While Marvel Studio’s Phase 4 has shown that the ubiquitous movie making machine hasn’t lost any of its vigour, it’s fair to say that Black Widow and the clutch of Disney+ series has put its leads through the emotional wringer. Grief, guilt and a full on superpower meltdown has kept us glued to the streaming service virtually non-stop since WandaVision, but those of you who could think the MCU needs to lighten up a little need not wait any longer, for spin kicking his way into an already crowded universe comes Shang-Chi.
While not exactly a household name (even I’ve never read a Shang-Chi comic although I’ve read plenty with him in), this hasn’t stopped the powers that be from giving Marvel’s first asian led movie all the colourful razamataz afforded to everyone else – and then some.
“Shaun” is content to be comfortably stuck in his job as a valet as he goods around with his best friend Katy, joyriding in customer’s cars and belting out the hits at the local karaoke bar, but unbeknownst to everybody, this good natured slacker has somewhat of a complicated past. You see, his real name is Shang-Chi and his father is Wenwu, a centuries old warlord cum crime boss who runs the criminal empire known as the Ten Rings thanks to incredibly powerful trinkets that share the organisation’s name and at the age of fifteen Shang fled to San Francisco to avoid his father’s legacy.
However, Shang-Chi’s past violently catches up to him in the form of a group of henchmen dispatched to steal the pendant his late mother gave him before he died and after breaking cover and using his spectacular martial arts skills to fight them off, heads to China with a bemused Katy in tow in order to warn his estranged sister Xialing that their father has finally come for them. Fighting off another attack when the Ten Rings lay siege to Xialing’s impressive underground fighting ring (she’s done somewhat better than getting a job parking cars for a living), both Wenwu’s errant children and Katy are taken back to Wenwu’s compound where he lays out his master plan. He’s under the belief that his late wife is not only still alive, but being held prisoner in Ta Lo, a magical village located in another dimention where she was born; and if they don’t give her up, Wenwu plans to burn it to the ground.
Realising that their thousand year old, magical ring wielding, murdering crime boss father may not be playing with a full deck, Shang-Chi, Xialing, Katy and a surprising hanger-on race to try and beat Wenwu to Ta Lo in order to warn its people of the danger that’s on it’s way – but an even greater danger lies ahead of them and Shang-Chi must finally embrace his true destiny if everyone is going to survive.
The more cynical of you may suggest that Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings is nothing more than Black Panther with a shift to Chinese culture rather than African and on the surface there’s certainly evidence to support it. Both lean heavily on their heritage to create heroes you don’t normally see in American blockbusters and both contain climaxes that feature a battle scene awash with digital imagery – but then on the other hand, if this is what it takes to get more diverse faces on Hollywood poster then I say what the hell because Marvel’s latest origin movie proves to be a colourful burst of a martial arts extravaganza.
While other projects ended up casting a lead who didn’t actually know how to fight (cough-cough Iron Fist cough-cough), Kim’s Convenience breakout Simu Liu proves that he has ample fighting skills to go with that shed-load of charisma and he dazzles in the remarkably complicated brawling sequences that pepper the film’s running time. Shot in long takes and mercifully free of the despised shaky-cam style that usually makes mud of complex choreography (I’m looking at you, Snake Eyes), Shang-Chi boasts some of the finest Kung Fu seen in a big budgeted Hollywood movie in quite some time with an early bus brawl and a free-for-all on some bamboo scaffolding setting the scene expertly.
Another thing Shang-Chi thankfully lifts from Black Panther is that our hero interestingly surrounds himself with with an all-female support team with human quip-machine Awkwafina being our civilian eyes and ears as we traverse this new corner of the MCU (very funny), Meng’er Lang as Shang’s sister (very kickass) and the immortal Michelle Yeoh as their aunt, which keeps things nice and balanced in the wake of Tony Leung’s measured and intriguing performance as Wenwu.
Remember how I mentioned grief before? Well it seems Marvel isn’t quite over plastering it over the screen quite yet as the “Mandarin’s” entire plan hinges on the gnawing sorrow of losing his wife, which is intelligently signposted earlier when someone off handedly mentions that moving on from the loss of a loved one is a “western idea”. It’s this rooting of the plot in the culture of those involved that gives Shang-Chi that spark to feel completely new and different while still confidently playing in the Marvel sandbox.
Those hoping for cameos and easter eggs to go with their hope inspiring diversity are extraordinarily well served here, with appearances from Incredible Hulk’s Abomination and Benedict Wong’s Wong going head to head in an illegal fighting ring and the rehabilitative return of possibly Marvel’s most maligned character to date, but it’s all icing on top of the kung-fu flavoured cake and Shang-Chi proves to be a character who looks like he’ll be a good fit for the universe in general.
Admittedly its form falters a little here and there; the vast weight of its innumerable flash backs effect the pacing somewhat, making the film feel far longer than it’s two plus hours and the monster-laden finale just gets exhausting after a while – but director Destin Daniel Cretton gets way more right than he does wrong and Marvel’s first Asian lead manages to stand proudly alongside Black Panther and Captain Marvel as yet another blow for diversity that really should have happened a lot sooner than this…
Fierce, funny and yet carrying genuine heart, Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings is yet another win for Marvel who supplies us with yet another hero we can’t wait to see play with the other, established, superpowered lunatics who are undoubtedly waiting just off stage.
Undoubtedly a hit.