From August 2017 – January 2020, Keith R.A. DeCandido took a weekly look at every live-action movie based on a superhero comic that had been made to date in The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch. He has been revisiting the feature every six months or so to look back at the new releases in the previous half-year. We’ve recently covered Black Widow and The Suicide Squad, and after a holiday break, we’ll look at Venom: Let There Be Carnage and Eternals in the first two weeks of January.
The early 1970s was the height of the martial-arts craze, galvanized by the great Bruce Lee emigrating to the U.S. and becoming the biggest thing, a popularity that only increased with his tragic death at the age of 32 in 1973.
Marvel Comics made a few attempts to cash in on this craze, most notably with the characters of Iron Fist and Shang-Chi.
Shang-Chi, referred to as “The Master of Kung Fu,” first appeared in late 1973 in Special Marvel Edition #15 by Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin. Englehart and Starlin had originally wanted to adapt the TV show Kung Fu, but when they approached Marvel, they were asked instead to tie their notion into Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu character, the rights to which Marvel had recently acquired. Englehart and Starlin established Shang-Chi as the son of Fu Manchu and an American woman, bred to be an assassin in Fu Manchu’s service, but who instead rebelled and joined a bunch of British agents (all Rohmer characters) in fighting the crimelord.
After two issues, Special Marvel Edition’s title was changed to The Hands of Shang-Chi: The Master of Kung Fu. The title continued for well over a hundred issues before being cancelled in 1983. The book achieved its greatest popularity when written by Doug Moench (who took over from Englehart in 1974 and wrote most of the issues in its run until 1983) and drawn by Paul Gulacy, the latter succeeded by Gene Day and Mike Zeck, all of whom did some great work on the title. When Marvel lost the rights to Rohmer’s work, those elements were dropped, with Shang-Chi’s father’s name changed to Zheng Zu.
The character has been revived periodically throughout the twenty-first century, parallel to when the film started development in 2001 with director Stephen Norrington attached. (Though Stan Lee reportedly approached Bruce Lee’s son Brandon about doing a Shang-Chi film in the 1980s.) After the rights reverted to Marvel, Shang-Chi was on the list of characters that Marvel Studios had in their stable to produce in 2005, though it took another fifteen years for it to be made.
While the Ten Rings organization was established in the first MCU film, 2008’s Iron Man, the villain the Mandarin was not used directly, meant to be established in a Shang-Chi film instead, where the character could be done justice to, and also folded together with the original Fu Manchu concept. This was slightly sidetracked by the use of the Mandarin in Iron Man 3 in 2013 as a boogeyman terrorist persona adopted by an actor hired by Aldrich Killian, but the short film All Hail the King (released on the Thor: The Dark World Blu-Ray and now available as a standalone feature on Disney+) established that there was a real “Mandarin” out there.
Marvel Studios was very conscious of appropriation issues, and wanted to make sure that they used writers and directors of Asian descent. You only have to read Shang-Chi’s first appearance in 1973 to understand why, as two white guys provided a story that was chock full of stereotypes, not to mention getting things wrong (Fu Manchu, who is Chinese, using the term “senseis,” a Japanese word, to refer to Shang-Chi’s martial arts instructors, e.g.). Oh, and establishing that Fu Manchu had a child with an American woman in order to get the best genetic material for a great son, because of course, white-people genetics have to be part of anyone who’s great… (Can you hear my eyes roll? Can you?)
And so we have a movie directed and co-written by the Japanese-American Destin Daniel Cretton, co-written by half-Chinese David Callaham, and starring almost entirely Asian actors. Simu Liu plays the title role as an adult, with Jayden Zhang playing him as a teenager and Arnold Sun playing him as a child. Tony Leung plays his father, here named Xu Wenwu, but also having the immortality of the comics character, having received it from the Ten Rings, objects of power that he found a thousand years ago and used to make himself a warlord and later a crime lord. His mother Ying Li is played by Fala Chen. His sister Xialing (based on two different half-sisters of Shang-Chi’s from the comics, Zheng Bao Yu and Sister Dagger) is played by Meng’er Zhang as an adult, Elodie Fong as a child, and Harmonie He as a teenager. Awkwafina plays his best friend Katy, Michelle Yeoh (last seen in the MCU playing Aleta in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2) plays Li’s sister Ying Nan. Ronny Chieng plays Jon Jon, Yuen Wah plays Guang Bo, Zach Cherry is the livestreamer on the bus, Stephanie Hsu and Kunal Dudheker play Shang-Chi and Katy’s friends Soo and John, Dee Bradley Baker provides the voice of Morris the hundun, and Katy’s family is played by Jodi Long, Dallas Liu, and Tsai Chin. Versions of two of Shang-Chi’s comics villains are seen here: Razor Fist, played by Florian Munteanu, and Death Dealer, played by Andy Le.
Back from Iron Man 3 and All Hail the King is Ben Kingsley as Trevor Slattery. Back from 2008’s The Incredible Hulk is Tim Roth as the voice of the Abomination. Back from Avengers: Endgame are Benedict Wong as Wong, Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner, and Brie Larson as Carol Danvers. Back from Black Widow is Jade Xu as the Black Widow named Helen.
The film was started in February 2020, but production was suspended the next month due to the recent apocalypse, not resuming until the end of July. Like most films originally intended for 2020 or 2021, the premiere date kept getting pushed back, finally released in the fall of 2021. It had as good a box office as a post-COVID release could ask for, and is also doing well on Disney+ since it was released there. A sequel, also written and directed by Cretton, is in development.
“I know you don’t like to talk about your life, but a guy with a freaking machete for an arm just chopped our bus in half!”
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Written by Dave Callaham & Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton
Produced by Kevin Feige, Jonathan Schwartz
Original release date: September 3, 2021
An opening voiceover in Mandarin tells the story of the Ten Rings: found a thousand years ago in China by a warlord named Xu Wenwu, the rings grant him tremendous power and immortality, enabling him to conquer many lands. Eventually, the Ten Rings becomes a criminal cabal, working throughout history.
In 1996, Xu became fascinated by the legend of Ta Lo, a lost city that was rumored to contain many great treasures. His attempt to reach it by vehicle is stymied by the forest surrounding it, which appears to be alive, the trees constantly moving. Xu’s truck is destroyed, and everyone else in it killed—he only survives by the grace of the Ten Rings’ power. He goes on foot to find a woman standing at the entrance to Ta Lo. Ying Li is a very powerful martial artist, and the two spar in a manner that starts out contentious but very quickly modulates into flirting.
Ying returns to China with Xu, and they marry and have two children, Shang-Chi and Xialing. Ying tells Shang-Chi about how his parents met, and gifts him with a jade pendant, which she says will always enable him to find his way home.
Cut to the present day. Shang-Chi is going by “Shaun” and living in San Francisco as a valet, alongside his best friend Katy. He recently got a postcard with a picture of an origami dragon on it, similar to one he remembers from his youth, with an address in Macau that apparently belongs to Xialing.
After work, Shang-Chi and Katy go out to eat with their friend Soo and her husband John, with Soo lecturing them on how they’re wasting their lives as valets, as they’re both capable of way more than that. After dinner, Katy and Shang-Chi resent the notion that they’re too immature and irresponsible, and then they go out to sing karaoke all night.
The next day, Shang-Chi meets Katy at her apartment, where he has breakfast with her family (her grandmother wants to know when they’ll get married, but Shang-Chi says they’re friends—this is the last time any notion of Katy and Shang-Chi being romantic is brought up, and I have to say this is awesome, as fiction has way too few friendships between men and women that remain friendships without a romantic entanglement crowbarred in). On the bus to work, they’re attacked by a bunch of martial-arts trained mercenaries and also Razor Fist, an amputee whose right arm has a machete attached to it.
To Katy’s abject shock, Shang-Chi then kicks some serious ass on the bus using martial arts skills she had no idea that he had. In the end, Razor Fist gets away with the pendant, though at least everyone else on the bus remains safe. One of the passengers livestreams the fight.
Katy is completely freaked out by Shang-Chi being a badass. He says he has to go to Macau, because there’s a second pendant, and his sister Xialing has it. Katy didn’t know he had a sister, either, and she also insists on accompanying him to Macau. On the flight, he tells some of his backstory, including the fact that both Xu and Ying gave up everything to be together: she gave up Ta Lo, he gave up the Ten Rings. But after Ying died, Xu went back to being a full-time crimelord. He trained Shang-Chi to be an assassin, and his first assignment was in San Francisco. But he couldn’t go through with it, and he stayed in the U.S., changed his name to Shaun, and lived a life there. (Katy points out that using “Shaun” as a pseudonym when your real name is “Shang-Chi” is not the most subtle choice…)
They go to the address on the postcard, and it’s a gladiatorial arena. The joint’s manager, Jon Jon, is thrilled to see Shang-Chi, as the bus fight video has gone viral. When they arrived, Shang-Chi signed a tablet, thinking it was a disclaimer to enter the club, but really a contract to become a fighter. They see various fights, including one involving a Black Widow named Helen, and another between Wong and the Abomination, which Wong wins. (We later find out that they’re working together and fixing their fights.) Shang-Chi winds up in the arena with his sister Xialing, who kicks his ass (at least in part because he refuses to go all-out on the offensive against his sister, whom he’s trying to help). After the fight’s over, Shang-Chi tries to explain what’s going on—though it turns out that Xialing didn’t send the postcard. Then the club is ambushed by Razor Fist, Death Dealer, and more agents of the Ten Rings. There’s a lengthy fight, most of it on the scaffolding on the walls of the club, but it ends when Xu shows up, the power of the Ten Rings ending the fight.
They’re brought to the Ten Rings’ mountain redoubt. Xialing reveals to Katy that Shang-Chi promised to return to her after his assignment, but he never did. Their father shunted Xialing aside, partly because she reminded him to much of Ying, mainly because he’s a sexist schmuck, but she watched her brother and the other agents of the Ten Rings get trained and taught herself. At age sixteen, realizing that her brother was never coming back, she opened up the fight club. Katy is beyond impressed.
Xu reveals that he’s known where Shang-Chi and Xialing were all along, but he let them indulge themselves for a time. However, he believes that Ying is still alive and trapped in Ta Lo. We find out that Ying petitioned to let Xu come to Ta Lo, but the people there refused. Now he thinks they’re punishing her by keeping her trapped in Ta Lo, but she has been able to communicate with him. He uses the pendants to create a map out of water in one of the rooms in the redoubt with a fountain. Xu also tells the story of an American terrorist who was patterned after him called “the Mandarin,” something he put an end to.
The plan is to invade Ta Lo and rescue Ying. Shang-Chi, Xialing, and Katy are imprisoned alongside Trevor Slattery, the aforementioned “Mandarin,” who was taken prisoner, but not executed because he’s entertaining. He’s been performing Shakespeare for Xu and his people. There’s also a hundun—a small winged furry creature from Ta Lo—named Morris who can communicate with Slattery (who thought Morris was a figment of his imagination until Shang-Chi and Katy saw him also).
Xialing is able to escape the prison—she learned the secret ways in and out of the redoubt years ago—and the four of them steal Razor Fist’s car from the garage and use it to head to Ta Lo, directed through the moving forest by Morris, through Slattery.
When they arrive in Ta Lo, they’re told to leave at first, until Shang-Chi and Xialing’s aunt, Ying Nan, arrives. Nan is thrilled to meet her niece and nephew, and upon being told of the impending invasion by Xu, prepares the troops. Nan tells of the Dweller-in-Darkness, a vicious creature who is imprisoned in a mountain. The people of Ta Lo guard the Dweller’s prison, and have the only weapons that can harm it—weapons made from the scale of the Great Protector, the red dragon that imprisoned the Dweller. Nan believes that the Dweller is sending the false messages from Ying to Xu in order to get Xu to free it.
Katy is trained in how to shoot a bow, Xialing is given a rope dart, and Nan continues the work that her sister started in showing Shang-Chi her own t’ai-chi-based martial art.
Xu prepares to invade, and we get one last flashback: to Ying’s death, which comes at the hands of enemies of the Ten Rings when Xu is away—but Shang-Chi is there, and watches his mother get killed. Shang-Chi also reveals to Katy that he did kill the person his father sent him to assassinate—but the action so disgusted him that he stayed in San Francisco, breaking his promise to his sister.
Xu, Razor Fist, Death Dealer, and the rest of the Ten Rings bad guys arrive in Ta Lo, and the battle is joined. Xu and Shang-Chi fight directly (Shang-Chi trying and failing to convince his father that his mother is really dead), but Xu is triumphant, sending Shang-Chi into the river and then breaking the Dweller free (thinking he’s freeing Ying). Several of the Dwellers’ minions get free first and they indiscriminately kill Ta Lo warriors and Ten Rings agents alike to devour souls for the Dweller. Upon realizing that the Ten Rings’ weapons are useless against the minions, Razor Fist agrees to join forces with the Ta Lo warriors and they are armed with dragon-scale weapons (including Razor Fist’s machete).
Shang-Chi is saved from drowning by the Great Protector. Xu frees the Dweller and the battle is joined by monster and dragon both. Shang-Chi and Xu battle again, with half the Ten Rings moving to Shang-Chi once he starts doing the martial arts moves his mother and aunt taught him. Xu eventually realizes his error, and just before the Dweller kills him, he bequeaths the remaining five rings to his son. Now that he has the power of all Ten Rings, Shang-Chi is able, aided by the Great Protector, Xialing, and a well-placed arrow to the throat from Katy, to kill the Dweller.
Life on Ta Lo returns to something like normal, though many people died in the battle. Shang-Chi and Katy return to San Francisco, believing that Xialing is going to dismantle the Ten Rings. However, as the post-credits scene reveals, she’s actually taking over the Ten Rings.
Katy and Shang-Chi tell the story of what happened to Soo and John, who don’t believe a word of it until Wong shows up in the restaurant and takes them to Kamar-Taj. In the mid-credits scene, Wong, Bruce Banner, and Carol Danvers discuss the potential origins of the Ten Rings with Katy and Shang-Chi. Banner says, “Welcome to the circus” before he signs off, and then Katy and Shang-Chi go out to do karaoke with Wong.
“You can’t outrun who you really are”
That the start of the MCU really leaned into the WASP-y whiteness of Marvel’s early heroes is understandable, as the company’s flagship heroes were all created in the early 1960s. Unfortunately, the MCU also doubled down on the lack of inclusion by doing very little with the women characters. The Black Widow kept not getting her own film, and the Wasp—a much more significant and important character over Marvel’s comics history than her original partner—getting completely shoved to the side in favor of a second-rate hero in Ant-Man. We didn’t get any kind of hero of color who wasn’t a sidekick until eight years in, with T’Challa (and the Dora Milaje) in Captain America: Civil War. The dam finally broke in 2018 with Black Panther, then we got Captain Marvel in 2019 and Black Widow in 2021.
Asian representation has been pitiful, however, most notably in 2016’s Doctor Strange where they did one thing right—turning Wong into a sorcerer equal in stature to the title character rather than a stereotypical manservant—but most of the movie took place in India and yet the other speaking parts in those portions were an American white guy, a British black guy, and a Celtic woman (a gender and race-flipped version of an Asian comics character).
So it’s good that they’re finally giving the most populous ethnic group in the world their due…
What I particularly love about Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is that—just as Black Panther embraced the entirety of the African continent—we get to see several different elements of Chinese and Chinese-American life, from neon neo-cyberpunk fight club in Macau to the life of immigrants and their children in California to the family drama of the Xu family in China. (I especially loved that Katy doesn’t actually speak Mandarin, and Jon Jon casually switching to English by saying, “It’s okay, I speak ABC,” with the movie not even bothering to say it stands for “American Born Chinese.” Check out Eliza Chan’s excellent piece here on Tor.com for more about how this is a love letter to Chinese cinema and culture.)
One of the good things about the MCU is the way they’ve taken various filmic subgenres and done superheroic takes on them, whether it’s a war movie (Captain America: The First Avenger), Afro-futurism (Black Panther), a political thriller (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), an 80s sci-fi action movie (Thor: Ragnarok), a comedy heist flick (Ant-Man), or a spy thriller (Black Widow). With Shang-Chi it’s very much an Asian martial arts movie, with the gloriously choreographed (and magnificently filmed) fight scenes, the family drama, the over-the-top martial arts moves, and the presence of creatures from Chinese mythology both obvious (big red dragon!) and comparatively obscure (Morris the hundun).
Another feature this film shares with Black Panther is that our hero is surrounded by a variety of interesting women. We start with Katy, who is a delight. Awkwafina does a superlative job of giving us The Inevitable Snarky Character that all Marvel films must have whether they belong or not (yes, I’m looking at you, Stephen Strange), and having the hero’s best friend get that role is a masterstroke. The Ying sisters are both wonderful. Nan is a regal magnificent presence—imbued with the gravitas that Michelle Yeoh brings to every role she touches. And Fala Chen does beautifully with Li’s fight/flirt with Xu. Xu’s spar with Ying Li is the first time in his life he’s ever lost a battle, and I particularly love that Shang-Chi’s later confrontation with his father is initially choreographed the exact same way as the fight with Ying was, but when the two exchange looks, the blossoming love for Ying on Xu’s face in the first fight is replaced with disappointed anger at his son on his face in the second. But his mother and aunt’s training is what enables Shang-Chi to defeat his father and save everyone.
The most interesting woman here is Meng’er Zhang’s Xialing. She is brilliant, learning early on that the best way to thrive was to play to her father’s low expectations of women and be silent in the background so no one will notice her. She taught herself martial arts, she created a successful underground business as a teenager, and at the end of the movie she’s running her Dad’s thousand-year-old empire and has already made it more inclusive. (Everyone who works for the Ten Rings is a man when Xu’s in charge, but the final post-credits scene is equal parts men and women.) The question is, what will she do with the Ten Rings? One assumes that’s a question the already-in-development sequel will likely address…
Tony Leung gives a magnificently nuanced performance here as Xu, as he embodies the cruelty and the power of the immortal crimelord with the love for both his wife and his children that proves his undoing. I particularly like the way he carries himself, like someone who’s been around forever and has no need to worry about much of anything. He’s so casual in his use of the Ten Rings, so effortless in his actions that he almost seems bored—which is a spot-on way to play an immortal.
This manages to fit seamlessly into the MCU without being too obnoxious about it. You can watch this movie without ever having seen any of the other score of films and not have any difficulties, but there are some lovely touches here and there. There’s a sign outside Shang-Chi’s San Francisco apartment for a post-blip support group, as well as a mention of how you shouldn’t waste your life because half the population could disappear at a moment’s notice. And then there’s the appearances by Wong, the Abomination, and one of the Black Widows in the fight club—and, of course, the mid-credits scene.
Oh, and Trevor Slattery. Ben Kingsley is an absolute delight here, what few brain cells the character had left having wasted completely away in prison over the decade he’s been a prisoner, and providing a nice link to the MCU’s past. And if you don’t know Iron Man 3 (or have forgotten it eight years later), Xu and Slattery both provide more than enough information to tell you who they are. And Slattery’s role as Morris’ interpreter is the most important contribution he makes to the plot in any case.
I haven’t even mentioned the title character, and it’s kind of too bad that Simu Liu stands out so little from his own movie, but that’s mostly because they surrounded him with so many great actors in Awkwafina, Leung, Zhang, Yeoh, and Kingsley. But Liu provides Shang-Chi with a very straightforward heroism that fits with the character he’s based on perfectly. The original comics character was trying to redeem the sins of his father, as well as those he committed himself in his service, and I like the way Liu plays a person who’s trying very hard to run away from a life he doesn’t want. He’s in a boring job that nonetheless pays the bills, he has a good, fun life. But when he’s attacked on the bus, his first thoughts are to keep the other people on the bus safe, and when it’s over, his next thought is of his sister’s safety. When it matters, he antes up and kicks in, which is what heroes are supposed to do.
And now he’s got the Ten Rings. Can’t wait to see what he does with them.
We’ll be taking the next couple of weeks off for the holidays, then be back on the 5th of January with Venom: Let There Be Carnage. Hope everyone has a joyous and safe holiday season, and we’ll see you in 2022…