Marvel's 1st Asian Superhero Gets The Full Blockbuster Treatment In 'Shang-Chi'

Sep 1, 2021
Originally published on September 1, 2021 12:50 pm

The best moments in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings are the ones where you almost — almost — forget you're watching a Marvel movie. Some of the hallmarks are still there: the deft comic banter, the high-flying action, the passing references to other characters and events in the Marvel universe.

But the movie doesn't get bogged down in series minutiae. It takes place some time after the last two Avengers movies — you know, when half the world was wiped out and then brought back, and several fan favorites said goodbye. But you don't need to know or care about any of that to enjoy this mostly stand-alone story, which brings us into new dramatic terrain.

New cultural terrain, too. Nearly 50 years after the character of Shang-Chi made his comic-book debut, during the '70s martial-arts craze, he's now the first Asian superhero to get the full Marvel movie treatment. When we first meet Shang-Chi, played by Simu Liu from TV's Kim's Convenience, he's a young man calling himself Shaun and living a pretty ordinary life in San Francisco.

But one day, Shaun and his slackerish friend Katy — an amusing Awkwafina — are violently ambushed on a bus, and Shaun fends off their attackers with a dazzling array of martial-arts moves. Turns out there's a lot he hasn't told Katy, like the fact that he's a kung fu master who's been hiding for years from his father, a very evil, very powerful centuries-old Chinese warlord named Wenwu.

Now his father has found him and sent his goons after him. Determined to figure out why, Shaun flies to Macao with Katy to meet up with his estranged sister, Xialing. Once there, the movie becomes a full-blown dysfunctional family drama with darkly funny overtones.

At times I felt like I was watching a comedy about the all-too-relatable tensions between a traditional Chinese parent and his wayward Westernized offspring, though one in which, of course, the fate of the world hangs in the balance. The siblings have to put their own issues aside and unite against their diabolical father, who derives his power from the 10 rings of the title — metal armbands that have made him immortal and almost invincible.

Wenwu is the latest version of a notorious Marvel supervillain called the Mandarin who was introduced in the '60s as a mustache-twirling Fu Manchu stereotype. But the filmmakers have smartly redefined the character, who's played — in an inspired piece of casting — by the Hong Kong screen legend Tony Leung.

You might know Leung from his work in Wong Kar-wai's magnificent romantic dramas such as In the Mood for Love. Here, he gives us a more extreme vision of obsessive desire: Years ago, Wenwu tragically lost his wife, Shang-Chi and Xialing's mother. Now he's hellbent on bringing her back, with a scheme that could have devastating consequences for all humanity.

All this family angst gives Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings unusual emotional intensity for a superhero movie. Xialing, nicely played by Meng'er Zhang, resents her father for neglecting her as a child, which makes it all the more unfortunate that the movie somewhat sidelines her, too. As for Shang-Chi, he has a complicated, vaguely Oedipal rivalry with his father, who turned him into the fighting machine he is and subjected him to all manner of cruel manipulation and abuse. Liu is an appealing lead, though he doesn't always fully convey the depths of his character's trauma.

He's better in the lighter, funnier scenes with Awkwafina, and having worked as a stunt performer, he's terrific in the movie's extended fight sequences. They're a big improvement on the blandly staged, drably lit scenes that typically pass for action in Marvel movies. The director and co-writer, Destin Daniel Cretton, may not be the second coming of John Woo, but he's done a fine job of absorbing any number of Asian action influences, from the slapstick fisticuffs of Jackie Chan to the balletic grace of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Speaking of Crouching Tiger: It's delightful to see the great Michelle Yeoh turn up late in the show as a benevolent mentor to Shang-Chi. She prepares him for an epic showdown with his father that feels a bit like this series' past epic showdowns, full of apocalyptic stakes, bloodless casualties and visual-effects overkill. But the finale also has a depth of feeling that sets it apart and leaves you wanting to linger in this particular world a while longer — before the next Marvel movie comes along.

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The new movie "Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings," which opens Friday, is Marvel's first movie to feature an Asian superhero. The film stars the Chinese Canadian actor Simu Liu as the young kung fu master Shang-Chi. Our film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: The best moments in "Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings" are the ones where you almost - almost forget you're watching a Marvel movie. Some of the hallmarks are still there - the deft comic banter, the high-flying action, the passing references to other characters and events in the Marvel universe. But the movie doesn't get bogged down in serious minutia. It takes place some time after the last two Avengers movies, you know, when half the world was wiped out and then brought back and several fan favorites said goodbye. But you don't need to know or care about any of that to enjoy this mostly standalone story, which brings us into new dramatic terrain - new cultural terrain, too.

Nearly 50 years after the character of Shang-Chi made his comic book debut during the '70s martial arts craze, he's now the first Asian superhero to get the full Marvel movie treatment. When we first meet Shang-Chi, played by Simu Liu from TV's "Kim's Convenience," he's a young man calling himself Shaun and living a pretty ordinary life in San Francisco. But one day, he and his slackerish (ph) friend Katy, an amusing Awkwafina, are violently ambushed on a bus, and Shaun fends off their attackers with a dazzling array of martial arts moves. Turns out, there's a lot he hasn't told Katy, like the fact that he's a kung fu master who's been hiding for years from his father, a very evil, very powerful, centuries-old Chinese warlord named Wenwu.

Now his father has found him and sent his goons after him. Determined to figure out why, Shaun flies to Macao to meet up with his estranged sister, Xialing. Katy tags along. And on the way, he fills her in on some important details.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS")

SIMU LIU: (As Shang-Chi) I should also probably mention that my name's not technically Shaun.

AWKWAFINA: (As Katy) What is it?

LIU: (As Shang-Chi) It's Shang-Chi.

AWKWAFINA: (As Katy) Shaun-Chi.

LIU: (As Shang-Chi) No, Shang-Chi.

AWKWAFINA: (As Katy) Shaun-Chi.

LIU: (As Shang-Chi) Shang.

AWKWAFINA: (As Katy) Shaun.

LIU: (As Shang-Chi) Shang.

AWKWAFINA: (As Katy) Shaun.

LIU: (As Shang-Chi) S-H-A-N-G - Shang.

AWKWAFINA: (As Katy) Shang?

LIU: (As Shang-Chi) Yeah.

AWKWAFINA: (As Katy) You changed your name from Shang to Shaun?

LIU: (As Shang-Chi) Yeah, I don't - yeah.

AWKWAFINA: (As Katy) No wonder how your father found you.

LIU: (As Shang-Chi) OK. I was 15 years old, all right?

AWKWAFINA: (As Katy) What is your name-change logic? You're going into hiding, and your name is Michael. And you go on and change it Mishael (ph).

LIU: (As Shang-Chi) That's not what happened.

AWKWAFINA: (As Katy) It's like, hi, my name's Gina. I'm going to go into hiding. My new name's Jy-na (ph).

CHANG: In Macao, the movie becomes a full-blown dysfunctional family drama with darkly funny overtones. At times I felt like I was watching a comedy about the all-too-relatable tensions between a traditional Chinese parent and his wayward Westernized offspring, although one in which, of course, the fate of the world hangs in the balance.

The siblings have to put their own issues aside and unite against their diabolical father, who derives his power from the 10 rings of the title, metal arm bands that have made him immortal and almost invincible. Wenwu is the latest version of a notorious Marvel super villain called the Mandarin, who was introduced in the '60s as a mustache-twirling Fu-Manchu stereotype. But the filmmakers have smartly redefined the character, who's played in an inspired piece of casting by the Hong Kong screen legend Tony Leung. You might know Leung from his work in Wong Kar-wai's magnificent romantic dramas, like "In The Mood For Love." Here, he gives us a more extreme vision of obsessive desire. Years ago, Wenwu tragically lost his wife, Shang-Chi and Xialing's mother. Now he's hellbent on bringing her back with a scheme that could have devastating consequences for all humanity.

All this family angst gives "Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings" unusual emotional intensity for a superhero movie. Xialing, nicely played by Meng'er Zhang, resents her father for neglecting her as a child, which makes it all the more unfortunate that the movie somewhat sidelines her, too. As for Shang-Chi, he has a complicated, vaguely Oedipal rivalry with his father, who turned him into the fighting machine he is and subjected him to all manner of cruel manipulation and abuse.

Simu Liu is an appealing lead, though he doesn't always fully convey the depths of his character's trauma. He's better in the lighter, funnier scenes with Awkwafina. And having worked as a stunt performer, he's terrific in the movie's extended fight sequences. They're a big improvement on the blandly staged, drably lit scenes that typically pass for action in Marvel movies.

The director and co-writer, Destin Daniel Cretton, may not be the second coming of John Woo, but he's done a fine job of absorbing any number of Asian action influences, from the slapstick fisticuffs of Jackie Chan to the balletic grace of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." Speaking of "Crouching Tiger," it's delightful to see the great Michelle Yeoh turn up late in the show as a benevolent mentor to Shang-Chi. She prepares him for an epic showdown with his father that feels a bit like this series' past epic showdowns, full of apocalyptic stakes, bloodless casualties and visual effects overkill. But the finale also has a depth of feeling that sets it apart and leaves you wanting to linger in this particular world a while longer before the next Marvel movie comes along.

GROSS: Justin Chang is film critic for The LA Times. He reviewed "Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings." It opens in theaters Friday and will begin streaming on Disney+ in October.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll continue our "Summer Of Soul" series featuring interviews from our archive with some of the musicians featured in the film "Summer Of Soul," which documents the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. Tomorrow, we'll hear from B.B. King and the late South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF B.B. KING'S "THE THRILL IS GONE")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE THRILL IS GONE")

B B KING: (Singing) The thrill is gone. The thrill is gone away. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.