Master of Kung Fu

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a great mix of Marvel and martial arts. As the twenty-fifth installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings finally addressed the origin of the villainous Ten Rings terrorist organization. After the unexpected success of Black Panther, Marvel Studios wanted to explore another culture. After their second female led superhero movie, producer Kevin Feige claimed Phase Four would focus more on diversity. Shang-Chi was created in the 70’s during the martial arts craze. He was obviously inspired by Bruce Lee and the TV show Kung Fu. Though Shang-Chi was an original character created by Steve Englehart & Jim Starlin, Special Marvel Edition #15 introduced him as the son of Dr. Fu Manchu.

Despite his controversial roots, Shang-Chi is the only Asian superhero in Marvel comics worthy of his own movie. Although I recognized the Master of Kung Fu, he was never as popular as other martial arts heroes like Iron Fist. Though Marvel poorly adapted Iron Fist for Netflix, a Shang-Chi movie was surprisingly in the works since the 80’s. It was actually Stan Lee who wanted Brandon Lee to play the martial arts master inspired by his dad. After Marvel foolishly sold their rights to DreamWorks, The Hands of Shang-Chi remained shelved throughout the 2000’s. Not until the 2010’s did Marvel decide to fast-track a big budget movie based on the lesser known character. For a superhero I knew little about and a movie I never asked for, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings continued the MCU winning streak…

53. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Shang-Chi and the Ten Rings

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is another Disney movie with a predominantly Asian cast released this decade. After the equally unexpected success of Crazy Rich Asians, Disney did a live action remake of Mulan and developed the original Raya and the Last Dragon. Neither film made a strong impact, so I didn’t know how to feel about Shang-Chi. The trailers felt like a generic kung fu flick, but I was proven wrong when the movie finally hit theaters. Shang-Chi was pushed back several times just like Black Widow, but the former didn’t make the mistake of simultaneously streaming on Disney+. So fans were left with the animated What If…? in the meantime. Though it’s very similar to Black Panther, Shang-Chi only grossed $400 million at the box office during the Pandemic. Though they deserved more, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is actually one of the least faithful comic book movies in recent memory. Many changes were made in order to avoid racist Asian stereotypes.

Criminal mastermind Dr. Fu Manchu was created by English author Sax Rohmer as far back as 1912. He’s a prolific character who made several book, movie, and TV appearances. When Marvel acquired the rights to Fu Manchu, he became the father and archenemy of Shang-Chi. Since Fu Manchu is an obvious stereotype often portrayed by actors in “Yellowface,” Marvel renamed the villain Zheng Zu after losing the rights to the character. The movie goes one step further by making Shang-Chi’s father a different equally controversial Asian supervillain. After the unflattering portrayal of the Mandarin in Iron Man 3, the often forgotten Marvel One-Shot All Hail the King promised the real Mandarin existed. I never thought they’d keep their promise, but I guess an Asian centered superhero movie was the right place for it. Much like Black Panther, Marvel went out of their way to find an Asian lead and Asian director. Shang-Chi has never had a single animated appearance or role in a Marvel video game. At least the Guardians of the Galaxy had some minor media attention before their movie came out.

Since young Asian American actors are hard to come by, Marvel chose lesser known Chinese Canadian TV actor Simu Liu. I had no major opinion of his casting, but apparently Chinese audiences thought he was too Americanized. Though he’s not known for Asian led films, let alone major Hollywood blockbusters, Asian director Destin Daniel Cretton was more than up for the task. Aside from the titular Legend of the Ten Rings, Shang-Chi feels refreshingly standalone in the greater Marvel universe. The Marvel Studios logo is the only reminder before the movie starts. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings almost feels like a foreign film with characters speaking Mandarin Chinese throughout the entire opening. The so called Mandarin is Grandmaster Ip Man himself Tony Leung. Though he has long hair and robes in the beginning, Leung is a far more three dimensional antagonist who doesn’t use the name Mandarin. His real name is Xu Wenwu and he even mocks the name by recalling its offensive use in Iron Man 3.

I should be mad at the blatant disregard for the comics, but Wenwu really is one of the better MCU villains. Turns out Wenwu acquired the mysterious Ten Rings and started the Ten Rings organization over a thousand years ago. Unlike the literal rings from the comics, these Ten Rings are basically iron bracelets with very undefined powers. Wenwu uses them to fly, create energy blasts, shield himself, and remain immortal. Though the Ten Rings have been conquering civilizations all throughout history, it’s a wonder we’re just now hearing about it. At least the seeds were planted as far back as the first Iron Man. In 1996, Wenwu seeks greater power in the heavenly realm Ta Lo. His passage is stopped by the lovely guardian of the forest Ying Li. The Chinese environments are so beautiful you’ll forget you’re watching a Marvel movie. The hip hop soundtrack is a bit forgettable, but Shang-Chi really goes the extra mile with martial arts choreography.

The fight between Wenwu and Ying Li is a graceful mix of high flying wuxia cinema and energy based ring attacks. It’s enough to make Shang-Chi’s parents fall in love. Chinese actress Fala Chen is another deviation from the comics since Shang-Chi was originally half-white. Ying Li is a very loving mother to Shang-Chi and his younger sister Xialing. I assumed Xialing was an original creation, but she’s actually inspired by Fu Manchu’s equally ruthless daughter Fah Lo Suee. She was similarly renamed Zheng Bao Yu, but the movie version also borrows elements from the throwing blade proficient Sister Dagger and the Mandarin’s daughter Sasha Hammer. It’s kind of messy, but first time actress Meng’er Zhang stands on her own. Wenwu softens up with the birth of his children and marriage to Li, but his past sins catch up to him. When the Iron Gang kills Li, Wenwu ruthlessly eliminates them in front of his son. The general Shang-Chi origin is kept in tact with Wenwu training his son to become a weapon.

Shang-Chi is seen as a child and teenager enduring beatings, repeatedly punching a wooden post, and learning every form of martial art. Though he isn’t superhuman, Shang-Chi is one of the best fighters in Marvel comics. Xialing is denied training, so she somehow manages to become a great fighter by proxy. The teenage Shang-Chi accepts a hit from his father, but he runs away to America afterwards. Making this the second Marvel franchise after Ant-Man to be set in San Francisco (third if you count Venom). Shang-Chi is the first Phase Four movie that takes place after the Blip. There’s only a subtle reference with a character mentioning half of life being snapped out of existence. In present day, Shang-Chi lays low with the obvious American name Shaun. As an actor, Simu Liu is charismatic enough with a lot of martial arts training under his belt. Though he has a sense of humor, it’s hard to determine Shang-Chi’s personality when his best friend Katy is constantly by his side.

Like Black Panther or even Black Widow, the more reserved hero is continually overshadowed by the supporting cast. In the comics, Shang-Chi’s only supporting characters were part of Fu Manchu’s mythos. Along with a few allies from MI-6. Katy is a fully original character who isn’t a love interest. I rolled my eyes the moment Awkwafina was cast in yet another major film. Let alone another Disney movie with a water dragon in it. I just don’t find her funny, but she’s not the obnoxious character she usually is. Some of her jokes are good, like one about singing “Hotel California” in front of an enemy. “Shaun” and Katy have been friends since he moved to America. They’re both valet drivers who goof off by taking joy rides and singing Disney approved karaoke. Like Black Panther, Shang-Chi tries very hard to speak to all kinds of Asians. Though it feels very unnecessary to visit Katy’s Asian American family for an extended period of time. “Shaun” and Katy’s Asian American friend Soo tells them they’re not living up to their potential.

Shang-Chi officially won me over with a truly kick ass fight on a bus. Katy discovers who Shang-Chi really is when he throws punches, kicks, and flips like a martial arts expert. Using his jacket as a weapon is pure Jackie Chan. Though the funniest part of the scene is comedian Zach Cherry’s character from Spider-Man: Homecoming live streaming the fight. Wenwu’s men are formidable foes, but his top assassins are the surprisingly comic accurate Death Dealer and the aptly named Razor Fist. In the comics, Razor Fist has two razors for fists, but in the movie it makes more sense to only have one. Since he’s Romanian, Florian Munteanu is the only non-Asian actor in the cast. Wenwu is after his son and daughter’s jade pendant for reasons unknown. Though there’s no reason for her to come along, Katy joins Shang-Chi when he goes to see his sister in Macau. Turns out Xialing established her own secret underground fight club called the Golden Daggers Club. Jon Jon is the eccentric announcer who recognizes Shang-Chi as “Bus Boy” and forces him to fight. The fight features cameos from a former Black Widow, but the most surprising appearances are Wong and Abomination.

A fan favorite sorcerer like Wong doesn’t feel out of place since Benedict Wong is the most prominent Asian in the MCU. More unexpected is seeing Abomination for the first time since The Incredible Hulk. His CGI design is familiar, but greatly improved with comic accurate fins for ears. Tim Roth does reprise the role, but you’ll have to get your answers in She-Hulk: Attorney at Law. Shang-Chi has his obligatory shirtless scene when he faces his sister. Their fight ends in her favor, but they both end up attacked by their father’s forces. The side of the building scaffolding fight is pulse pounding, but there’s no way Katy would survive it. Although it seems like they’re actively trying to kill the siblings, Wenwu was confident they were never in any danger. The over 2 hour movie feels like 2 separate movies the moment they return to the Ten Rings compound. What began as a relatively grounded martial arts adventure with only the occasional fantasy element takes a hard left into magical CGI water maps that show Wenwu the way to his deceased wife in her mythical home Ta Lo. Though he locks up his children for getting in his way, you’ll never guess who shows Shang-Chi, Xialing, and Katy the way to Ta Lo.

SPOILER ALERT! With all the talk of the Mandarin, I just knew Trevor Slattery had to return. It’s a particularly meta moment where Sir Ben Kingsley apologizes for his role in the divisive Iron Man 3. All Hail the King showed Trevor in prison where he was broken out by Wenwu’s henchman who wanted him killed. His acting skills spared his life and he’s apparently been a court jester ever since. Can’t say I was expecting Kingsley to join the cast, but he does make good last minute comic relief. Trevor befriends a faceless winged Chinese hundun named Morris that directs them to the secret passage of Ta Lo through an ever changing bamboo maze. They steal Razor Fist’s car and enter the legendary realm. I once again assumed Ta Lo was made up for the movie, but the ancient Chinese realm is one of several godly dimensions created for Thor #310. Ta Lo is home to creatures from Chinese mythology like firebirds, dragon horses, or a nine tailed fox. They’re like live action Pokémon brought to life with Academy Award nominated Visual Effects.

The rest of Ta Lo is home to its magically empowered citizens who draw their power from the Great Protector dragon. Including Ying Li’s sister and Shang-Chi’s Aunt Nan. Of course Michelle Yeoh had to be part of the all-Asian cast. Despite the fact that she already played Aleta Ogord in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. She helps her niece and nephew discover who they are and finally gives them a costume to wear. Only at the hour 30 minute mark does Shang-Chi wear a somewhat comic accurate red costume protected by dragon scales. A far cry from the stereotypical red robes and headband he wore in Master of Kung Fu comics. Xialing gets a grey dragon scale outfit and is allowed to train as an equal. Katy is finally given something to do when she learns how to shoot an arrow at the last minute. Wenwu declares war on Ta Lo with a colorful battle between the red and blue. Although I was hoping to see Fin Fang Foom, I’ll settle for the Dweller-in-Darkness as the final big bad.

The nightmarish beast is the one calling to Wenwu using his wife’s voice. If he gets through a protected dragon scale barrier, a horde of soul eaters will take over the world. Now Shang-Chi truly feels like an anime brought to life. When the soul eaters are released, the Ten Rings form a temporary alliance with Ta Lo. The fight between father and son is emotionally resonant with five of the Ten Rings being controlled by Shang-Chi. When Shang-Chi gains full control, he chooses not to kill his father. As the Dweller-in-Darkness escapes and consumes Wenwu’s soul, he gifts his son the rest of the Ten Rings. Not since Hulk (2003) has there been more father-son drama in a superhero climax. I didn’t think I’d see two giant CGI dragons fighting at the end of the movie, but welcome to the MCU. Katy somehow manages to shoot the Dweller-in Darkness head on and Shang-Chi goes full Super Saiyan with a Kamehameha attack that kills the beast for good. At this point I started to question the movie’s runtime, but Shang-Chi ends with him and Katy (for some reason) being recruited by Wong himself. A water based credits sequence leads to full on Marvel foreshadowing.

The mid-credits scene shows Shang-Chi and Katy in Kamar-Taj discussing the origin of the Ten Rings. Wong is there for mystical knowledge, Bruce Banner is there for scientific knowledge, and Carol Danvers is there for intergalactic knowledge. I expect to see Mark Ruffalo at this point, but it is surprising to see him not in Hulk form while continuing to wear his cast. She-Hulk is once again the only place to get your answers. Although I’m still not a fan of Captain Marvel, Carol feels a bit more likable in her split second appearance. Her cameo is actually ironic since Destin Daniel Cretton has worked with Brie Larson in almost every movie he’s directed. Bruce welcomes Shang-Chi and Katy to the “circus” and they continue to goof off with Wong by singing “Hotel California.” The after-credits scene is more sequel centric with Xialing assuming control of the Ten Rings with a modern update. Though I’m positive Shang-Chi will return, “The Ten Rings will return” is the only text that appears. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings may not have reached the height of Black Panther, but it gave fans and Asian audiences a hero for the modern age.

54. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Shang-Chi vs. Wenwu

2 thoughts on “Master of Kung Fu

  1. I heard a lot of good things about this one, and the hype was well deserved. Not sure if many people know this, but there have been tons of Asian superhero films prior to Shang-Chi, mainly from Japan from I think it was the mid-sixties to the fist incarnate of the Power Rangers in the early 1990’s. I’m hoping Shang-Chi helps reignite interest in his Japanese counterparts.

    Liked by 1 person

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