
Mostly through flashbacks, the audience learns of Shang-Chi’s strained relationship with his father; he fears and respects Wenwu and obeys him until he is pushed over the edge and flees his hidden fortress. When they reunite – Wenwu kidnaps his son, hardly a warm reunion – we see them both processing their complicated past.
While the two go fist-to-fist in the film’s closing minutes, working through their issues with kung fu mastery, the resolution feels half-baked, unsatisfying, and overshadowed by the beasts overhead. This is especially disappointing considering the capabilities of Liu and Leung; both have the chops to carry an emotionally satisfying conclusion.
It’s unclear if Marvel can replicate its success over the last 13 years. Can Shang-Chi join the pantheon of memorable MCU heroes? We will see. But the studio will certainly try; an after-credits stinger confirms his growing importance in the wider universe. Regardless, this first installment is successful on its own terms, and that alone is worth celebrating.