Editor's Note: This article contains spoilers for 'Shang–Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.'
Shang–Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the latest release in Marvel Studios’ Phase Four, has been regularly marketed by both the studio and its star as the brand’s first film focused on an Asian superhero. The mystical, Wuxia–inspired film takes cues from both traditional Chinese martial arts films and Marvel’s predictable, cut–and–dry superhero plot. While it isn’t exactly a cinematic masterpiece, it's definitely fun and does its best to highlight one version of the Asian American millennial experience. As the first movie I watched in a theater in nearly two years, it was worth the price of the ticket—and that’s not nothing.
Shang–Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings follows protagonist Shang–Chi (Simu Liu), a seemingly ordinary valet in San Francisco who is suddenly confronted by a past he abandoned. After brutally training to be a deadly assassin by his father Wenwu, the wielder of the titular legendary Ten Rings, Shang–Chi ran away as a teenager. Now, ten years later, he is confronted by his father’s mercenaries, the Ten Rings, and dragged back home to help invade his deceased mother’s home—the mystical, magical village Ta Lo.
The film’s biggest issue was its predictable plot beats, which is a symptom of the greater Marvel universe; with every subsequent movie balancing its own plot and the through line of every other Marvel film, including setting up for following releases, the very structure of the Marvel superhero film is racing forward toward some nebulous end goal.
At the end of the film, as Shang–Chi tries to prevent his father from destroying his mother’s village, both are interrupted by random monstrous villains referred to as Soul Suckers. These are the ultimate antagonists of the film, led by a giant, flying tentacled beast referred to as Dweller–in–Darkness. Introduced pretty late in the film, these creatures end up being more of a trite plot point that hasten the showdown between the villagers of Ta Lo and the Ten Rings; when they're actually defeated, there's a lack of emotional catharsis. Yes, it’s cool to see a Chinese water dragon wrestle a huge tentacle creature, but it lowers the emotional stakes when they’re just big monsters whose defeat is inevitable.
Because of this last-minute complication, Wenwu and Shang–Chi never properly resolve their confrontation before Wenwu dies, leaving their relationship up in the air. How do you deal with a dysfunctional father–son relationship, further complicated by the Asian notion of filial duty and a collective, traumatized grief? How do you resolve your relationship with a father who loved you but also blames you for your mother’s death and was responsible for trauma? How do you reject a legacy of violence while continuing to fight? The film never finds these answers. Compelling emotional arcs are set up only to be dropped in favor of a big monster fight.
Shang–Chi would have fared better if it had simply followed its father–son conflict to its end, allowing their confrontation to be the film’s most important, most epic battle. It could have grounded itself in the strength of its stunning fight choreography instead of using CGI and the environment to make the fights flashier. However, perhaps it’s a movie that forces us to confront the fact that, at the end of the day, a lot of audiences go to the theater preferring grandiose, theatrical knockdowns.
After all, it’s not a crime to make a cool movie. And with its gorgeous fight choreography, multitude of distinct and interesting female characters, and cinematic settings ranging from poppy underground fight clubs to mystical villages with phenomenal animal designs, Shang–Chi is definitely cool if nothing else—though, like most superhero films, it's also ridiculous.
The actors and their engagement with the characters was definitely the best part of the film, though it still had its own problems. Shang–Chi’s mother, Ying Li, functions as a plot point and martyred perfect mother figure. An intriguing antagonist, a masked figure who trained Shang–Chi and keeps up with his fighting ability, is taken out by a random monster instead of through a fight. However, famous Hong Kong film star Tony Leung brought out a three–dimensional, profound character from a shallow archetype—as a former warlord haunted by his dead wife, who was the only person keeping him from being a murderer.
In one of the best moments of the film, Wenwu describes how his legend was co–opted by Iron Man villains the Ten Rings—a speech that was simultaneously threatening and an embodiment of an Asian father trying to impart life lessons across the dinner table while his children look at each other in commiseration. In his first big movie role, Liu balances endearing, humorous charm with an assassin’s past. He brings a youthful, refreshing energy to a trite plot about accepting your darkness and light, the Asian immigrant story of being torn between your familial past and present, and to the superhero genre in general.
Awkwafina, who plays Shang–Chi’s best friend Katy, is definitely typecast as another fun, raucous sidekick—though it’s hardly the actress’s fault, who showed her depths in The Farewell. Regardless, she brings genuine humor to the movie as part of a refreshingly platonic main relationship, and portrays a modern Asian woman looking for her life’s purpose.
So far, the film has had an incredibly successful opening, which is good news for further similar endeavors. However, it was a long time coming, especially since Marvel Studios has a habit of taking from Asian martial arts and aesthetics for their previous films. This success can be attributed to the Asian American population who went and supported a hero who represents them. When I watched the film, almost the entire theater was filled with Asian American students.
I walked out of the theater feeling like I had seen cool fight scenes and had a good night, pleased about the Asian representation and humor in the film—and that means Shang–Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was definitely a success.