In theaters Friday is “Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” an origin story a long time in the making and the first film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to feature a predominantly Asian and Asian American cast. The film is a combination of action, martial arts, coming-of-age and creature feature.
Starring Simu Liu as Shang Chi, the movie begins with “Shaun” living the life of an aimless valet in San Francisco with his best friend, Katy (Awkwafina). When they are attacked on a city bus by assassins after Shang Chi’s pendant, he is forced to revisit a past and family that he left behind in order to stop his father (Tony Leung) and the Ten Rings from unleashing chaos out of the multiverse. Along their journey, Shang Chi and Katy join forces with his sister Xialing (Meng’er Zheng) and aunt Ying Nan (Michelle Yeoh).
My initial reaction to was “Shang Chi” was awe at how ridiculous it is. The word “no” just did not seem to exist when making it. From the fights, to the creatures, the corny dialogue and the unexplained magic, this movie simply has it all. I do not know if I can say for certain that it is a “good” movie, but I loved it. More than a Marvel film, “Shang Chi” carries itself like “Pacific Rim.” The total over the top ridiculousness and willingness to lean into its own sincerity plays well.
Much has been and will be made about “Shang Chi” as an Important Movie, and it is undeniable that a blockbuster action film with an (almost) entirely Asian and Asian American cast is still noteworthy. The movie breaks ground less through being a pillar of representation, but by being totally fun and ridiculous. The burden on big budget films cast with people of color tends to be that it must have a powerful enduring message, admirable representation and just be generally heavy. “Shang Chi” bucks that by invoking authenticity of the Chinese American experience interwoven within the scenes of one of the most ridiculous movies I have ever seen.
Unsurprisingly based on its source material, “Shang Chi” is not totally free of stereotyping and other sin. The aura around the Ten Rings and Shang Chi’s family is one of Eastern mysticism that never fully connects to anything within the MCU. The powers of his family seem to come from nowhere with no explanation. There is also the glaring fact that Shang Chi has no explicit romantic interest, and interviews with the filmmakers have clarified that his relationship with Katy is purely friendship. All men who have gotten their own film in the MCU have had a love interest, and it is unfortunate that this is the one hero who does not have one given the tradition of Western media to emasculate Asian men. My final significant issue with this move is the (very much not anticipated) return of Ben Kingsley as Trevor Slattery, first introduced as the Mandarin in “Iron Man 3.” Between the character’s cringeworthy introduction almost 10 years ago, and the pall of Kingsley’s own yellow-face past in “Gandhi,” Trevor’s reappearance was unpleasant and unnecessary.
“Shang Chi” overcomes its faults with an incredible cast, entertaining genre bending and a surprisingly emotional core. Also, there is a lot of good punching. “Shang Chi and the Legend of Ten Rings” will have an exclusive 45-day cinematic release starting Friday, and is expected stream on Disney+ in the fall.