Published on September 4th, 2021 | by Craig Silliphant0
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Marvel tries its hand at wuxia films with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Is it enough to power this new MCU phase?
It has been said that most Marvel movies are exploring different genres. Ant-man is a heist movie, Captain America is a war movie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a 70s paranoid thriller, Guardians is a space movie, etc, etc, etc. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is their take on a martial arts movie. But is it good enough to lead the way for the next phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, especially after the big stakes fever pitch of Infinity War and Endgame?
Shang-Chi is the story of Shaun/Shang, played by Simu Liu (from Kim’s Convenience). He’s a Chinese-American who’s life doesn’t seem to be amounting to much, until he and his best friend (Awkwafina) are drawn into his past, old family wounds, and adventure.
Before we dive in all the way, let’s just say that it’s nice to see more representation in these films. And in this case, they are dusting off a character that was fairly one-dimensional. Ensign Chekov was added to Star Trek to play on the popularity of Davy Jones from The Monkees — Shang-Chi was created by Marvel Comics to capitalize on the popularity of Bruce Lee and the martial arts craze of the 70s. But this film, regardless of its faults, succeeds in breathing life into the character.
The movie starts out with the rising action of some excellent action sequences, though some of the martial arts could have been better. While Shang-Chi was stronger than Snake Eyes in the choreography department (and the filming of that choreography), there was way more room for spell-binding martial arts work.
Wuxia is about more than action; good martial arts choreography is poetry. It can tell stories of anger, sadness, poise, and even humour. Shang-Chi makes the same mistake as Snake Eyes, just not as drastically. The beautiful wuxia choreography takes a back seat to action — quick cuts and blurry things moving too quickly to see. And without giving anything away, the big ending fight trades what it was doing well for diminishing returns with a big, hard to understand, CGI mess.
There are some beautiful costumes and set design, though, as with the choreography, sometimes it feels a bit too Hollywood. Like it’s their translation of wuxia films for an American audience. It doesn’t quite rise to the level of some of those classic Chinese productions. However, if you liked Shang-Chi, but haven’t seen a lot of wuxia, you should check them out.
The story could use a trim here and there, but I thought it was told well. It creates story questions and parcels out information as we need it, using non-linear storytelling. It might rely a bit heavily on flashbacks, but that didn’t bother me too much.
In fact, the heart of the story is what pushed it up a notch for me. I bought into the family drama being told and the emotion involved in that. It is a story about how a man was redeemed through love, only to be poisoned by hate again, twisted by grief. The sins of the father affect his children, and those children struggle to bring honour back to their family.
It was awesome to see the amazing Tony Leung in action in a Hollywood film. In addition to his formidable physical prowess, he did an amazing job playing the most complex character in the story, who at alternating points, straddles the line between villain and hero, mortal enemy and loving father. I’d also add that Awkwafina’s character often feels tacked on (and she learns to be a sharpshooting archer in a couple of hours, haha), but thankfully she’s Awkwafina so she makes it work.
Marvel needs to be careful. They’re the gold standard of comic book movies, but I’ve read more than a few think piece pundits lately saying that the comic book movement ended with Endgame and that we’re in the beginning of the decline and eventual death of this cinematic fad. Marvel needs to prove them all wrong.
Black Widow was technically the first Phase 4 MCU film, and while it was watchable, it was lacking. It also feels like a holdover, where Shang-Chi feels like the real first film of this new era. Shang-Chi was better than I thought it was going to be and I mostly enjoyed it, but I’m not sure it was as good as it needed to be to shepherd us into this new phase of the MCU, especially with so much at stake for the genre.