Is Shang-Chi & The Legend Of The Ten Rings As Epic As Its Title?

Shang-Chi & The Legend Of The Ten Rings is a great title I would’ve expected of a sequel. Fred Van Lente was asked to use Shang-Chi in Wolverine: First Class so Marvel’s trademark wouldn’t lapse. Then they don’t bother using Master Of Kung Fu in his movie title. I agree that mastering kung fu isn’t the greatest selling point in a universe of superhumans though. If he’s mastered kung fu, why isn’t Shang-Chi’s supranym Kung-Fu-Mmaster? (DC has Judomaster.) The Wages Of Cinema will now SPOIL what happens beyond the title while its newer trailers spoil the climax to a crazy degree! Is Shang-Chi your guy when The Ten Rings are nigh? (If you’re not ready for that, might I interest you in some X-Men rants?)

Its star has justifiably been perturbed by Disney calling this “an interesting experiment.” Racist implications aside, I don’t see why this is a financial experiment either. It won’t stream on Disney+ for the first forty-five days of its release, which is longer than Black Widow but shorter than pre-pandemic releases. So fans fearful of being spoiled online (I’m part of the problem!) will be seeing this in cinema. Or is Disney worried they’d have to split the take with theaters instead of keeping all the premiere access lucre? If The Eternals was supposed to come out immediately after Black Widow in 2020, why isn’t it doing likewise in 2021?

SCATLOTTR isn’t an acronym that rolls off the tongue. It was directed by Destin Daniel Cretton from a screenplay by him, Dave Callahan, & Andrew Lanham. As is true of all the MCU, you don’t need to have read the comics to understand this. It’s especially true here as just about everything about this lower tier character has been rejiggered. There were certainly problematic elements to The Hands Of Shang-Chi, Master Of Kung Fu, but the movie adaption has course corrected so much it’s become almost flavorless.

Simu Liu is fantastic in Kim’s Convenience. (I’m still upset it’s not getting its promised final season.) The first trailer debuted on his birthday. Unfortunately the script lets this star down. By hiding his trauma beneath a non-quippy veneer of normalcy & not having standout personality traits of his own, he’s upstaged by supporting characters. His outfit is reminiscent of his modern looks with controversial basketball texture. They didn’t even do a scene with his classic red gi with yellow edging? Since Shang-Chi hasn’t gotten any media adaptations prior to this, most fans didn’t realize they were pronouncing his name wrong until now. A phonetic poster would’ve been helpful, but there’s a cute meta-scene about it.

Shang-Chi’s father in the comics was originally Dr. Fu Manchu before Marvel lost the license to use him. He was renamed Zheng Zu of the Five Weapons Society. Wenwu is the film substitution for his infamous progenitor. Jimmy Woo’s father is The Yellow Claw, whom was an earlier substitute for Sax Rohmer”s creation. Do Shang-Chi & Woo ever bond over having crimester dads? Melina the pig torturer was a missed opportunity for Marvel Studios to diversify into malevolent moms.

Mandarin currently holds the record for longest gap between being foreshadowed & actually appearing in the MCU. The Ten Rings in Iron Man appeared to be Middle Eastern terrorists who venerated him, colluding with Obadiah Stane to get advanced armaments. Iron Man 3 revealed that The Ten Rings were a front by Syndrome AIM’s Aldrich Killain, employing disabled US army veterans enhanced by Extremis. These feel like two very distinct groups. While I enjoyed both personas of Trevor Slattery, overall it felt like a twist that wasn’t supported well. Marvel Studios soon backpedaled in its “All Hail The King” one shot  to reveal that there was a real Mandarin out there. So Iron Man 3 is ultimately not a satisfying trilogy conclusion because Tony Stark never actually battled his archnemesis. The ninja commandos loyal to Wenwu feel like a third party rather than the source of the cell from Iron Man, so this isn’t a fulfilling coda either.

Although Iron Man wasn’t always the A-lister the MCU made him out to be, The Mandarin had an important niche as his top solo foe who wasn’t just an armored Russian. The Mandarin frequently gets rebooted in the comics to make him less of a Yellow Peril stereotype. It seems like the bigger problem is that Marvel doesn’t really have any Asian superhero A-listers to counterbalance his villainy. So pitting Shang-Chi against him is a clever way to reduce racism. (Kevin Feige realizes whitewashing The Ancient One was wrong.) Shang-Chi is way less powerful than Iron Man, however, so that has the unfortunate side effect of greatly reducing Mandarin’s powers to make the fight more fair.

The different attributes of his ten rings allow The Mandarin to counter the assorted features of Iron Man’s armor. Although it usually ends up just being a lightshow, the movie could’ve committed to showcasing his assorted powers. Instead these finger rings have become forearm bracelets that Wenwu slings around with blue energy. These also grant the wearer superstrength & immortality. They look & act like Vibranium but the epilogue insists they’re not. Although it’s better than them being powerless, it feels so random to completely change the rings of the Mandarin when they were his least offensive & most defining trait. While he did briefly wear blue armor in the 80’s, Mandarin wears green most often as opposed to Wenwu’s blue & black gear.

Xialing, Shang-Chi, Katy

You know Xialing means business because she told her barber to give her the Hope Van Dyne cut.

Awkwafina steals the show as Katy, the audience surrogate comic relief character ala Darcy & Luis. She’s very enthusiastic & gets the best moments. Katy & Shang-Chi effortlessly feel like best buds. Her penchant for stunt driving is established early on & becomes crucial. Although her elders shame her for being a valet, she genuinely enjoys her job. She also becomes an instantly archery whiz to undermine Hawkeye.  The director refused to clarify whether audiences are supposed to think her platonic relationship with Shang-Chi has become romantic by the end.

Xu Xialing is his sister invented for the movie despite Sister Hammer, Sister Dagger, Sister Staff, & Fah Lo Suee/Zheng Bao Yu already existing. She resents her chauvinistic father for never directly training her. She had to teach herself & form her own fight club. That sounds like she’s a more intriguing protagonist. Xialing also breaks through a wall like the Kool-Aid Man without even using her rad rope-dagger-flail. You wouldn’t notice this is Meng’er Zhang’s acting debut.

Shang-Chi was invented to capitalize on Bruce Lee’s popularity. Unlike Warrior, his movie equivalent doesn’t homage Lee’s moves. The fighting is reminiscent of Jackie Chan because it was choreographed by the late Brad Allan. They’re equally consequence-free but, the balletic martial arts are better filmed than Black Widow’s faux-gritty scuffles. So I’m giving it the edge in this category. I really enjoyed the San Francisco & Macau action sequences.

Tony Leung is a superb choice to play Wenwu, who disdains the name Mandarin. He gives a nuanced performance that outclasses everyone. Unfortunately he doesn’t get enough to do. He feels more like a slightly disappointed father than an outright villain, which is surprisingly a problem. We know he’s the leader of the terrorist cabal who abused his kids, but his threatening aspect only manifests in a brutal flashback where he avenges his wife. Once he collects his kids & Katy, the tension deflates. He’s an immortal warlord who’s spent centuries shaping global events through assassination (for bonus Ra’s al Ghul parallels), but there’s no sense of his goals or how he altered history. This grieving widower wants to enter an extradimensional city to free his wife’s ghost, which doesn’t sound dastardly.

For a movie named The Legend Of The Ten Rings, there’s surprisingly little revealed about them. It doesn’t explain where Wenwu got them or how he controls them. The organization named after them is also ill defined. (Due to complicated cross-cultural controversy, the Mongolian script in The Ten Rings logo has been replaced by Chinese characters.) The marketing implied it’d show how The Ten Rings had been manipulating the MCU from the shadows. How did they stay off the radar of SHIELD/HYDRA & assorted superheroes? The subtitles don’t even capitalize The Ten Rings!

Razor Fist joins Klaw in representing people with prostheses as baddies. (Misty Knight & Bucky counterbalance.) An artificial hand would’ve been much more practical, but he insisted on a machete despite lacking the necessary wrist dexterity. His gimp suit is for fans that don’t find Bane risque enough, but it hasn’t been translated slavishly. Apparently there are three different Razor Fists, but I’m most familiar with the those that doesn’t have either hand. 2/3 were accidentally shot by their benefactor, Carlton Velcro. I was expecting him to lose his remaining hand during the film so he could reappear with dual razorfists in the sequel. This doesn’t happen. On the upside, he has a personalized car!

They fixed Abomination’s design! Now he doesn’t look like Doomsday or Zombie-Hulk anymore! He still has too many toes. Why is he sparring with Wong instead of chilling in cryo-prison? Wong only has a few short scenes but is an immediately engaging guest star.

This has more dragons than all of Iron Fist. Until recently, Shang-Chi’s comics were pretty grounded, so I get the sense that this could’ve been an Iron Fist with an Asian American lead had Netflix not done him already. (Season two is actually surprisingly good because it’s not really about Danny Bland.) Ironically a more faithful Shang-Chi adaptation would’ve worked just fine on a Netflix budget. Or this could’ve been Agents Of Atlas.

Trevor Slattery survived to become Wenwu’s jester. He reacted to Planet of The Apes much like the Freakazoid! crew did to Congo. (RIP Ed Asner.) He translates for Morris, the monster that knows the way to Ta-Lo. Morris has no face, yet it must squeal. He’s voiced by Dee Bradley Baker, who also squeaked for Sebastian. Is Morris a Dijiang or Hundun? (There are two plush versions available.)

While I liked the first half, the movie falls apart once they arrive at Ta-Lo. While it’s inspired by the highest of the thirty-six heavens of the Chinese Gods, the movie interpretation is just Wakanda crossed with K’un-Lun. Does its whole population fit in one longhouse? While the Kirin & other monsters look spiffy, nothing interesting is done with its grab bag of Chinese mythology. For such an isolated place, you’d think its inhabitants would be less blase about motor vehicles. Michelle Yeoh, who cameoed in GOTG 2 as another character, has a bigger role here that sadly is just exposition. The most fantastical segment is ironically its dullest.

It turns out that Li ghost is really The Dweller In Darkness trying to trick Wenwu into freeing it from its prison so it can drain everyone’s souls. This Dr. Strange foe has been redesigned to look less like Cthullhu than usual. Unlike Starro The Conqueror, it was not seeded as the final boss early enough. So not only does this demon seem like a random afterthought, Wenwu being duped into punching open the wall imprisoning it distracts from all his intentional evil deeds. It would’ve been more intriguing if there was no demon, & Wenwu’s grief-stricken delusion was just an excuse to indulge in conquest. Why didn’t TDID prey upon his grief earlier when the jade pendants unlocking the water map to Ta-Lo were still under his roof? Oh no, its spawn killed Death Dealer! Now fans are going to give the most stylish looking henchman the Boba Fett treatment.

Periodic flashbacks fill in backstory while also wrecking the pacing. Seeing how Wenwu forced young Shang-Chi to become an assassin, you’d expect him to have a stronger reaction to his father reentering his life. His anger doesn’t erupt until their final dual where he shouts “Your family needed you, & you chose The Rings over us!” This dialogue encapsulates their drama while highlighting how little the movie has done with such a strong central concept. (Since it happens while Wenwu tries to save his wife’s ghost instead of a general power grab, it’s also not the most apt moment to bust out this burn.) You might think it’s too on the nose, but he’s subtextually saying “This movie needed a focus on familial strife, & you chose another CGI brouhaha!”

The shaolin siblings ride The Great Protector like Falkor to vanquish the demon. I like big monster fights, but I was emotionally checked out by this point. Shang-Chi suddenly knows how to wield his late father’s Rings to explode the bad kaiju before it gains unstoppable power from sucking out the good kaiju’s soul. Despite his natural acumen, he doesn’t seem interested in being the new ringbearer. When he wrests them from his dad, their energy shifts from blue to yellow. (That would’ve been a thrilling moment if the trailers hadn’t spoiled it.)

The big problem with this movie is that it’s two disparate ones smushed together. The first is about how a father’s criminal life destroyed his family. The other is about saving the world from a magic monster. They could be good separately, but they don’t mix together. Once all the pieces are in place to finally deal with Wenwu’s legacy, we get a big exposition dump about a mystical city. The first movie should’ve just on the elevated family drama that comes with being heirs to an ancient secret society or murderers. Once you get Shang-Chi firmly established, then you can expand into Ta-Lo in the sequel. Shang-Chi is a low key character so throwing in all the flashy magic elements in further buries him in his own movie.

The stinger alludes to The Ten Rings being alien in origin yet doesn’t directly mention Fin Fang Foom or the Makluans. I’d love to finally see Triple F in live action, but they kind of made TDID a dragon already. Now I’m worried that if he does appear, he’ll be missing all his personality.

Xialing becomes The Womandarin. She doesn’t wield her father’s bracelets, nor does she wear ten rings on her fingers. This #Girlboss with the bob cut has thrown out her father’s misogyny & inducted women into The Ten Rings’ assassin ranks. Hopefully she’ll upgrade their slightly electrified hook swords to be more effective than cut-rate tasers.

I had such great expectations for Shang-Chi, but it ended up being more underwhelming as a whole than Black Widow. In trying to go epic too soon it buried the personal stakes that would’ve kept it fresh. It’s a disservice to its star & its villain.

~

Like Black Widow, this movie’s Marvel Legends hit shelves so early they were put on sale before the delayed film opened. “Marvel’s Katy” is an amusing name to put on the Target exclusive packaging. Her red costume looks very similar to live action Mulan’s. Xialing’s dragon scale costume makes sense, although I might’ve liked her cage fighter outfit more. Wenwu’s head looks good on Slattery’s body. Li, Ying Nan, & Razor Fist are the most glaring action figure omissions, but none of them feel like must-have characters. (I presume Wong will finally get his Marvel Legends for Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness.) When will Hasbro make a Black Series Captain Carson Teva so we can reenact Kim’s Convenience with Shang-Chi?

~

Continuing this week’s legendary theme, next up is the Legends Of Tomorrow season six finale review!

2 thoughts on “Is Shang-Chi & The Legend Of The Ten Rings As Epic As Its Title?

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s