Diehard comics loyalists upset with Ben Kingsley’s reveal as a fake Mandarin in Iron Man 3 may not necessarily come out of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings happier with the “real” one. Named Wenwu, and played by international heartthrob Tony Leung, this variation presents as more of a lovelorn widower than supervillain. Even though he’s supposedly a master crimeboss, Wenwu’s grief leads him towards a really stupid master plan.
Yes, Wenwu wields the ten rings, and has been around long enough to do some ancient warlord stuff. But whether it’s simply that Leung didn’t want to play it too evil, or director Destin Daniel Cretton wanted to avoid Orientalist warlord stereotypes, Wenwu comes across as a sentimentalist rather than a true antagonist. Ironically, Mandarin impostor Trevor Slattery gets more justice herein, perhaps because Kingsley has less modesty.
Still, fealty to the comics should be a minor gripe in the case of Shang-Chi. The character on the page was infamously the son of Fu Manchu, whom Marvel Studios wisely decided both morally and legally not to touch. And while Shang-Chi’s title in comics is “the Master of Kung Fu,” his movie is more in the wuxia cinematic genre than it is a kung fu flick.
Technically, in literature and martial arts, the terms can be used partly interchangeably, so let’s just say it’s more wire-fu fantasy than Bruce Lee. As such, the fact that any individual plot point may seem absurd doesn’t matter. At least as long as the journey features plenty of cool martial arts fights.
And this it does. Martial arts plus Marvel magic proves a winning formula. The film doesn’t wait around by giving up too much backstory until at least halfway through. By that time, the viewer’s invested. While a glut of near-daily featurettes may make some readers think they’ve seen most of the movie already, rest assured that most of the footage released is just first-act stuff. Shang-Chi ultimately plays more like Raya and the Last Dragon than Black Widow, with all that entails. Cretton draws heavy visual inspiration from Hero director Zhang Yimou. Though the bus fight you’ve seen countless bits of in clips echoes Jackie Chan.
For the most part, the battles and stunts are impeccable. Only towards the end, when darkness and spraying water seem like a cover for less-polished CG, do the fights (deliberately) become harder to follow. With theaters reopening, Shang-Chi does feature the option of watching in 3D, and the conversion gets thoughtfully applied. Also perhaps worth pointing out: stay for both the mid-credits and post-credits scenes.
But Shang-Chi, even more so than some other Marvel movies, plays nearly as much like a comedy as it does a wuxia. Leads Simu Liu and Awkwafina have extensive comedic experience, and the filmmakers do not waste it. Awkwafina’s Katy in particular is exactly what her fans expect. Yes, that includes getting two vagina jokes into a Disney/Marvel four-quadrant feature.
Liu can’t go as broad while also playing a tormented action hero, but his timing with words is as precise as his bo staff. Anyone who has paid attention to the movie merchandise may have seen a strange sidekick creature named Morris. Let’s just say it behaves as comically strange as it looks.
In animation, some of the story points here might feel cliched, as they did in Batman: Soul of the Dragon. But at least in a Hollywood movie, those bits feel significantly fresher in live-action. It isn’t quite Wakanda, but Marvel opens a new realm here, rife with possibilities for sequels. Odds of Iron Man facing the “true” Mandarin remain as low as before, but much about the Ten Rings organization remains for exploration. Including the eponymous jewelry’s thus-far super vague origins.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings does develop connections to the larger Marvel universe. But the best compliment to the movie is the fact that it doesn’t need them. The Shang-Chi universe could be as self-contained as Venom (so far) and still feel compelling. Perhaps that’s because great martial arts movies feel less common these days, at least stateside.
But from an opening fight that explicitly connects movie martial arts duels with ballet as a form of courtship, to a finale involving…well, things that would be spoilers, Cretton, previously known for smaller dramas, displays the confidence that he knows this stuff. Then he proceeds to deliver.
WandaVision remains the MCU’s best offering of 2021. But Shang-Chi stands firmly in the upper tier.
Recommended Reading: Shang-Chi: Master of Kung-Fu Omnibus Vol. 1
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