In 2019, when Marvel Studios’ head honcho Kevin Feige announced “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” the average filmgoer probably asked themselves, “Shang-Chi, who?” Yet that’s the magic the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has brought to the entertainment industry over the past two decades. Even the nerdiest comic aficionado would have never imagined the day that a Doctor Strange feature film would come to fruition — and don’t get me started on Ant-Man. This week, “Shang-Chi” premieres on streaming platform Disney+ after a decent box office showing back in September.
Although the “ten rings” were briefly alluded to in “Iron Man 3” (2013), everyone was relatively at a loss for what kind of plot to expect from “Shang-Chi.” MCU films not only draw huge star power but have the ability to skyrocket careers. Ever since Simu Liu was announced as the first Asian Marvel superhero, he worked his smoldering gaze and hot bod to the point that movie promotion seemed inescapable.
Liu, known for “Kim’s Convenience” and his stock photographs, barely had a resume before this film — although he was allegedly associated with controversial social media posts on Reddit that were anti-Black and pro-Men’s rights. However, in the summer of 2021, he was everywhere, from social media — on Instagram, Reddit, and even in the Subtle Asian Traits Facebook group (based on screenshots that we saw) — to magazine covers and speaking events like InspirAsian, just a few months later.
With an Asian cast and director, Destin Daniel Cretton, “Shang-Chi” makes it hard not to feel proud of this huge step for the Asian community. Yet weeks prior to its release, Disney CEO Bob Chapek’s comment that the film was an “experiment” definitely deserved some pause and pointed to deeper problems regarding Asian representation in entertainment — we can’t forget soon enough the lack of authenticity in “Mulan” (2020). Nevertheless, we’ve waited for what seems like a long time for a Marvel movie like this to come out.
For those of us returning to theaters to watch movies on the big screen or even putting that Disney+ subscription to good use at home, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” makes for an enjoyable experience. It’s your typical Marvel film, but from the opening lines and first few minutes spoken in Chinese with English subtitles, it doesn’t feel like one at the same time.
Throughout, the film doesn’t hold out on production. It weaves mythical elements with modern, Eastern influences with Western ones. While the opening flashbacks help set up the mystical legend of the ten rings, soon after, there’s a quick shift to present-day San Francisco, where we find our main character Shang-Chi, who goes by the name Shaun.
Though the well-known bus fight scene feels like part of the Marvel movie checklist, each move was carefully choreographed to avoid comparison to Jackie Chan fight scenes and showcase different forms of martial arts. Not only is there the thrilling bus fight that acts as the initiation, but other scenes like the water map, Xu Wenwu’s search for Ta Lo, and the entrance to the otherworldly village are just as visually stunning.
The progression of the plot keeps you engaged while the many layers to the conflict Shang-Chi faces emerge. The ten rings, held by Shang-Chi’s father, Xu Wenwu, are an important part of the story, but they’re only half of his origin. The other half originates from his mother, in the village of Ta Lo, an alternate realm full of Chinese mythical creatures, including faceless, fuzzy, winged pigs called dijiang. For most of the movie, Xu Wenwu seems to be set up as the main villain. Spoilers ahead: It isn’t until the story moves to Ta Lo that the true evil is revealed in the form of a CGI antagonist: the Dweller-in-Darkness, a soul-sucking, mythological creature.
While we were excited to see younger talent like Liu in the titular role and Meng’er Zhang as Shang-Chi’s sister Xialing, we were just as proud when established Asian actors Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Michelle Yeoh made their appearances.
And yet, Awkwafina’s Katy fell a little flat for us. Though it seems like she’s not just “Nora from Queens” these days, Awkwafina plays a character that we’ve seen so often. Her character Katy plays a pivotal role in the crucial fight scene where (spoilers!) she manages to shoot the fatal arrow into the Dweller without much archery experience. But Katy feels indistinguishable from Awkwafina’s characters Peik Lin in “Crazy Rich Asians” and even the fictionalized version of herself in “Nora from Queens.” Her presence was made all the more complicated, given the conversation around her use of a Blaccent in many of her previous roles.
Nevertheless, “Shang-Chi” is a feel-good film with Asian actors front and center — and sometimes, all you need is a fun film. It’s definitely not perfect, but after waiting through the pandemic for the film release, we are one step closer to normalizing authentic Asian representation in media.
Photo credit: Marvel Studios
Last modified: November 13, 2021