The latest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, is a fusion of Chinese martial arts with the Hollywood superhero universe. Just like T’Challa became an iconic hero amongst his kind, being the first ever black male lead in the MCU, Shang-Chi joins the league of Marvel superheroes as the first ever Asian lead. In the same vein, the directorial role is helmed by Destin Daniel Cretton (Just Mercy), the Asian American behind the biographical gripping drama that starred Michael B. Jordan.
Sim Liu stars as Shang-Chi, the son of an immortal warlord, Wenwu (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), and head of a criminal organization which is named after the very thing that gives him the ultimate power, the Ten Rings—an organization that has its claw deep into the affairs of men and has changed the course of history many times. But even evil people need love to break through the dark waves that terrorize their mind, and Wenwu does find love in Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) which is taken away from him too suddenly. Stricken with grief and hate, he recoils back to his former self and becomes his children’s worst enemy. He trains his male child to become an assassin while neglecting the girl child because she is a mirror of the love helost. However, Shang-Chi wants no part in his father’s world, so he abandons everything and everyone, including his sister, Leiko Wu (Fala Chen) for a new life in San Francisco. Adult Shang-Chi now parks cars for a living with his best friend, Katy (Awkwafina) but his past soon catches up with him and he has no choice but to face the very person he has spent his whole life running from.
The 2hr 12min movie boasts of an Asian-centric cast which is pretty much the heart and strength of the movie. Marvel Studios explores this trope in Black Panther, with its many actors of colour who bring their best to the movie. The more I look at Marvel’s 25th installment, the more similar it is to Black Panther. One of the many MCU movies with a lot of female characters that explores femininity as a stronghold is Black Panther, with its female general, the scientist and a group of women warriors called the Dora Milaje. In a similar vein, the immortal and powerful Wenwu’s warring nature was subdued by a woman, that even in death, she still has a hold over him. Katy, the protagonist’s best friend finds her inner chi amidst chaos, her sister who taught herself martial arts, and the short and electric performance of the never-ageing Michelle Yeoh who plays the role of Jiang Nan, the head of a village that is protecting earth from imminent destruction. This way, MCU does not only give the Asians a face in the superhero Universe but also embodies a trope that people embrace — women power.
The villain is also similar to the revered Killmonger (played by Michael B. Jordan) who viewers found appealing in Black Panther, these are villains one sympathises with and understands— antithesis of villains like Ultron or Red Skull in MCU. They both convey an intense and burning desire for something, a thirst that is relatable, for humans are a slave to something— for Wenwu, it is the woman he loves and for Killmonger, revenge. Wenwu is a formidable and captivating character, one that overshadows the protagonist himself and is worthy to sit in the anti-hero Hall of fame like Ed Harris in The Rock, Robert De Niro in Heat, even Scarface’s Tony Montana makes the cut amongst others. Wenwu gives one of the best villainy performances in MCU and how grief can eat away what makes us human and run one mad. We saw this in The Dark Knight through the two-faced Harvey Dent and Wenwu brings enough fire to show how far a broken man will go to get what he desires. Likewise, this is a thumb up for Marvel in the casting department as each actor played their role with such uniqueness, even the funny Awkwafina does not overuse her comic relief role.
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One peculiar thing that brought a smile to my face throughout the movie are the hand-to-hand combats that are artistically portrayed in Shang-Chi. The origin movie distinguishes itself from the many Marvel movies which are more of smashing and destroying cities — Black Widow’s Natasha Romanoff and Captain America are like the only Avengers who have come close to giving viewers such fighting scenes. The bus fight scene in Shang-Chi brings back the memory of Bob Odenkirk’s Nobody and this will probably instigate a trend of ‘best bus fight scenes in action movies’ (p.s. I pick Nobody’s bus fight scene over Shang-Chi’s). Shang-chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings displays the beauty and extraordinary addition that martial arts will bring to the franchise—amidst Hulk’s smashing, Black Widow’s demise and Captain Marvel’s godly destructive powers. These were not the only ice breakers in the 25th installment of the franchise; the eye-popping visuals and CGI in the movie give it mythical effects— proving that it’s not always about machines and robots.
Destin Daniel Cretton’s impressive directing of the intriguing origin story of Shang-Chi sets a template for Marvel to delve deeper and embrace other ideas. Cretton gets it right not only with the emotional elements he lays out, but also with the mythical angle he displays with ingenuity and brilliance, which might just make Shang-Chi one of my favourite origin stories in MCU.
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- There is a tradition that is particular with all Marvel movies— never leave the cinema until after the end-credit scene(s). I have seen 3 or 4 Marvel movies at the cinema and viewers didn’t uphold this tradition. However, Shang-Chi was different and it amused me to know there are still people like me out there, I mean this is Nigeria.
- With the array of impressive cast in Shang-Chi, I was totally bemused by Tony Leung Chiu-wai, who plays Shang-Chi’s father, and I was compelled to check out his other movies. He’s that good.
- Shang-Chi is devoid of detours or fillers. The unnecessary scanning of the memory that is usually accompanied with most Marvel movies is non-existent. The origin movie stands alone and the end-credit scenes only unleash the audience’s excitement for the next installment.
- The bus fight scene like Nobody, the crazy fight scene on a plank at the tall Macau building that reminds me of Craig in Casino Royale were all enthralling. But my favourite of these familiar scenes was when a character said “always bet on Asian”, a reference to one of my favourite lines used by Wesley Snipes in Passenger 57, “always bet on black”— familiar but manages to strike the right chord.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is currently in theatres.