“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” presents a new path for Marvel


Courtesy of Marvel

“Shang-Chi” is historic in its representation of actors of Asian descent, but it’s Asian film influences might be more instrumental in its success.

Shreyas Banerjee, Life Editor

Marvel loves to pretend that their films are more than just superhero flicks. With the Marvel Cinematic Universe making up more and more of the entire blockbuster space, pumping out four films and three live-action Disney Plus series this year alone, there is a severe risk of oversaturation and becoming stale. People have already been alleging such criticisms against the media juggernaut for years, claiming that the Marvel formula, while commercially successful, has led to a creative pruning of the entire film industry, with the sole focus on superhero movies.

Marvel’s reliance on superheroes will never change—their entire business is based on them—but over the past few years, the veneer of the projects have changed. In an attempt to increase franchise viability, the film studio has increasingly been relying on tropes from genres not associated with superheroes. From “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” taking inspiration from geo-political thrillers, to “Spider-Man: Homecoming” using tropes from ‘80s John Hughes movies, to “Ant-Man” using story structures from heist films and to “Loki” acting as a take on “Dr. Who,” the way these films are presented has changed. Ultimately, however, it’s all just a veneer, with the true superhero stylings inevitably coming out at a certain point.

None of this is necessarily a bad thing; we do want more varied superhero films if we want the franchise to continue. Occasionally this blending of outside genres with superhero scale can make a killer combination. “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is the latest such example.

Adapting the character of Shang-Chi into a major feature film is no small feat. Initially created in the 1970s, the character’s history is rooted in racist tropes. As one of the first superheroes of Asian origin, though there are still very few today, Shang-Chi was made as an unabashed Bruce Lee knockoff, with the nickname of “Master of Kung Fu,” and a skill-set and characterization very much based off the prevailing Asian stereotypes of the time. Most notably, his main story was centered around being the son of an already existing supervillain named “Fu Manchu,” which honestly should speak for itself. All this makes a modern Shang-Chi big-screen adaptation harder to pull off, but it also makes an ideal fit for a Marvel universe that is trying to diversify in terms of racial representation and also style.

You see, while offering historic representation of Asian people in Hollywood, using the character of Shang-Chi as a vehicle Marvel can swallow up the aesthetics of a whole new genre—martial arts films. With films like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Ip Man” and “Fist of Fury” as possible draws for inspiration, a whole new avenue for Marvel films opened up.

This promise comes to fruition in the first set piece as our main character Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), is confronted on a bus in San Francisco. We had already met the character briefly in the opening scenes as an unassuming, unmotivated and semi-awkward valet driver, going by the English name of “Shaun,” and spending most of the time with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina), a listless yet quick-witted fellow valet driver. But in that moment where a man with a knife for a hand attempts to steal Shaun’s pendant, we see a transformation and perhaps the birth of a new action star. In perhaps the most electric fight scene I have seen in a movie theater in over a year, Simu Liu sheds his mild-mannered demeanor and erupts as a martial arts master, taking on several henchmen in dramatic style while the runaway bus barrels down the hills of San Francisco. With quick choreography, great camera work and slick set design, along with a good dose of humor from Awkwafina as she struggles to control the bus via mid-fight conversations, this opening fight is sure to go down in the annals of great Marvel setpieces. This scene best exemplifies the melding of genres that Marvel has been trying so hard to do and establishes Liu as a contending figure for the next phase of the film universe.

The film also deftly handles the issue of Shang-Chi’s father, ditching the Fu Manchu character entirely, thankfully, and instead trading him in for Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung), leader of the Ten Rings terrorist organization and wearer of—you guessed it—the Ten Rings, which give him supernatural abilities and effective immortality. The structure of the film is atypical for a superhero release, with the first half interspersed with flashbacks to Shang-Chi’s childhood with his father and sister, which slowly reveal the dynamics that led to the modern day circumstances. By doing this, the film is able to create a powerful relationship between the two, making their inevitable confrontation all the more heartbreaking.

Unfortunately as the film progresses, it becomes more and more of a typical Marvel affair, relying on CGI paloozas over the human character work that had made the initial half of the film so compelling. At the end of the day, Marvel is going to be Marvel, no matter how many genres it subsumes. I couldn’t help thinking as the credits rolled that the movie would’ve been twice as good if it had half the budget. Constraints can sometimes make a film even better, and if it had led to an ending less focused on spectacle and more on human emotion—“Shang-Chi” would have been all the better.

Despite a lackluster ending, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is a fun adventure and a great step forward for Marvel as a whole—deserving far more than the diminutive status Disney seems to have relegated it to, with Disney CEO Bob Chapek calling it an “interesting experiment” for the box office and a lower marketing budget being given to it compared to other Marvel origin films. While some of this is due to being released in the middle of a surging pandemic, “Shang-Chi” warrants more attention than what it has been receiving from the studio.

With its character drama and slick genre splicing up to a certain extent, the film becomes a victory for those hoping that Marvel’s engine still had steam, and that its ability to pump out good, consistent movies remained undiminished. And in the end, don’t we just want more good movies?