I need to be honest here, I am not a fan of wuxia cinema. This likely comes from the time I saw Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and couldn’t understand why Chow Yun-fat could run up walls or why Zhang Ziyi’s character could be held captive in a desert when she could fly in every other scene. As a newcomer to the genre, I was given no explanation for why these seemingly ordinary humans could do such extraordinary feats. Since then, I’ve basically set wuxia cinema aside as one of those things I’m sure people love but generally aren’t for me, alongside horror films, mumble rap, and depriving woman of autonomy over their own bodies – it’s just not my taste. Fortunately, with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, we have a film rooted in the wuxia style within an established universe where flying people, magical rings, and dragons are the least unbelievable elements. Thus while being a part of the MCU helps Shang-Chi get over a major hurdle of its subgenre, it’s also one reason why the film feels so firmly placed in the middle of the pack. After years of being primed by previous Marvel movies to suspend an almost infinite amount of disbelief, there is so much farther the film could have taken us.
Shang-Chi wastes no time rooting itself in the wuxia tradition by opening with the actual legend of the ten rings in Mandarin narration over a battle in ancient China, smartly brushing over where and how the rings themselves were discovered to focus instead on the effect they had at the time, and also explaining why this seemingly normal human (Tony Leung, a legend himself) can carve a path through an army on his own. From here, having been conditioned into Marvel movies the same way wuxia fans are conditioned to accept running up walls and a hundred kicks in a single jump, there’s little explanation needed to accept the power of people hailing from the mythic land of Ta Lo. This is, after all, a legend, it doesn’t have to make sense. In fact, basically the first half of the film doesn’t make any sense. The subsequent fight/courtship scene further follows tradition of Asian cinema but for us superhero watchers it kinda brings up memories of Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner on a playground, or Halle Berry and Benjamin Bratt on a basketball court. Nonetheless, it’s also in this initial fight sequence where Shang-Chi demonstrates action unlike anything else in the MCU.
With its background established, the film roots into the Marvel tradition by showing our beefed-up title character quipping his way through underachievement, a theme the film seems to want to examine but never quite fulfills… which is rather fitting. Like its title character, the film spends the rest of its runtime trying to keep one foot planted in two very different cultures. The result is a film that isn’t firm enough in its position to stand out in either tradition. It’s the equivalent of a fusion restaurant: appealing, but not an authentic experience of one side or exemplary of the other, leaving us to wonder how the film would’ve changed had it emphasized or de-emphasized different elements.
If there is one highlight throughout Shang-Chi it’s that the fight choreography, particularly in the first half when we are in a more ordinary world, is outstanding. While not in the league of the best material from John Woo or Tony Jaa or The Raid films, Shang-Chi presents a style of cinema combat largely absent from the more brawling bouts in American action films. The best of these actually comes quite early, with a bus fight that makes the one from Captain Marvel look unremarkable. It’s also here that we first see Liu and Awkwafina come into their performance as Liu is as outstanding in his fights as Awkwafina is with her humor (I referenced her before in my Top Ten of 2019 list, but it’s still a kick to see an NY-based joke rapper named for “awkward” and a brand of bottled water in a mainstream film, let alone a Marvel superhero film). The pair has a great chemistry easily selling their ten-year-long friendship. However the true standouts in the film are the aforementioned Leung and his fellow Hong Kong legend and wuxia alum Michelle Yeoh, who together (ironically) bring gravity to the film’s more freewheeling aspects. Leung especially holds a quiet intensity and longing that elevates an otherwise standard villain role, despite the film not giving him the depth needed to reach the level of Killmonger or Thanos. Perhaps his greatest contribution to the larger Marvel mythos comes in addressing a clever twist that most audiences hated from Iron Man 3, which then leads into one of the film’s most enjoyable and yet dissimilar elements (which I can’t detail because of spoilers).
Entertaining as it is, and Shang-Chi is highly entertaining, with its mixture of Asian cinema traditions and the Marvel formula, it’s hard not to look at Shang-Chi in the same way that Katie (Awkwafina) is looked at by her mother: underachieving. As mentioned, although the first half hints at the idea of both Shang and Katie trying to find their drive, the theme is almost entirely dropped by the second half, with just a mention or two that anyone not privy to the characters’ previous conversations would find odd. Of course the hero finds his purpose, that’s part of the formula, but that discovery is less by choice and more by necessity. There’s little evidence that having undergone this adventure Shang would choose to continue. Meanwhile Katie, while a nice grounding/everywoman character at the start, offers little objection to the madness she’s quietly engulfed in. Yes, this is a world where half of the population can be snapped out of existence, but dead is still dead. When a character is presented as an ordinary human, they should feel like a human. Perhaps a character being terrified for their life would be too intense, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t improve the film. If anything, the movie could use a lot more intensity. Going deeper into the characters would provide the film a greater identity than just those on the surface.
Of course, the majority of Shang-Chi‘s significance comes less in its cinematic or entertainment quality than in its cultural representation, and for that, if nothing else, the film is remarkable and a worthy addition to our greater cinematic milieu. In the same way that Black Panther and Captain Marvel were important if not entirely revelatory moments in blockbusting filmmaking, Shang-Chi is another opportunity for members of the audience to see themselves reflected on screen. As someone who has spent his entire life being represented by different heroes, from Spider-Man to Star Lord to Captain America, I can’t possibly understand what it means for Asians, particularly those of Chinese descent, in America and beyond to finally see a hero that looks like them anymore than I could understand what T’Challa and Carol Danvers meant to their target audiences. Cynically we could look at Shang-Chi as the first Marvel film to guarantee a billion-dollar box office in China alone, but I prefer to look at the film as genuine attempt to expand mainstream American filmmaking, if not artistically than at least culturally. We’ve had Asians in American cinema for years, but as demonstrated in Crazy Rich Asians, rarely have they been the lead, especially in the role of superhero. Based on quality alone, the film hangs somewhere near Captain Marvel and below Black Panther in superhero origin stories. Yet, as with those two, the film is less remarkable for what it is now than for what it can be in the future. If the mid-credits scene, likely the longest and with the most cameos in MCU history, is to be believed, there’s a lot more coming for Shang-Chi. Maybe then the character and those involved in his portrayal won’t underachieve. Like both wuxia and the MCU, Shang-Chi has primed the audience to believe its world. Now show us what you can do.