Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings 2021
This is only just the start of the squeezed MCU timeline as this is the second of four MCU films coming out this year that started with Black Widow just a couple months ago, Eternals in a couple more months, and Spider-Man: Far From Home to end out the year. Many of these MCU films are generally split down the middle more or less. Half of the film follows a more or less typical Marvel movie format with light comedy mixed throughout and a big end battle filled with explosions. The other half of the film gets to branch out into many different genres like spy thriller, war movie, sci-fi comedy, what have you. This does that to a certain extent, but it feels like the split was closer to 70-30 in favor of a martial arts/Wuxia film and I am all on board for that shift. After Black Widow’s moderate disappointment in that it followed the Marvel format a little too much, I absolutely loved every minute of this film from his audience surrogate friend slash potential love interest to the sympathetic villain to the fantastic-yet-still-unique CGI-filled climactic final battle sequence. And as this is a new release, as with all my reviews there may be spoilers ahead so if you want to go in fresh be warned.
A lot of what Shang-Chi does for superhero movies feels a lot like what Black Panther did a few years ago. While this is very much still a Marvel movie, it is way more a martial arts film steeped in Chinese culture, at least as far as someone who isn’t Chinese is able to tell. Thankfully, the majority of the American Asian actors are actually from the country they’re supposed to be rather than a Japanese actor playing Chinese, or Korean playing Vietnamese. We also get a firsthand look at Chinese folklore and mystical creatures like Hulijing (nine-tailed foxes also known as kitsune in Japanese mythology), Shishi also known as Foo dogs, and one of the more unusual creatures that gets a lot of screen time called a Dijiang. The Dijiang is a six-legged, four-winged, smally fuzzy creature with no facial features and in this movie it communicates through Ben Kingsley’s Trevor Slattery. His return was a welcome one despite many who weren’t fond of his version of the Mandarin in Iron Man 3. Here, he brings the Marvel humor into the third act with his continuing buffoonish ways. His appearance was also a bit of a surprise, even though it was hinted in an older short that he was taken by the real Mandarin, there didn’t seem to be that much publicity made towards his return. It’s also surprising that about a third of the dialogue in this film is subtitled which helps add to the authenticity and diversity to the MCU.
Where this film really shines is the attention to character. Practically every character in this film is sympathetic and makes sense as to who they are and what they’re doing. In the beginning, Shang-Chi and his friend Katy are slacker valets who have college educations but are living their lives the way they want to live them at the moment. It’s not until Shang-Chi is pulled back into his family that his past is revealed. Similar to Damian Wayne, he was trained as a child to be an assassin, although he made the decision himself that it was not the life he wanted to live. His father Wenwu, also similar to Ra’s al Ghul, has access to an artifact that makes him immortal which he used to become the leader of the League of Shadows, sorry the Ten Rings which has its fingers spread throughout the entire world. Wenwu fell in love and gave up his power for his family until his wife was fridged and he fell back into his villainous ways. Shang-Chi’s sister Xialing mostly fended for herself after their Mother’s death and taught herself how to fight from the shadows of the Ten Rings’ army before becoming the leader of an underground fighting ring. Despite the fact that there are striking similarities to DC characters, the film actually handles their backstory and emotional throughlines very well. The grief, anger, and difficulties coping comes through with each character. As does the mysterious mystical whisper that is pushing Wenwu towards the mystical city that his wife was from. Even the audience surrogate Katy is handled well, she fits in perfectly as the best friend/almost love interest and another piece of the Marvel puzzle as she is the frequent voice of reality as so much bizarreness is going on around them. Her presence never feels forced as her relationship with Shang-Chi gives her a reason to be there, she’s never overly used as an exposition dump, she’s not completely useless, and while they lay several seeds towards a romantic relationship, it never actually becomes a story point in this movie.
MCU films often rely on their fight scenes to bring a lot of action and this film is no different. What is different is that most of the action scenes are steeped in martial arts. In Shang-Chi’s room there are movie posters including Kung-fu Hustle and that is clearly part of the inspiration in this film along with early Jackie Chan films that help bring a mix of humor to the various fight scenes like the first one on a moving double bus. There is clear attention to detail between the various styles of martial arts despite not spending any time calling out loud what style or what type of moves anyone is using at any one time. They all just flow together and are a joy to watch, even when it gets to be a little more in the CGI realm when Shang-Chi fights with his father over the physical ten rings themselves which move as an extension of the user’s will, but often are used similar to double whips. The final action scene brings in a smattering of CGI creatures with just a couple Foo dogs on the ground and dozens of large bat-like shadow creatures, but the focus is almost always on the characters. It also helps that there is a good level of detail, like when the Guardian Spirit dragon enters the battle, groups of shadow creatures start attacking its eyes, and at the end we see a significant amount of blood and damage around that area.
I’m often someone who is the first to say that “superhero” is not a “genre”, but oftentimes it can be hard to argue that point as so many of the most successful superhero films follow a set outline with various different genre flourishes. This is one of the few big budget, and likely to be very successful superhero movies that really feels like it’s a martial arts/wuxia style mythological hero’s journey first, and a Marvel film second rather than the other way around. The added Marvel touches are great to see peek out, like Katy’s character, the reappearance of Trevor Slattery, a couple brief appearances by Wong with a non-speaking cameo by Emil Blonsky’s Abomination (despite him looking more fish-like for some reason), and the re-appearance of Mark Ruffalo as fully human Bruce Banner. It was really a lot of fun from start to finish and a blast especially if you’re a fan of Wuxia films and/or are still enjoying but starting to get tired of the Marvel formula. Until next time, this has been Bubbawheat for Flights, Tights, and Movie Nights.
*Shang-Chi poster artist Nicolas Tetreault-Abel – Instagram