Following cinematic trends in the 1970s frequently did Marvel Comics a great many favours in later years; the trend for ‘Blaxploitation’ movies in the early 70s witnessed the birth of Blade the Vampire Slayer and Luke Cage: Power Man and similarly, in the same decade, the popularity of Kung-Fu movies trail-blazed by Bruce Lee and Enter the Dragon saw the comics company scoring a big hit with the snappily titled The Hands of Shang-Chi: Master of Kung-Fu. It was a very popular title that ran for almost a decade and I have fond memories of it from my childhood, not only from imported American comics, but also from reprints in Marvel UK’s Forces in Combat. Unfortunately, although it was created with the best of intentions, there are elements in Master of Kung-Fu that haven’t stood the test of time, such as Shang Chi’s father being Victorian literature’s most famous Chinese stereotype Fu Manchu.
Consequently, Shang Chi has probably undergone greater changes than any other Marvel Comics character in his transition to the MCU in Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. As well as the unavoidable removal of the more politically incorrect elements of the original story, the cinematic iteration of the character has a much greater emphasis on fantasy; the original comic book was quite grounded (even though he met up with Spider-Man and other ‘super’ characters) but now there is a healthy dose of magic, myths and legend, which seems to be a more palatable view of the far east in 21st century America. And certainly one that is a better fit for the MCU, which is essential these days because no new Marvel Studios production will ever truly stand on its own – it’s got to be part of the wider universe.
Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings starts in Ancient China when local warlord Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung) attains god-like powers via ten magical rings. He’s unstoppable for centuries, until he falls in love with a warrior maiden Ying Li (Fala Chen), who protects the village of Ta Lo, which is legendarily home to various magical beasts. Wenwu gives up his wicked ways and settles down with Ying Li, fathering two children, Shang Chi and Xialing. However, Wenwu has made a lot of enemies in his old life and some of them track him down, but finding that he is not home, murder his wife as an act of revenge. This tips Wenwu over the edge and he returns to his criminal ways, trying to bring Shang Chi and Xialing into the ‘family business’ by training them in the martial arts, but only succeeding in alienating them.
Years later, Shang Chi (Simu Liu) is living in America under the westernised name of Shaun and working as a valet in a posh hotel. He has a strong platonic (?) friendship with his workmate Katy (Awkwafina) and they’re essentially a pair of slackers, but Katy is astonished to see her friend demonstrate astounding martial arts skills when attacked on a bus. Why was he attacked on a bus? Well, his father has been receiving messages in dreams that indicate Ying Li is still alive and hidden beyond a portal in Ta Lo, but the only way he can find the village again is by using a map created with the help of two jade amulets owned by Shang Chi and Xialing. Shang’s amulet is taken, so he and Katy travel to China to try and warn Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) before her amulet can also be taken. However, they are all captured by Wenwu and taken to his base.
At the base, they are imprisoned alongside failed British stage actor Trevor Slattery (Sir Ben Kingsley), who was previously seen in Iron Man 3 as the puppet dictator known as the Mandarin. It turns out that Wenwu was the real mastermind behind those crimes and he states how ridiculous it was that the character was named after a citrus fruit (the 16th century name for a Chinese state official, originally derived from the Hindi word mantrī, actually predates the naming of the fruit significantly, but let’s not be pedantic). He has with him one of the magnificent creatures from Ta Lo, a sort of 6-legged headless dog with wings called Morris, who is able to guide them to the hidden village. Shang Chi, Katy, Xialing, Trevor and Morris escape from Wenwu’s base and make their way to Ta Lo ahead of the warlord.
In Ta Lo, the elders of the village explain that the voices Wenwu has been hearing in dreams are not his late wife, but malevolent soul-sucking demons that lie behind the portal, who are tricking him into releasing them. Wenwu’s not buying this when he turns up, of course, and in best Marvel tradition, there’s a massive CGI-fuelled battle complete with Chinese water dragons, demons, abundant mystical energy and kung-fu… are we allowed to call it kung-fu? The word is never mentioned in the movie, but in the Chinese tradition, Gongfu means any undertaking that requires advanced physical or mental discipline, so I guess that the mastery of magical power rings falls into that category. Anyway, cut a long story short: Shang Chi becomes a superhero and is welcomed into the ‘circus’ by Bruce Banner and Captain Marvel during the end credits.
Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is not your standard Marvel movie; in parts it tries to emulate wuxia films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or House of Flying Daggers, but it also spins off into the realm of neon-lit Hong Kong crime dramas like Infernal Affairs. Even by comparison to its closest Marvel cousin Black Panther, it’s still a lot further from what we come to expect of the Marvel universe. This is a good thing, because the smaller the pond, the more chance there is of the water becoming stagnant; so stretching out into new genres can only help to broaden the appeal of the MCU. I’ve no doubt that when Shang Chi appears again, either in his own sequel or as part of something like The Avengers, this uniqueness will be watered down and he may become a slightly more generic superhero, but this is definitely a great way to start.
Director Destin Daniel Cretton has filled his movie with a cast that is around 90% East Asian and it’s a beautiful thing to behold. In the decades since Hollywood moved away from offensive ‘yellow face’ portrayals, East Asian actors have mainly been seen as sidekicks to the white hero or ‘exotic’ femme fatales and although a lot of actors from the far east have risen to fame, there was never really an American film that filled the screen with people of their race until the 2018 romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians. It could be argued that Crazy Rich Asians opened a door and without its unexpected success, Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings would have been a very different film, perhaps akin to Enter the Dragon with its Caucasian co-star. Incidentally, two of the stars of this film, Awkwafina and Michelle Yeoh, are veterans of Crazy Rich Asians.
Simu Liu is great casting as Shang-Chi, his taught physique being convincing for the martial arts stuff, but not too intrusively muscley for him to pass as an everyman. He’s also a very good actor, which is obviously a bonus. His relationship with Awkwafina is fascinating, because her character Katy seems to scream ‘comedy sidekick’ from the beginning and it’s very unusual for such a character to make the transition to romantic lead in any movie, let alone a superhero movie, where the characters tend to adhere firmly to archetypes. Nonetheless, Katy goes from being the wise-cracking platonic gal-pal to a romantic partner for Shang Chi… and it’s beautiful, because it shows this genre of movie slowly detaching itself from the firmly-etched clichés and moving into a more interesting character-driven area. Shang-Chi and Katy might just be my favourite Marvel couple.
Meng’er Zhang impesses as Xu Xailing, but although she has the odd comedy moment against all the ass-kicking, she’s a tad 2-dimensional next to Katy. If you stick around to the very end of the movie, you’ll see that it looks like they have bigger things lined up for her in future movies. Of the rest of the cast, Tony Leung and Michelle Yeoh are as sturdy as you would expect from actors of their calibre and Ben Kingsley, as the over-the-hill thesp Trevor Slattery, gives probably his best comedy performance since playing Dr. Watson in Without a Clue. I can’t help but wonder if he’s actually riffing off actual actors that he might have worked with throughout his illustrious career. Doctor Strange’s Benedict Wong puts in a guest re-appearance as the appropriately named Wong, cropping up near the beginning of the film and again at the end.
If Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings has a problem, it’s that the climactic battle goes on for far too long. We’ve seen this kind of CG-heavy long big punch-up in many, many previous Marvel films and this one really cried out for something a bit more unique. This film is very different from your standard Marvel fare in a lot of ways and it cried out for an ending that was equally different, but instead we get something that we’ve seen before on more than one occasion. Sure, it might have had Chinese water dragons, but their undulating movement isn’t a million miles away from those enormous flying creatures in The Avengers (UK title Avengers Assemble). I can’t help thinking that a smaller scale one-on-one martial arts battle between Shang-Chi and Wenwu would have been a more satisfying and appropriate ending.
In all though, Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a solid and entertaining addition to the Marvel universe. There’s absolutely no point in comparing it favourably or unfavourably to The Hands of Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu, because the two are entirely different entities. Anyone who had hoped for an R-rated Enter the Dragon knock-off really doesn’t understand how Marvel Studios works and was always destined for disappointment. Marvel have developed a canny strategy of constantly introducing new characters, so they’re never truly stung by any one actor demanding too much money or getting too big for their boots… and do you know what? It works! I look forward to seeing Shang-Chi crop up in a new Avengers line-up, or guest starring in a Doctor Strange movie. Maybe they’ll eventually rescue Iron Fist from TV hell and add him to the MCU – now that’s a team-up I’d like to see!
Currently streaming on Disney+ and available on DVD and Blu-Ray