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I was actually surprised to find that I liked Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021). In its own way, it is reminiscent of Black Panther (2018) starring the incomparable Chadwick Boseman. There was a similar worldbuilding based on various Marvel comic book concepts and many wonderfully endearing characters. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In the original 1970s Master of Kung Fu comic books started by Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin, Shang-Chi was the estranged son of Dr. Fu Manchu, a pulp fiction character created by Sax Rohmer in 1913.
The series began by introducing Shang-Chi as a man raised by his father Dr. Fu Manchu to be the ultimate assassin for the would-be world conqueror. In Shang-Chi’s first mission, he kills one of his father’s old enemies, Dr. Petrie and then learns of Dr. Fu Manchu’s true, evil nature. Disillusioned, Shang-Chi swears eternal opposition to his father’s ambitions and fights him as an agent of British intelligence, under the orders of Sir Denis Nayland Smith.
In the early 1970s, Chinese Kung Fu movies were huge in the west as was Bruce Lee. There was even a disco song called Kung Fu Fighting. In addition, there was a television series called Kung Fu starring David Carradine.
Naturally, Marvel decided to capitalize on this fad by creating Shang-Chi.
The movie had to retcon a lot of that, but took the “ten rings” idea from the old Iron Man comic book villain The Mandarin along with a secret, interdimensional city that appears in our realm only once a year borrowed from the Iron Fist comics.
The story is told in flashbacks, with Xu Wenwu (played by Tony Chiu-Wai Leung) as the Master of the Ten Rings, bracelets he wears on both arms that give him unbelievable power and immortality. In 1996, searching for the mystic city Ta Lo, he encounters Ying Li (Fala Chen) who attempts to stop him. During the fight, they are continually flirting (which came off as pretty silly) but she beats him. He falls in love and agrees to forsake the ten rings to marry her. They have two children together, Xu Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) and Xu Xialing (Meng’er Zhang).
When old enemies come seeking Wenwu, they only find his wife and children. The enemies agree to let the children go, but without her otherworldly powers, their mother is murdered. Shang-Chi witnesses this and his father blames him for not saving her, even though he was only a child. Wenwu puts on the rings again and seeks vengeance, even to the point of training his son to be an assassin and, at age 14, sending him off to kill the man who organized his mother’s death.
He leaves behind his young sister, promising to come back for her in three days. He never does. She trains herself in the martial arts since her Dad doesn’t believe in girls training.
Shang, as Shaun, becomes a classic underachiever as a parking valet with his friend Katy (Awkwafina). She’s more or less his cute sidekick (all superhero movies seem to need one) and they lead rather pointless lives together, although they have fun while doing it.
Of course, assassins track Shang down, steal the pendent his now dead Mom gave him and he realizes they’re going after his sister next.
One quick plane ride to Macau later, the last address he has for his sister, he ends up in a fight club (a fight he had with assassins on a bus in San Francisco earlier became a viral video and he’s suddenly famous). The place is actually run by his sister, but quickly, everyone is captured by dear old Dad. He’s obsessed with recovering his wife who he believes is being held prisoner in Ta Lo, but he’s really being mentally manipulated by an evil force the people of Ta Lo are keeping at bay. The pendants, as it turns out, are the keys to entering the city.
We actually do encounter the original Mandarin from Iron Man 3 (2013) Trevor Slattery (played by Ben Kingsley) who Wenwu sprung from federal prison (Wenwu was behind the whole plot in Iron Man 3 apparently) to make his court jester.
That’s right. Besides Razor Fist (Florian Munteanu), one of Wenwu’s evil henchmen, the only other white guy in the movie is played as an utter fool. That’s pretty much the way things were in “Black Panther” where the two white men were either a sidekick or completely evil.
As with Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), the Asian villain isn’t truly evil. Wenwu is only (misguidedly) motivated by the desire to free his wife. In the end, both Killmonger and Wenwu die for their crimes but they aren’t truly responsible.
Once arriving in the hidden city, Katy learns to use magical archery equipment in a single day and is instrumental in helping to defeat the big, mean magical creature, even though that’s ridiculous. In the end, Shaun and Katy end up back in the bar with their friends telling the tale of their adventures as if nothing had really changed for them. Except that Daddy’s dead and Shaun now possesses the ten rings.
Oh, in the fight club, we see Wong (Benedict Wong from Dr. Strange) staging a fight with a monster, but it’s all for show. That’s important, because at the end of the adventure, Wong shows up and summons Shaun and Katy into his home (or Stephen Strange’s home) where they meet with Captain Marvel/Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) and Bruce Banner who is not Professor Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) as they attempt to discover what the ten rings really are.
Sister dearest instead of dismantling evil Dad’s corrupt empire takes it over, but has a bunch of girls training in martial arts this time.
This is a basic Marvel comic book movie, lots of action and lots of fun. Please suspend disbelief, because in this case Shang-Chi becomes hugely magical and not just a “Kung Fu fighter.”
The real problem with the movie isn’t the movie itself, it’s with its star. Just like Brie Larson and Captain Marvel, Simu Liu finds it necessary to market this film on the edge of race and his own insecurities. What kept “Shang-Chi” from becoming another “Black Panther” is that Liu didn’t have the grace and confidence demonstrated by the late Chadwick Boseman.
I remember reading a story about how white kids wanted to dress up for Halloween as the Black Panther. A bunch of social justice people said that’s “cultural appropriation” and blah, blah, blah. Boseman said he was thrilled and honored that his character inspired heroism in so many children. Just think of it. For so many years, black kids who wanted to dress as superheroes for Halloween had to pick Superman or Spider-Man, white guys, because there were no black comic book heroes. Now there are and white kids want to be like black heroes.
I can only imagine how Liu would take it if some eight-year-old white boy wanted to dress up like Shang-Chi.
In fact, Liu dissed fans by refusing to sign old copies of the “Master of Kung-Fu” comic book, calling it “offensive.”
I get it, Liu. In the 1960s, Asians were colored bright yellow as if they had jaundice, and in the 1970s Shang-Chi’s skin was orange. Tons of stereotypes were in motion. I hope you never read older comic strips such as Terry and the Pirates or The Phantom because in the 1930s, they were much, much worse.
Like it or not, the character and history of the comic book hero Shang-Chi is smothered in stereotypes that go back more than a century. We can’t change history, but we can acknowledge that we are better now than we were before. Part of that is having the movie’s star exhibit some grace and dignity. Instead, he comes off like an insecure teenager who is only in the public eye due to his being cast in this role. Like Brie Larson, he’s quite willing to bite the hand that feeds him, in this case the overall fan base, in order to create the illusion of emotional security for himself.
He made a good movie. I actually liked the character, although even in the end, he was still pretty irresponsible. Too bad the guy behind the mask, like so many actors really, is such a disappointment.
The Blu-Ray went back to the public library. Simu Liu makes me glad I didn’t spend any money on him.