Whether taken from a wuxia novel set in the distant past or a contemporary kung fu movie, Chinese martial arts heroes — with their devotion to a moral code, not to mention their incredible abilities — offer a counterpart to Western superheroes. In 1973, Marvel Comics combined the two archetypes with the introduction of Shang-Chi, a character whose powers came from a lifelong training in the martial arts. Now the industry is poised for another convergence as Marvel debuts its first Asian-led superhero film, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, a project that combines Chinese and North American stories and star power.
The MCU is extremely popular in China, which helps explain why so much of this new movie is set there. That said, at the core Shang-Chi is an Asian-American superhero story. Themes such as homecoming, inheritance and balancing cultures and identities run throughout the film. The soundtrack is multicultural, featuring both traditional Chinese music and southern hip-hop. The script, by director Destin Daniel Cretton and co-writers Andrew Lanham and Dave Callaham, commemorates some of Marvel’s more insensitive depictions of Asian culture, while creating an inspiring message about creating your own destiny and embracing the things that matter. make you. you.
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For Shang-Chi (Canadian television actor and stuntman Simu Liu) and his sister, Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), that’s a loaded proposition, as their father, Wenwu (Tony Leung), is a thousand-year-old supervillain who has the mystical ten rings of the title to build his reputation as a fearsome underworld kingpin. After the death of family matriarch Jiang Li (Fala Chen), an accomplished martial artist from a remote, fantastic village, Wenwu devoted himself and his son to revenge while neglecting his daughter. (Leung’s heavy is an original character, a composite of two problematic Marvel Comics adversaries, including one whose previous divisive appearance in the MCU is addressed via a revisionist callback and subplot.)
Ten years after a teenage Shang-Chi was sent abroad to track down his mother’s killer, his name is Sean and he works with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina) as a clerk in San Francisco. But as usually happens in these movies, fate has bigger plans. Mad with grief, Wenwu has retreated into a delusional quest to save his wife by destroying her sacred ancestral home, unleashing unstoppable dark forces in the process. So Shang-Chi, Xialing and Katy embark on a journey between realms, on a mission to save their family – and the world – with the help of their long-lost Aunt Jiang Nan (Michelle Yeoh), and a menagerie of magical beasts. .
In some respects, Shang-Chi is a mixtape of martial arts film genres: an early scene pays tribute to Zhang Yimou’s balletic graceful films, while a dramatic bus chase later recreates the blunder of an early Jackie Chan vehicle. Shang-Chi’s reunion with his sister takes place in an underground fighting ring with a 90s raver, Mortal Kombat kind of atmosphere, and later father and son will walk into a dingy, fluorescent-lit gangster hangout, straight out of an 80s John Woo movie. But where those movies (Mortal Kombat except of course) emphasized practical effects and the amazing skills of highly trained stunt people, Shang-Chi insists on interrupting or burying stunt work – spearheaded by Chan protégé Brad Allan, who died tragically earlier this month – with mountains of blatant CGI.
This is not always the case. although Shang-Chi cuts away from a punch as often as it lands one, an extended fight sequence set in a half-built skyscraper observes Liu and Zhang from above in longer takes that allow for at least a few seconds of uninterrupted fight choreography. And while the climax of this movie is just as chaotic and incomprehensible as any other MCU movie, at least Shang-Chi has benevolent dragons and brave lions instead of the ugly metal garbage of Black Widow. The first half of the film is funnier and more down-to-earth than the second, which moves from modern action to mythical fantasy with an emphasis on Chinese folklore – some real, some imagined.
But while Shang-Chi has some awe – and some “awwws”, in the case of a winged, faceless, strangely cuddly critter named Morris – from his fantasy elements, ultimately his greatest assets are humans. That refers to the stunts, yes, but more often to Tony Leung, who exudes the kind of movie star charisma that critics sometimes complain about is waning. Leung isn’t really challenged here, but he brings soul to the sparse emotional depth of his character, a classic Marvel villain in the sense that he’s likable until he isn’t. Among the younger actors, Awkwafina stands out for her natural aptitude for comedy. Yeoh’s talents, on the other hand, are usually wasted. Cretton, who made his first blockbuster after a series of human-scale dramas such as Short term 12 and The Glass Castle, knows how to make the comedian be funny. So why hire a legendary action star and then spend most of her screen time on exhibits?
Meeting the expectations of Asian-American Marvel fans hungry for their own MCU movie must have weighed Shang-Chiwriters and director. This fear is reflected in the story itself: After Shang-Chi gains extraordinary strength, the first instinct is to run from it. That moment of human vulnerability suggests there’s a point of view somewhere in this gigantic, sprawling, tightly controlled piece of blockbuster product. For any serious emotion, however, there is a concession to the formula requirements of the genre and studio. Shang-ChiThe hero is on a journey to become himself, but the film is lost in the machine.