Marvel’s latest superhero origin story reminds us of the power of cinema. The dynamic and imaginative imagery paired with heartfelt storytelling raises the stakes for future comic book genre films.
Warning: might contain slight spoilers
Whilst Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) started with Black Widow in July and the Disney+ shows (WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Loki), Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is the first Phase Four film to be set after the events of Avengers: Endgame and begins the studio’s next epic film saga. It is also the studio’s first to have a lead Asian superhero with Shang-Chi/Shaun (Simu Liu).
Rectifying past mistakes:
@Marvel don’t think we forgot about how you made the ancient one a white woman when the ancient one was supposed to be an old Asian man— item is currently not in stock (@robzmobz) September 7, 2021
Marvel’s history of depicting Asian characters is spotty to say the least. From whitewashing The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) to criminally under-utilising characters like Dr Helen Cho (Claudia Kim), to…whatever the studio was trying to do with “The Mandarin” (Ben Kingsley) in Iron Man 3. Even the most developed Asian characters, Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) and Davos (Sacha Dhawan), unfortunately remain obscure to the public due to woefully mismanaged Iron Fist. Like many, I was incredibly anxious about this movie, especially after learning how Shang-Chi and The Mandarin embodied many racist stereotypes towards Asian people in the comics.
Fortunately, Chinese culture is not just an aesthetic prop in the film and is actively used to enrich the story and its world. The opening scene is very reminiscent of Wuxia films I watched in my childhood which gave it a very nostalgic feel. The film’s attempted retcon of Iron Man 3’s depiction of The Mandarin is admittedly flimsy, but I was pleasantly surprised that the issue was not completely swept under the rug, and I hope the MCU continues pushing for more introspective storytelling.
Intentionally or not, the conversation about life after the Blip felt very resonant with our current pandemic, particularly whether it is wiser to live life freely or become sterner and more responsible after such a major world change. Finding your purpose is a mission as old as time and I thought this theme was best explored through Katy’s (Shang-Chi’s best friend, played by Awkwafina) character. Behind perfectly timed quips and one-liners, Katy hides anxiety and vulnerability at not having her life path set in stone. Thus, I found it poignant that the qualities that are shown to be weaknesses at first (her career as a valet and audacious personality) become key in helping the team. We don’t lack talent or value or worth, we simply lack opportunities to showcase it.
Shang-Chi, Xialing (Shang-Chi’s sister played by Meng’er Zhang) and Katy’s struggles to live up to the expectations set by their families is a relatable theme for most and the pressures they feel as a result make both characters more compelling to root for. No matter how fantastical the events become, we never stop caring for the characters.
Family is more than blood:
tony leung as wenwu appreciation tweet because just look at him!! pic.twitter.com/TPVWnaMras— k (@myvillaneve) September 4, 2021
The film is stacked with phenomenal performances but Tony Leung Chiu-wai is undoubtedly the highlight as Wenwu/The Mandarin. A common critique of the MCU is the general lack of good villains and though I see Wenwu as more of a tragic antagonist than villain, he is still a significant threat. The conflict between Shang-Chi and Wenwu elevates the emotional scale of the film and grips your heart. It also provides a highly nuanced analysis of how to heal from hurt and abandonment that comes with a dysfunctional family.
shang chi and katy invented friendship pic.twitter.com/u31EJ7gFv7— ophelie SAW SHANG CHI (@CAPTAINLARS0N) September 5, 2021
Shang-Chi and Katy’s friendship is incredibly refreshing as an example of healthy platonic love and serves as proof that you choose your family.
The only major weakness is the somewhat underwhelming epic fight scene as it is often so chaotic and CGI-fuelled that it is easy to become lost on where to focus, however, this is a problem that can be observed with most MCU films and is more of a franchise pitfall. It does not diminish the film’s uniqueness and vibrancy which is so hard to achieve when we have seen dozens of superhero origin stories. I also cannot forget to mention the excellent soundtrack (stream Nomad!).
Most importantly, the film reminds us of the power of cinema. It was absolutely exhilarating to be united with a group of people for two hours with an engaging story. The collective gasps and laughs and tears make the experience magical, especially when the film is that marvellous (I’m sorry, I had to).
Me laughing at the people who thought we’d flop pic.twitter.com/7UoLqRXlCJ— Simu Liu (刘思慕) (@SimuLiu) September 6, 2021
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is currently available exclusively in theatres.