Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a blend of opposites: otherworldly martial arts grounded by slacker humour. From fast-paced split kicks to lyrical dance-fights, the film deserves to be seen on the big screen. But of course, even if you didn’t feel it was safe to do so, that’s the only way you can see the Phase 4 MCU film — Shang-Chi is the first Disney movie to screen in-theatres only after a series of hybrid releases on Disney+ due to the ongoing covid-19 pandemic.
Based on the Marvel Comics character, Shang-Chi was directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, with a script by Dave Callaham, Andrew Lanham, and Cretton. The film follows the titular character (played by Simu Liu), a Chinese American millennial who must confront his past to fulfil his destiny. When we meet him, he’s a valet driver in San Francisco, California, working alongside his carefree bestie Katy (Awkwafina).
He’s kept his martial arts skills hidden until now, but Shang-Chi has secrets — family secrets that date back a thousand years. Our hero begins a journey of self-discovery in Macau after receiving a mysterious letter from his sister, Xiaoling (newcomer Meng’er Zhang) about their common enemy: their father Wenwu (Tony Leung), also known as “The Mandarin” (a name already familiar to MCU fans).
While the original comics depicted Fu Man Chu as Shang-Chi’s father, the film thankfully scraps the racial stereotype and presents a complex — even sympathetic — villain in Wenwu. This is also a huge improvement to the whitewashed casting of Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One in Doctor Strange. Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige has since acknowledged the casting of Swinton as a mistake while prioritising more respectful adaptations from now on. Cultural authenticity abounds in Shang-Chi.
First, it has a majority Chinese cast from the diaspora — many of whom speak a natural mixture of Mandarin Chinese and English dialogue depending on the speaker and context. In addition, the costumes seem to be a blend of eastern and western influences, reflecting the culture of the Chinese American heroes. Finally, the fantasy elements appear to be inspired by Chinese wuxia films, not exotic Asian stereotypes.
Considering this is a Marvel superhero film, you’ll be happy to hear the best parts of Shang-Chi are its elevated fight scenes. When Wenwu meets Jiang Li (played by Fala Chen), their poetic martial arts strokes with interlocking arms and long gazes are the most sensual combat sequence to ever grace the Marvel universe.
The training sessions between Jiang Nan (played by Michelle Yeoh), Shang-Chi, and Xiaoling exhibit Yeoh’s martial arts prowess and grace. And when Shang-Chi gives an impressive display of his fight skills — including a split kick to knock out two opponents simultaneously on a public bus — he lives up to his comic book nickname, “Master of Kung Fu.”
The film’s other highlight is the ability to weave in some truly laugh-out-loud scenes without overwhelming the kinetic action or dramatic story. While Marvel films are known for their dashes of humour, the funny in Shang-Chi seems to reflect a millennial sensibility, making the mixture of action and comedy feel fresh for the MCU.
And again, though this is Shang-Chi’s film, the strongest fighters depicted are the women. Xiaoling is an incredibly powerful fighter with something to prove given her experiences growing up under Wenwu. Jiang Li is Wenwu’s most formidable opponent while Jiang Nan serves as a martial arts teacher for Shang-Chi.
Even Awkwafina’s Katy is no damsel in distress. But perhaps to be expected, the women serve primarily as Shang-Chi’s teachers, sidekicks, and foes. So even as Shang-Chi presents more badass women than most Marvel films, they exist to support a man’s journey. Thankfully, the film does tease the possibility of seeing some of the women again — providing hope that they can be developed further.
Shang-Chi — as the first Asian American superhero to headline a film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — is a necessary and worthy addition to the pantheon and Hollywood as a whole. He brings unmatched fighting skills and never takes himself too seriously — earning him the right to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the full roster of MCU superheroes. Not to mention how thrilling it is to see a new group of badass Asian women ready to shake up the movie-verse.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings will debut in theatres exclusively on September 2, 2021.