With thanks (or no thanks, based on your point of view) to the ongoing pandemic inciting a release schedule shuffle no cinephile would’ve expected at the start, 2021 is playing host to five Marvel Comics related films. All but one fit within the MCU timeline in some fashion. Two promote necessary worldbuilding. The first of which might be more obscure in legend on print than the other. Before it was announced, had anyone outside of the hard-core collectors even been aware of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings? Apart from clues left behind in other branches of the universal (soon to be multiversal) tree, I’m sure I hadn’t. But like Tony, Steve, and Wanda before, once we’re introduced to this new recruit, we’ll wonder how we ever get along without him.
Shang’s (Simu Liu) world is nothing but normal. Having survived emigration to San Francisco from his native China, he’s the pivotal definition of a fish out of water in the states. He had fled in the first place to avoid a fractured family dynamic, his father Wenwu (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung) training him to become an assassin with his Ten Rings terrorist group from a young age. With how split up his family had become after their matriarch passed, Shang’s decision to lay low as a hotel valet with charisma pays off well. For a few years, at least. Eventually, the past catches up to him, with a family trinket snatched. Bringing close friend and coworker Katy (Awkwafina) along, Shang answers this mild calling card by returning home and facing his extended family head-on, just as dear old Dad looks to requite his lost love. Easier said than done, with the criminal org now a smaller thread within the once dormant Mandarin.
Surely, I can’t have been the only skeptic in the room pondering what was to occur in this self-contained tale, credited to director Destin Daniel Cretton (Just Mercy) and his fellow scribes Dave Callaham (Mortal Kombat) and Andrew Lanham (Short Term 12). I went in not expecting much in the wake of Black Widow being a slightly underwhelming crowd pleaser. Ended up leaving with a full heart and fuller stomach, in that there was much to digest from what Cretton laid on the table. Perhaps a bit too much, given its lengthy runtime. Shave off twenty minutes, the pacing would’ve benefitted.
Right from the first eye-popping frames, it is a candid, faithful ode to the action-centric Wuxia cinema trend. If you’d seen any film in the Shaw Brothers catalog, you have the strongest example of traditional martial arts-based heroics and thought-provoking character arcs made for the screen. Shang-Chi could be that rare occasion where Hollywood captures the mood just right for live-action, not unlike what Kung Fu Panda accomplished on a similar basis in animation.
There are no cuddly cartoon creatures in play, no pandas or even CG raccoons and tree men to crack wise. Just real humans populating another Marvel movie landscape. One where the next great attempt to evolve the collective story is at full strength. Just as we thought nothing could top the closure-intensive Endgame, here we are at the precipice of worldbuilding. Healthy and essential for franchise viability, the concept gives Cretton the space needed to experiment in this genre he otherwise had never dabbled in.
There was no hesitation to remain true to the typical Marvel benchmarks, promising high action with the risk involved, while maintaining a puzzle piece-like fit with its fellow Phase Four works. The stunt choreography, idyllic scenery captured by cinematographer Bill Pope (Alita: Battle Angel), and focused editorial strengths of Harry Yoon (Minari), Nat Sanders (The Glass Castle), and Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir (Deadpool 2), all contribute fully to solidifying Cretton’s angle of a modern-day Wuxia, opening the subgenre up into that mainstream with a bit more added oomph.
What surprised me more in this quick-paced showcase of limber fight skills and related mythology, was its sense of family. Nothing terribly new in the MCU, any of the grander ensemble films would be empty if the sense of togetherness was lacking. Cretton shifts the usual formula cadence just a touch, in the name of real-world drama. It’s not a group of strangers turned friends, it’s the fragile corners of a real four-quadrant family broken by violence, tangled up in one’s quest for criminal retribution, with the other three members boiling in conflict. Shang fled in a panic, and his crafty sister Xialing (an effervescent Meng’er Chang) stayed close to home, forging her own underground path. Both enduring adulthoods as societal outcasts escaping a dark shadow, but knowing they have legit reasons to circle back around.
It’s likely too early to incorporate Shang, Xialing, and Katy as part of the next generation of Avengers. Their fresh enthusiasm does make enough sense to dot the landscape of a slowly growing multiverse, as we await the next significant team-up. Liu, whose comedic subtlety, and physical merit, made him a Canadian TV staple on Kim’s Convenience makes a bold leap to the big screen, baring both skin and soul, flowing with effortless grace. For Awkwafina, whom I’d feared would fall back in the familiar trap of “nosy comic relief”, she narrowly avoids tripping in. Yes, in the wrong role her potential could be muffed up. Her third act confidence counters that uncontrolled karaoke-based silliness. Leung, on the other hand, is a different animal altogether. A Hong Kong screen vet whose credits run a wide genre gamut; he makes a delightful first break into Western cinema. And luckily, without selling himself out completely, never veering off his comfortable base.
After a skittish first reignition (and three short-run TV series bearing mixed results), Marvel’s pulse on filmmaking has returned to an equal rhythm with Shang-Chi. Once a relatively unknown page-turner buried among the annals of characters with wider circulation, its legend has grown immensely in Cretton’s hands, reshaping the lead as a major player for the franchise’s future. And in turn, opening major doors for genre experimentation, overall growth, and furthering newfound representation on both sides of the camera.
With Liu, whom Leung effectively passes a symbolic torch to, we have our first true Asian-American lead in one of these Marvel films, if not also in the wider comic movie subgenre. He and Cretton are upping a creative standard Black Panther had started, but that I hope carries over through this phase and beyond. It took some time to reach this mark, where the benefits outweigh the cons. But already, the next generation of heroes shaping a solid future, have made it worth the wait. (A-; 4/5 Horns Up!)
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings open exclusively in theaters September 3; unlike Black Widow, it will not have a home release component until 45 days later, so proceed with caution if venturing to the big screen; of course, make sure to stay through the end credits; rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and language; 132 minutes.