Although much is made of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s strength lying in its interconnectedness, many of my favorite Marvel films are the ones that stand alone, alike Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther or Ant-Man. Even with that, I walked into Shang-Chi: Legend of the Ten Rings yesterday a little less than confident, not having been a huge fan of the original material in the comic books. That feeling didn’t last long. Shang-Chi is a wonderful film, equal parts martial-arts actionfest and Chinese fairy tale, with a light dusting of Marvel magic sprinkled over the proceedings just to remind you where you are and where you’ll eventually be going. It has a unique tone and mood that sets it apart from the rest of the MCU, and leaves you excited to see where these characters will appear next.
Just the fact that this movie turned out as solid as it did is something of a surprise, as the title character’s comic-book history is a more than a bit problematic in a way that I thought would make it very difficult to ever translate to film. Created by Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin in 1973 as Master of Kung-Fu after Marvel’s attempts to get the rights to the then-popular television series Kung Fu fell through, Marvel utilized Sax Rohmer’s pulp character Fu Manchu (a fairly insensitive racial stereotype) as part of Shang-Chi’s backstory, with Shang-Chi as Fu Manchu’s defiant son determined to destroy his father’s criminal empire. Using Fu Manchu in today’s more enlightened pop-culture landscape was never going to work, yet Shang-Chi’s struggle against his evil father is integral to the character. How Marvel Studios solved this dilemma is, I have to admit, genius.
Back in 2013, they had faced a similar problem with Iron Man 3, which was using the Mandarin as its antagonist. A longtime Iron Man foe from the comics (and arguably the most important one), the Mandarin was also a fairly blatant racial stereotype of the Fu Manchu variety, a Chinese warlord who often menaced Iron Man with his 10 magic rings.
Iron Man 3 director Shane Black swerved us all, avoiding the issue by having Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin, now reconceived as a global terrorist, revealed to be merely a puppet for the media, his strings pulled by AIM chief Aldrich Killian. While the reveal worked really well in the context of the film, many longtime Marvel fans were disappointed that a character as historically significant to Marvel Comics as the Mandarin was dispensed with so lightly. And here’s where the genius part comes in: revealed here in Legend of the Ten Rings is that there was in fact a real Mandarin in the character of Xu Wenwu, Shang-Chi’s father, a warlord turned criminal mastermind, granted immortality and vast power after his discovery of the Ten Rings, mystical artifacts worn on his forearms. All the problems solved in one fell swoop: Fu Manchu replaced with a more realized, human character that doesn’t offend modern sensibilities, and the legend of Marvel Comics’ Mandarin restored with a new version that takes his place in the mythology, right down to the “magic rings.” Like I said, genius.
Tony Leung as Wenwu gives Shang-Chi the one thing that Marvel’s previous release Black Widow sorely lacked: a proper, compelling villain. The rest of the cast keeps up with him, though: Simu Liu’s Shang-Chi is both charming as hell in the film’s lighter moments but an absolute badass in the action scenes. Unexpected appearances from Michelle Yeoh and Benedict Wong give the piece even more gravitas, and even Awkwafina, whose schtick I normally find very grating, settles down after the first act into a likable sidekick who adds a lot to the proceedings.
I’m being very light on the details because I suspect a lot of folks may be waiting for the film’s Disney Plus debut in November due to COVID concerns, and I don’t want to spoil any of the film’s delightful surprises. But if you feel good about going to a theatre, don’t miss this outstanding kickoff to the next chapter in the MCU. I can’t wait to see where we’re going next.