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Josh Reviews Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

October 18th, 2021
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Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) and his best friend Katy (Awkwafina) are happy working go-nowhere jobs together, parking cars as hotel valets.  But when Shang is attacked on a bus, the past he’d tried to bury comes rushing back.  It turns out his father is Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung), a crime lord who has lived for thousands of years thanks to the power of the mystical ten rings he’s been using to assemble a vast criminal empire.  Shang and Katy set out to find Shang’s estranged sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) and stop their father from finding and destroying the mystical home of their deceased mother.

2019’s Avengers Endgame brought to a close the incredible, unprecedented 22-movie saga of the MCU to that point.  Spider-Man: Far From Home served as a lovely epilogue to the events of Endgame, and Black Widow was all about filling in some missing pieces from earlier in the saga.  Shang-Chi and Legend of the Ten Rings feels like the true beginning of Phase Four of the MCU, as we’re introduced to a wealth of new characters and we venture into unexplored corners of the MCU.  While of course there are some fun MCU connections to be found in this film, it’s a completely satisfying stand-along adventure with these new characters.  This is exciting!  And it’s one of the most impressive aspects of this film for me.  I’d worried these early Phase Four films would feel like a step backwards into the early days of Phase One, when the MCU was new and the films and characters weren’t that well-connected.  How could we go back to that after the magnificent depth of continuity in Infinity War and Endgame??  It turns out, when done as skillfully as it is here, it feels absolutely great.  Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings feels delightfully fresh, while still containing the balance of adventure and fun that has been so critical to the MCU’s success.

Shang-Chi has a long history in the Marvel comics, but despite that he is for sure the most obscure Marvel comics character to headline a film to this point.  (Yes, general movie-going audiences might not have known anything about, say, Groot and co. in Guardians of the Galaxy, but those characters were well-known to modern comic-book fans.)  But (despite some attempts to revitalize him over the years) Shang-Chi’s most successful comic book run was back in the seventies.  The character and his world have been substantially reinvented for this film, and I’m very pleased with what they’ve come up with.  Once again, Marvel’s brilliance with casting shines here, as Simu Liu is perfection as Shang-Chi.  Mr. Liu is able to nail both the “loser everyman” aspect of the character, and to be completely convincing in some incredible martial arts sequences as Shang starts to reclaim his identity.  Many other actors could handle one aspect of the character; to be so great at both is a testament to Mr. Liu’s abilities.  I love Mr. Liu’s gentle, easygoing nature in the film.  It’s very endearing here in this movie, and I cannot wait to see Mr. Liu as Shang-Chi bounce off of some other Marvel characters in future films.

Awkwafina is terrific fun as Shang-Chi’s friend Katy.  I’d expected Awkwafina to provide comic relief in the film, and indeed she is extremely funny throughout.  The movie gets a lot of mileage out of Katy’s reactions, as we the audience experience the fantastical events of this film, and the wider MCU, through her eyes.  But I was pleased that the film also gave Katy some strong character moments to play, from the glimpses of her family life at the start of the film to her experiences in the magical realm of Ta Lo in the third act.  (Is it a little unbelievable that city girl Katy is able to be a perfect shot with a bow & arrow at the end, just when she’s needed to in order to save the world?  Yes it is!  But I can go with it, because the film and Awkwafina herself have done a good enough job at taking us along on Katy’s journey through the story.)

I know that Tony Leung is already a big star in Hong Kong and elsewhere in the world, but I wasn’t that familiar with his work.  But, wow, did he blow me away as Wenwu.  Wenwu is one of the best and most interesting new villains we’ve seen in the MCU in years.  I love how human and relatable Mr. Leung allowed Wenwu to be in the film!  I was expecting Big Evil Warlord, but Mr. Leung played Wenwu in a very quiet, often gentle way.  It’s a surprising but extremely effective take on this character.  And it’s critical, because otherwise we’d never believe that Shang-Chi’s mother Ying Li (Fall Chen) would ever have fallen in love with him.  And to my surprise and delight, that Wenwu-Ying Li love story is central to the film!  All good villains have an understandable motivation, but the filmmakers did an especially good job in filling in Wenwu’s backstory and giving him a very understandable reason for taking the villainous actions that he does in the film.

The Ten Rings were a background element all the way back in the first Iron Man film, there for the hard-core comics fans to notice.  (Both Raza (Taran Fahir) and Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) were wearing rings in that movie — back then, they were treating the rings like actual rings to be worn on one’s finger, just as they were always depicted in the comics.)  Iron Man Three turned the Ten Rings into a joke, a fake cover for villain Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce).  I enjoyed that surprise in that movie, but at the same time I was overjoyed when they brought back the fake Mandarin Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley) in the “Marvel One-Shot” short-film All Hail the King (first seen on the DVD/blu-ray of Thor: The Dark World, and now available on Disney+) and confirmed that there actually was an organization called the Ten Rings, and that they were not too happy with their name being coopted by Killian and Trevor.  I’ve been waiting for the cliffhanger ending from All Hail the King (from back in 2014!!) to be picked up, and so I was thrilled to see the Ten Rings be such an important part of this new Shang-Chi film.

Wenwu is basically a new character created to replace two older, problematic characters.  In the original comics, Shang-Chi’s father was the villain Fu Manchu, possibly the most famous example of the offensive “yellow menace” trope.  Meanwhile, in the comics (as well as in Iron Man Three, where the idea was played as a joke), the head of the Ten Rings was the Mandarin — another yellow menace character with a, shall we say, not very culturally sensitive name.  Marvel has wisely combined those two characters into one (a clever bit of re-weaving of Marvel history in order to give Shang-Chi an interesting backstory) while dropping the offensive aspects of those original characters to create a nuanced new character.  It’s all very well done, and as I wrote above, Tony Leung absolutely knocks this role out of the park.

While I knew the Ten Rings, and a version of the Mandarin, would be in this film, I did not expect to see Sir Ben Kingsley repose his role as Trevor Slattery!!  That was a fun surprise, and Mr. Kingsley was terrific in the film.  He’s so, so funny.  His monologue about Planet of the Apes was a highlight of the film.

I loved how compelling Meng’er Zhang was as Shang-Chi’s sister Xu Xialing.  This is a supporting character without too much to do in the story, but Meng’er Zhang was terrific and such a memorable on-screen presence.  She really made the most of her scenes.  (One of my only complaints about the film is that I’m disappointed Xialing didn’t have anything to do in the big action finale.  I’d thought for sure we’d see her kick the ass of the masked Ten Rings character who had trained Shang-Chi and refused to train her.)  I love seeing Xialing in charge of the Ten Rings in the post-credits scene.  Is she going to be the villain in the sequel??  That’d be amazing, and rife with dramatic possibilities.

I was so happy to see the great Michelle Yeoh enter the MCU as Ying Nan, one of the warrior/leaders of Tao Lo.  I adore Michelle Yeoh and I loved all of her scenes.  (Though, as with Xialing, I wish she had a more substantial role in the big battle finale.)

Other thoughts:

* I really enjoyed the film’s score by Joel P. West.  This was one of the more memorable recent Marvel movie scores.

* It was fun to see Wong!  I’m glad that Benedict Wong was able to be involved in this Asian-focused story.  It was also a fun surprise to see the Abomination — looking much more like the comic book character than the weird misshapen monster from The Incredible Hulk.  (Between this and the recent appearances of William Hurt as Thunderbolt Ross, it’s nice to see the 2008 The Incredible Hulk movie being subtly rewoven back into MCU continuity.)  I’m not sure how Wong and the Abomination became friends, but I can go with it!

* I was intrigued with this film’s depiction of the Ten Rings.  I like the idea that they’re not the traditional-looking rings that go on fingers.  I’d have liked to have slightly better understood their powers — for the most part, the characters use them mostly like Iron Man’s repulser beams — but I did like that in the last few minute of the film Shang-Chi was able to put the rings to different uses than his father.  I hope future films show us some more creative uses of the rings.

* I loved the bus fight early in the film.  That was a terrific sequence.  There’s a lot of great martial arts combat in the film.  It’s fun to see this style of fighting brought into the MCU.  The big final melee was a little more generic than I’d have hoped, but I did enjoy seeing the two dragons duke it.  (Though I was a little bummed that neither of the dragons was Fin Fang Foom!  Ah well, I continue to hope Fin Fang Foom will someday make an appearance in the MCU…)

* It was fun to see Bruce Banner (with his arm still injured from the end of Endgame) and Carol Danvers in the first mid-credits sequence.  But it was REALLY fun to see Shang-Chi, Katy and Wong doing karaoke!!  What a great ending.  It’s fun to see Shang-Chi’s unique reaction to being thrust into this world of superheroes and magical craziness.  I like that the film differentiates Shang-Chi from the other Marvel heroes we’ve seen.

* The film refers to Thanos and the Blip, but once again I have to reiterate my feeling that it was a mistake in Endgame to have that five-year time-jump.  It just adds layers of confusion these follow-up films don’t need.  Were Shang-Chi and Katy both blipped?  Or did neither of them blip?  I’m left asking questions that wind up only being a distraction from the story that this film, and other post-Endgame stories, are trying to tell.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was directed by Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12, Just Mercy), and written by Mr. Cretton along with Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham.  I’m impressed by Mr. Cretton and his team’s strong work in launching this new character into the MCU.  They’ve struck some new ground here, in creating a film filled with new characters that explores relatively uncharted magical territory within the MCU.  I’m very hooked into the stories of Shang-Chi, Katy, Xialing, and the rest, and I cannot wait to see more of them in future MCU adventures…

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