Deadly Hands of Kung-Fu
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a trend-setter, and it’s kind of amazing considering the risks taken. Consider the lead of Iron Man was a troubled actor with a notable drug problem. Consider that the vast majority of people had no earthly idea who Iron Man even was. Consider that the idea of an interconnected multi-film franchise was looked at as, to be charitable, raging insanity.
The irony is that, despite the huge chances taken by the MCU, Marvel Comics originally followed numerous trends instead of inspiring them. The creation of the Fantastic Four was a response to DC Comics’ creation of the Justice League. The bulletproof Luke Cage was an attempt to ride the popularity of 1970s blaxploitation films. Along similar lines was the creation of the living weapon, Shang-Chi.
It started with the martial arts craze that swept America in the late 60s and early 70s, and it introduced our country to Bruce Lee. Instead of grotesque caricatures such as Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Lee portrayed Asian heroes who were smart, capable, and cool as hell. Marvel Comics, who liked both Bruce Lee and money, sprung into action. Writer Steve Englehart and artist Paul Gulacy created Shang-Chi, which was very much a good news/bad news kind of situation.
The bad news was that Englehart and Gulacy, both intelligent and thoughtful creators, were also products of their time, a time jam-packed with systemic racism before most white people even recognized the concept. In the comics, an origin was devised where Shang-Chi was the son of shadowy crimelord Fu Manchu, a character with no small amount of historical baggage.* That brings us to the good news, which is that Shang-Chi has been introduced to the MCU by the right people and in the right ways in the very good Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung) doesn’t think of himself as a villain, as such. Why would he, since it’s like comparing yourself to ants? He’s been around a long time, several lifetimes, and in that time he’s razed villages, destroyed governments, and conquered nations. All because he unearthed the ten rings, mystical artifacts granting him immense power and immortality. For centuries, he had everything, until he met Ying Li (Fala Chen).
Yes, Ying is the guardian of the magical village of Ta Lo, and yes, when Wenwu’s forces attempt to invade she kicks his ass six ways to Sunday. As so often happens, they fall for each other. Nobody ever said love was easy. They have two children, and for a time, there is peace. Things change. They always do, and when Ying passes away, Wenwu leans into his empire hard. His son Shang-Chi (Jayden Zhang) is trained in the martial arts and molded into a killing machine. Only maybe that’s not what he wants.
The boy runs. He grows into a man (Simu Liu) who calls himself Shaun. Things could be worse, since he’s best friends with Katy (Awkwafina) and they have fulfilling careers as valet parking attendants. Things get worse when, on a bus ride, a group of toughs attempt to steal the jade pendant Shaun wears. “Try” being the operative word, as Shaun proceeds to demolish them in one of the coolest scenes in the entirety of the MCU.
The days of parking cars and karaoke are over for Shaun and Katy. He reveals his true name — Shang-Chi — to her. She learns that when he fled, he abandoned his sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), who is not entirely thrilled with her brother. Perhaps worst of all is the knowledge that Wenwu is hearing the voice of his beloved Ying. The voice beckons him to a walled-off cave in Ta Lo. He wants to free her, but there’s something else lurking in the cave, something very old and very dangerous.
There’s a loose formula to entries in the MCU that seems to work pretty well. The hero is generally intelligent, snarky, and failing in some way to live up to their potential. The villain is connected to the hero’s past, and is generally their dark mirror. There’s a lot of CGI. The mid-credits scene acts as a “Coming Soon” trailer for the wider MCU, while the post-credits scene teases where the next installment of the immediate franchise might go.You know this, and if it’s something you have an issue with, you’ve likely checked out long ago.
The MCU using a formula is fine. When a talented filmmaker uses that formula as a jumping-off point and creates something more than a superhero movie, that’s when magic can happen. Director Destin Daniel Cretton understands this, and instead of just a Marvel movie, he’s made a sprawling epic with aspects of Bruce Lee’s work, Jackie Chan’s wildly inventive combat and stunts, and wuxia fantasy like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Shang-Chi has the best fight choreography in the MCU. The bus fight scene alone is jaw-dropping. More importantly, Cretton uses the fight scenes as character development. One of the running plot threads is the respective effects Shang’s parents have had on him. We learn that through dialogue, but we learn it more effectively as Shang’s fighting style evolves, and what it means emotionally for him to change.
Cretton, along with Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham, wrote a screenplay that does an awful lot right. All of the characters, particularly Wenwu, have motivations that are clear, relatable, and consistent. Shang isn’t interested in becoming an Avenger, he just wants to live his life with his best friend while family obligations get in the way. Wenwu doesn’t want to take over the world. He’s shattered by the loss of his love, and he’ll do anything for even the slimmest chance to bring her back. On top of all that, the script takes some of the more problematic elements in Marvel history** and pushes them in directions that are a) less racist and b) more interesting. We finally get to the bottom of all that business involving The Mandarin and the Ten Rings way back in both Iron Man and Iron Man Three. The end result is smart and satisfying.
Speaking of more interesting, let’s take a moment to examine how the MCU is handling inclusivity correctly. We’ve got a high-profile superhero movie produced by the largest entertainment conglomerate on the planet, and said movie has a majority Asian cast and is directed by an Asian American filmmaker. Why does that matter? Consider that a kid will see Shang-Chi and see the newest hero in the MCU and think, “He looks kind of like me.” An older kid will see the same movie and think, “People like me made that movie. I can make movies too.” After a solid few years of escalating racism toward Asians in the United States, it’s good that things seem to be moving in a better direction.****
There are a number of good performances in Shang-Chi and one flat-out great one. I liked Simu Liu’s intelligence, physicality, and easy charisma as Shang-Chi. He’s complex enough to be more than a one-man ass-kicking squad, and enjoyable enough to want to see how his character reckons with other aspects of the MCU. Awkwafina’s Katy provides most of the comic relief, yet she’s too skilled an actor to simply portray her as QuipBot 5000. As Shang’s sister Xialing, Meng’er Zhang also does more than just play the aggrieved sibling. Both Zhang and Awkwafina make the most of their characters and transform them into interesting three-dimensional people.
The best villains in the MCU are about more than villainy. Killmonger, Thanos, and the Vulture all have distinctive points of view that bring them into conflict with Earth’s mightiest heroes. I’m comfortable adding Tony Leung’s Wenwu to that list. If you’re not familiar with Leung as an actor, Shang-Chi is his first American film, but he’s been working in the Hong Kong film industry for decades.*** Here, he’s portraying a man who’s lived too long, seen too much, and then met the woman of his dreams. Every move he makes is fueled by a desperate heartbreak, and if he has to doom the entire planet to rescue his beloved, then that’s what he’ll do. Leung’s performance is locked down and subtle. Instead of a monologue punctuated with histrionics, a glance is enough. It’s a legitimately great performance, one that deserves some Oscar love.
With luck, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings will be viewed as more than just part of the trend of the MCU. The film takes what was formerly an obscure character created to capitalize on a fad and makes him the center of an epic. Big-budget entertainment doesn’t have to be stupid and lack a point of view. Shang-Chi proves that.
*The thing to understand is that Shang-Chi’s creators weren’t maliciously racist, just kinda clueless in the same way that most white people are clueless. Sax Rohmer, the English creator of Fu Manchu in numerous pulp novels, on the other hand, was breathtakingly racist.
**There’s also the fact that Shang-Chi has never been one of Marvel’s top-tier characters, which gave the filmmakers an added bonus. They had more flexibility to introduce Shang-Chi and his world to the MCU, whereas that flexibility wouldn’t have existed with a character like Captain America.
***If you’re new to Tony Leung, you’ve got a metric ton of great performances to look forward to in his filmography. Two good places to start are his role as a conflicted undercover cop in the relentlessly awesome Hard-Boiled, and in the bittersweet romance In the Mood for Love.