Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is playing now in cinemas nationwide.
When The Mandarin mysteriously appeared in Iron Man 3 as the supposed ultimate foe of Tony Stark, everyone was equally shocked, with many irritated. Was it any more than a ruse? An iconic character supposedly reduced to a Guy Pierce smoke-screen, even if we did get the delightfully bumbling Trevor Slattery in return. The caveat that Marvel provided for this was their ‘All Hail the King’ one-shot, their own ace-in-the-hole to leaving the backdoor for the real Mandarin and the Ten Rings to step through. Now, seven years later, Destin Daniel Cretton has reconstructed that backdoor into a grand entrance, not just for The Mandarin but for Shang-Chi too.
Shang-Chi, or Shaun to his American friends, lives a peaceful-but-unsubstantial life in San Francisco with his decade-old best friend Katy (Awkwafina); the two, working as a valet duo. Simu Liu instantly charms you from the first minute he’s on-screen, taking on this slightly goofy but sweet demeanour when playing opposite Awkwafina. The two have fantastic chemistry together, but honestly, Simu has excellent chemistry with everyone in this film – I don’t think there’s a person you couldn’t put with him. It’s almost as though Liu’s charismatic presence was assured even before he’d stepped onto the screen. His presence on social media and his clear commitment and love for the MCU emanating through. It’s almost as if he has played the character for years.
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Of course, as with all superheroes, their mysterious past catches up with them, and here Shang-Chi reveals himself to be an uber-crazy fighter during a chaotic bus ride through San Francisco. But while the fight that ensues is electric and engaging, none of it feels unique to Shang-Chi. This problem runs through Shang-Chi’s action scenes but is in no way a reflection of the film’s performances. Instead, it is firmly rooted in the MCU’s appropriation of the martial arts.
Nearly every character in the MCU universe fights with a variation of martial arts, whether Tae Kwan Do, Krav Maga or Muay Thai. However, MCU’s all American aesthetic still manages to overshadow this Asian-focused, martial-arts inspired Marvel project. Here, Cretton could have elevated Shang-Chi above and beyond the standard MCU action set-piece by embracing the film’s Asian focus. But alas, with Shang-Chi, we get a final product that regularly feels the same as what has come before it in both style and substance.
The result is a story that feels remarkably familiar. Here we have the classic themes of guilt and trauma that permeate nearly every modern superhero movie, alongside a range of easy-to-spot narrative tropes. However, Shang-Chi tells its familiar story well, and it’s the cast’s interpretation of the characters and their emotions that craft its compelling core. For example, Simu Liu and Tony Leung’s relationship is utterly fascinating as it slowly unfolds, only demonstrating just how fantastic Leung is as an actor. Here, The Mandarian is re-formed into a complicated father consumed by a greed for power.
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From a grand perspective, The Mandarin is a villain through and through, but Destin Daniel Cretton’s reframing of the character creates an emotional ambiguity between father and son. There is love, but it is twisted through the pain and anguish of The Mandarin’s past. His life, held in a conflict between doing what is right and fulfilling his selfish greed. The result is one of the more expertly crafted Marvel villains. Here, we find ourselves asking whether there is a good man beneath it all, trapped beneath a poisoned mind?
Ultimately, the most important thing to say about Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is that you should see it. Regardless of anything else, it’s important to support films that not only take risks on more obscure characters but also embrace diversity and representation both in front of and behind the camera. For example, there’s a surprising amount of Chinese spoken throughout Shang-Chi, much to my surprise. This only serves to further channel and represent cultural diversity within the MCU. Ultimately by going out and supporting films that represent cultures and stars that aren’t within the typical Western-Hollywood mould, we send a signal to studios like Disney—encouraging them to take a chance on more ideas, stars, and scripts that reflect the diversity of our world.