While DC is playing catch-up, Marvel has more or less perfected the formula of the films it churns out. We have the reluctant hero facing some kind of inner conflict, an antagonist shaped by human fallibilities, tons of quirky comedic moments and cool action sequences that build up to a final showdown. We laugh, we have a good time, we leave – rinse and repeat. So I went into Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings expecting to enjoy myself and the film, and, for the most part, I did.
The film follows Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), who works at a valet service with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina). The two are always on the receiving end of lectures about finding a greater purpose instead of just having fun. They ignore all this well-intentioned life advice, until the Ten Rings show up to snatch Shang-Chi’s pendant, and the pair find themselves steered onto a destined path.
As much as we think the film is going to throw the pair into a romantic situation, I liked that it didn’t. Platonic friendships can be just as well-developed as romantic relationships, and can contribute so much to the space of the film and the growth of the character.
Even though Liu is technically the star and face of Shang-Chi and Legend of the Ten Rings, the true star is Tony Leung, who plays his father in the film. The Hong Kong acting legend shows us all why he is one of the best in the game. He emotes so powerfully, and basically steals the limelight in any scene he’s in. Much like Killmonger in Black Panther, Leung’s Wenwu – leader of the Ten Rings – is the film’s emotional centre, as well as its antagonist. His grief and despair is so intense that it overwhelms any sense of logic. He becomes fixated with bringing his wife back, whatever the cost, and we find ourselves empathizing with him despite his dubious past and current misdeeds.
One of the more powerful themes of the film is the embracing of one’s legacy. Shang-Chi has been running away from his father and that legacy for more than ten years – he didn’t want to become a murderer like his father, so would rather divorce himself from every aspect of his culture. But as his aunt Jiang Nan (Michelle Yeoh) shows him, he has to accept the good and bad of what he inherits, otherwise he’ll live in fear of who he is forever. My qualm here is that this conflict is resolved quite quickly, probably since he is going to be thrown into the collaborative space of the MCU, so there isn’t much time for exploration, like we got with previous characters.
The film’s action set pieces are well-staged and are reminiscent of a martial arts style you see in Asian films. There’s even one scene involving bamboo that reminded me of the action sequence in Jackie Chan’s Rush Hour 2. The film doesn’t really innovate or bring something new to the table, but these scenes were exciting to watch, even if it felt a tad predictable.
The film’s second act moves things to a more mythical level, involving fantastical creatures and spaces. It’s fitting since it does seem like Marvel’s Phase 4 is headed down more of a magical route, considering Doctor Strange’s presence in Spider-Man: No Way Home, as well as Wong’s (Benedict Wong) appearance in this film. However, I was kind of disappointed that the film’s big finale felt more like Godzilla vs Kong, with the protagonist pushed aside so that the CGI could run amok.
To have an Asian hero at the centre of a Marvel film, with a majority Asian cast, is certainly important and game-changing. However, the Asian folklore and storytelling feels diluted, with a quick historical rehash from Yeoh’s Jiang Nan before it’s time to fight. In the end, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings comes across as more cookie-cutter and generic because I have seen better Asian films. It’s a competent film, but don’t expect anything more than a Marvel blockbuster.
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Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings does well with character development, and raises some important ideas about family and legacy. It is in the handling of the more mythical elements that the film stumbles.
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