Everybody Was Kung-Fu Fighting
We have endured 2 very long years and now we are finally getting into the start of Marvel’s Phase Four of films. Given that Black Widow was a extremely late prequel, and the Disney+ shows are smaller scale digestible entertainment pieces, we haven’t felt the true thrill of being back in the theaters experiencing a Marvel film for the very first time. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is an excellent film to invite audiences back into the MCU and covey the new ideas, concepts, and endgame that they building towards. It’s a film that has a compelling origin story, beautifully directed action sequences, and a sympathetic villain that make it rank among the best Marvel movies. Though not completely devoid of flaws, Shang-Chi gives people what they have been craving for these past few years.
Shang-Li is an excellent protagonist portrayed in a compelling and relatable manner by Simu Liu. He’s someone who just wants to have fun and do what he wants, but is also running away from the expectations placed on him. The movie wisely explores whether Shang-Chi can live for the expectations that people have for him, or whether he can live for himself. It’s a great arc for a character to have that makes it easy for the audience to connect with him and the conflicts he faces both internal and external. Even after 2 hours with him, I am already excited to see more from Liu and hopefully his eventual team up with the Avengers!
Equally compelling are the variety of side characters, particularly Awkwafina’s Katie. She goes through a similar arc as Shang-Chi which makes their friendship feel more genuine and palpable. Katie also explicitly has expectations placed on her, but she chooses to run away due to the refusal of facing the reality of what she could possibly be for the world. Her arc is just as interesting, which prevents her from being just another comedic character whose sole purpose is to make jokes. I am really interested to see more from her in future movies as well.
The conflict that our characters deal with primarily involves facing their past and discovering who they are supposed to be as heroes. It’s a tried and true origin story trope, but Shang-Chi delivers the story in such a relatable and compelling manner. You understand where Shang-Chi and Katie are before the film begins and become attached to the struggles yet fun they share together. When that is contrasted through the obstacles they face throughout the film, both personal and external, it makes you feel more attached to the characters and invested in the story. Marvel really took their time to think out these characters and conflict and it paid off well.
That conflict is bolstered by the excellent villain played by Tony Leung who portrays The Mandarin and Shang-Chi’s father. He is one of the rare Marvel villains whose motivations are completely understandable, and completely reshapes the way you see the movie. The familial connections are taken advantage of which leads to some excellent stakes in conflict between the hero and villain. While The Mandarin is motivated by a strong desire for power initially, the layers are peeled back to reveal a more human character which makes you conversely sympathize for such a power hungry monster. While he doesn’t necessarily reach the ranks of Thanos, Killmonger, or Loki, this version of The Mandarin definitely stands out amongst the rest of the pack.
This is the first Marvel film with a full Asian-American cast, and with that comes the themes and struggles of being an Asian-American especially for a superhero. There are the expectations to be someone great, the hardships of immigration, and the rewards of powerful sacrifices in the honor of protecting the family. While not all of these themes get their full shine to marinate, it is refreshing to see this phase of Marvel films and TV shows handle some more mature and wordly themes without it feeling too heavy handed or forced. It adds a surprising new layer of depth that I am enjoying in a post-Endgame phase.
The action in this film is some of the best action sequences ever for a superhero movie. The use of martial arts, long takes with the camera work, and the authenticity of the actors actually learning kung-fu enhances the tension in these scenes to a new depth and flavor for the MCU. The scenes are helmed confidently, allowing you to know everything that is going on within the shot while also displaying some grounded fights that are sure to leave your jaw drop. Martial arts isn’t new to action movies, but it is definitely new to the MCU and the added depth and intentionality here helps the film stand out as one of the more memorable ones in the past few years.
The films flaws are far and few between, and didn’t really take away from my overall experience. The third act does become a little over the top in terms of its set pieces and all of the CGI going on when I personally felt they didn’t need to go that far. The conflict is best when it is grounded in the familial tensions, personal drama, and one on one martial arts fighting. When it tries to be a big budget blockbuster with big CGI armies is when I felt they were doing a bit too much. Nonetheless I still thoroughly enjoyed what was on display especially with an excellent first two acts.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a fantastic display of what phase 4 can offer with its films. It brings a new depth and flavor to the MCU with its action and themes, and boasts an incredible and personable lead in Simu Liu. The post-credits scene definitely set the stage for some bigger conflicts to come, and I am excited to see more from this world and from Shang-Chi. Here’s hoping we get more soon!