Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Writer: Destin Daniel Cretton, Dave Callaham, Andrew Lanham
Cast: Simu Liu, Tony Leung, Awkwafina, Meng’er Zhang, Michelle Yeoh, Ben Kingsley
Well, it’s been a long time coming, but here we are. Many people have waited a very long time for this, longer than anyone should have had to wait. We have, finally, a hot lead character in a Marvel movie.
I am, of course, kidding. We have not waited a long time for this, because every Marvel lead is a beautiful specimen. However, we HAVE waited forever for an Asian lead in a predominantly Asian movie from Marvel, and we finally have it. The character of Shang-Chi goes way back to the early 1970s in his conception, and his potential for movie greatness goes back to the early 2000s. He’s had a hell of a ride, and now here he is, front and centre, ready to be the one for young people of Asian descent to look up to and recognise themselves in within the MCU. As historical and pivotal as this movie is, does it also live up to the many expectations that come with a Marvel movie, or is it one ring short of a set?
Once upon a time, there were ten magical rings that imbue the wearer with supernatural powers and immortality (more on that in a future MCU movie). The rings are discovered by Xu Wenwu (Leung), who then uses that power to overthrow nations over a period of a thousand years. Eventually, he falls in love and raises a family, putting the rings aside. After a few years, his perfect family life is severely disrupted, and Wenwu falls back into the power of the rings. Moving on a few more years and Wenwu’s son, Shang-Chi (Liu), is living in San Francisco and working as a valet, taking the name ‘Shaun’, with his friend Katy (Awkwafina). Shang-Chi is roped back into his father’s world when Wenwu comes looking for him and his sister, Xialing (Zhang). After discovering exactly what Wenwu has planned, Shang-Chi must fight his emotional ties to his father to prevent Wenwu from destroying the world.
Taking its cue from many great Asian movies before it (particularly those involving a lot of martial arts), Shang-Chi is action-packed, with perhaps 80% of the movie involving physical action/martial arts and stunts. If that’s your kind of thing, this movie will be right up your alley and you will be mesmerised. If it’s not so much your cup of tea, like me, you might find yourself zoning out a little at times. Don’t get me wrong – it’s all fantastically shot and choreographed and a complete testament to the hard work that goes into those scenes, but if you’re in it more for the story, you may not enjoy it quite as much. Luckily, the more dialogue-heavy scenes help to give the film balance. There’s a lot more heart and depth in Shang-Chi than in any MCU movie before it (not quite enough to rival “I love you 3000”, but incredibly close. If you think Tony Stark had daddy issues, you haven’t met Shang-Chi). This isn’t Disney and Marvel just giving audiences what they want from an Asian-based movie – this is Disney, Marvel, Kevin Feige, Destin Daniel Cretton and the entire cast/crew putting every effort into making a credible movie that also happens to be Asian-based.
As much as there is to be said for the story, the stand-out arc isn’t Shang-Chi’s own journey from boy-assassin to world-saviour, as fraught with family issues as it is; it’s Wenwu’s story. He isn’t your average villain. In fact, his MO isn’t too dissimilar to that of the MCU’s biggest and deadliest villain to date: Thanos. A villain who has complexity and a purpose that might make you stop and think is one worth watching, particularly when it comes from a very human and relatable place, and you can see how easy it can be to fall from a good place. Yes, this film is what we needed to represent Asian-Americans/people of Asian descent, but it also speaks to everyone on that human level. If that isn’t what cinema is all about, I don’t know what I’ve been doing with my time (eat it, Scorsese).
There’s a little history behind the casting of Liu as Shang-Chi: he tweeted about a need for Asian-American mainstream representation in the MCU a few years back and then tweeted about potentially being cast for this movie in semi-jest not too long ago. Of course, he still went through the audition process, and it just so happened he was perfect for the role. His filmography is limited (and I have thoughts on Kim’s Convenience, the Canadian show he was on throughout its run), but being a relative unknown usually works in favour of a superhero, particularly one new to the scene. Liu is a welcome addition to the pantheon of excellent performers within the MCU: his acting skills are well-matched for the vulnerability and strength of Shang-Chi, and his comedic abilities (likely honed during Kim’s Convenience) have allowed him to fit in well with the tone the MCU generally carries. Speaking of excellent casting, Leung’s casting as Wenwu was absolutely spot on. His ability to convey Wenwu’s turmoil is exemplary, but even just his presence absolutely rules every scene he’s in. Even if you are unfamiliar with Leung’s work (of which there is decades of), every drop of talent that he has built through his career spills through the screen like an epic waterfall. He certainly helped make the movie what it is and it’s a travesty that this is his Hollywood debut. Awkwafina’s character Katy, on the other hand, felt unnecessary after the first act of the movie. As great as Awkwafina is, and as fun as she is as Katy, the character just becomes a bit of a floater once the adventure begins. It’s great for Shang-Chi to have an anchor to his “normal” life, but the character is superfluous. Zhang’s Xialing provides more than enough on the female side of things if that’s what they were going for with Katy. She’s badass and has as much turmoil as Shang-Chi (if for different reasons), and Zhang executes the character with ease. Yeoh too is pretty badass in her role as aunt to Shang-Chi and Xialing, and I always get excited to see her in any movie or TV show. And, of course, a pleasure to welcome back Kingsley in his now-rather-apologetic role as Trevor. Some rather Anglo-specific humour is provided (which is excellent fun when you’re one of only two Brits, possibly, sat in a South Korean cinema and laughing at the in-jokes) and it lightens the mood much of the time.
Shang-Chi, much like when the character lands (most) of his punches, is a hit. The movie has broken records, taken scores of money and, much like Black Panther did, proven there is a thirst and desire for more diverse movies, particularly of the hero kind. Shang-Chi is perhaps more ideal if you enjoy martial arts movies and lots of action, but it doesn’t make it any less of an important and entertaining film filled with humanity. It’ll be exciting to see where the character goes in the future of the MCU, and more so to see him interact with the staple characters we’ve come to know over the past 10+ years. (WARNING: SPOILERS FROM PREVIOUS MCU MOVIES AHEAD) If we must now live our lives without the likes of Tony Stark and Natasha Romanoff in the Avengers, then at least we have worthy new heroes like Shang-Chi coming up the ranks to fill the empty slots.