Film Review: Martial arts spectacle Shang-Chi features MCU’s best villain yet

“You can’t outrun who you really are.” 

Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, Marvel’s first Asian-led superhero film Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is nothing short of a dynamic spectacle; and in this reviewer’s honest opinion, a visually entertaining film that makes up for its storytelling flaws. For the most part, it is a film that works because it knows what it is — or rather, who the film represents. This is the first point that should be made clear: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is not Chinese; it is Chinese-American. The movie may be packed with insanely choreographed fight scenes inspired by glorious kung fu films of old, but it is also directed with the combined diasporic sense of Western individualism and the collective Asian obligation to family and loyalty. 

Perhaps this is best illustrated by the conflict introduced by the film’s trailer: “I gave you 10 years to live your life, and where did it get you? Now it’s time for you to take your place by my side.” 

Spoken to existence by the enigmatic Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung), a complex morally gray father who is also the all-powerful leader of the Ten Rings, the quote encapsulates the general plot of the film. This is the story of a young man, i.e. Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), trying to run away from his powerful and complicated family by building a new life in America — a premise that isn’t as unfamiliar as one might think since the same can also be said for Hollywood’s other Asian-led film Crazy Rich Asians (2018).

Given how broad this sounds, the experience itself may be generally representative of the global Chinese diasporic community. Although most immigrant Chinese families are probably not running away from their immortal warlord father and his empire, they have left their homeland to start new lives in new lands, much like our own Chinese forebears did here in the Philippines. This is probably why the film resonates more within Chinese audiences overseas rather than those living in the Mainland. 

In China itself, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings holds a modest, average score of 6.2/10 on Douban. Although local audiences might not be very broad due to the film not actually having an official release in the country, there is still an obvious difference when compared to the 92% critic grade offered by its American counterpart Rotten Tomatoes


[Spoilers ahead]


Other than its diasporic-inspired narrative, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings also tells a story that is simpler than it actually seems on the surface. Rather than being merely the flashy plot-driven action movie filmgoers would expect it to be, the film is actually more character-driven, pushed forward by the grief-powered motivations of its most determined character, who interestingly enough is not the titular hero but the movie’s purported villain — Xu Wenwu. 

Conceptually, it’s a great idea. Even though Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is equipped with a ten-minute introduction spoken completely in Mandarin Chinese and embellished with the mystical awe-inspiring influences of wuxia films, audiences who are not familiar with Chinese culture have not actually felt too disconnected from the film. This is because the movie itself is a familiar enough story, grounded upon the exploration of universal themes such as love, family, and grief. 


Xu Wenwu and Ying Li’s romance starts with an intimate battle.


However, curiously enough, the one who actually embarks on this emotional journey is none other than Shang-Chi’s own father, Xu Wenwu — a detail that is both simultaneously the film’s greatest strength and weakness. As a lonesome thousands-year-old warrior, Wenwu has the most to gain when he meets his eventual wife Ying Li (Fala Chen) and the most to lose when she dies. It is this tradeoff that ultimately sets the movie into place, and it is only in the resolution of Wenwu’s grief — i.e. his love for his son — that the plot settles. 

Perhaps the most glaring flaw of the film is this: The one who commits the decision to change his life, the one who strikes the most heartbreaking mistake, and the one who learns from it all is not Shang-Chi, which doesn’t quite make sense for a superhero origin film. And while there is nothing wrong with having a complex and dynamic antagonist, who is also quite possibly the best villain the MCU has to date, the same cannot be said with having a static protagonist. 

Throughout the entire film, Shang-Chi has always been in the right. In fact, most of the life-changing epiphanies that you expect to see on screen have already transpired in events before the movie even began. He had already left behind his life as a teenage assassin. He is already assured of the current righteousness of his own actions, even unhesitatingly defending his mother’s mystical birthplace from the rampages of his father’s army. Nothing really sparks a change in his worldview or introduces growth to his character. We’ve never really gotten a solid answer as to who Shang-Chi is supposed to redefine himself as. 

Personally, the best guess that I can warrant is Shang-Chi realizing that he is supposed to be a son as much as Wenwu is supposed to be a father. That realization is probably most pronounced during the final battle, when Shang-Chi pleads for his father to snap out of his grief-driven illusion and think about the family he still has. However, the emotional burden here lies more on Wenwu than it does Shang-Chi. There is also the fact that said illusion is not actually resolved by anything that Shang-Chi actually does. It is instead literally shattered by the entrance of a wife-impersonating soul-sucking monster who had finally broken free of its rock-walled prison. 


Shang-Chi being trained as a child warrior.


That said, there are plenty of consolations that make up for this oversight. Although we do not see Shang-Chi’s growth as a protagonist, we do see his growth as a crime-fighting superhero, especially in eye-candy scenes ranging from the film’s iconic bus fight, training montages, and the epic father-son final battle. What Shang-Chi does best is performing graceful martial arts choreography that is only made better by the film’s stunning CGI effects of dragons and Wenwu’s glowing rings, as well as its firm dedication to the aesthetics of Chinese wire fu (i.e. wire work kung fu).  

At the end of the day, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings accomplished most of what it set out to do: introduce a cool kick-ass hero, spotlight Tony Leung’s emotionally accomplished acting, and highlight the culture of the American-Chinese diaspora. Oh, and set up the next few Marvel films. We can’t wait for those too. 


Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is now available in select Philippine theaters and Disney+. 

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