Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings – REVIEW

With Avengers: Endgame culminating a decade long stint for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the billion dollar production house now has the challenging task to keep the train rolling by introducing new characters and worlds to the MCU. Series fatigue has certainly set in for me, as the MCU formula grows more and more apparent with each passing film. Black Widow fell prey to these trappings earlier this year with an all-too-familiar presentation and storytelling style. Not to mention the film was for a character we were most likely never seeing again (especially with this Johansson v. Disney lawsuit going on). Now is the time for Marvel to really focus on their future, presenting characters that will carry the universe into the future to captivate not only new fans, but diehards that have stuck around since 2008.

Marvel’s first attempt to build up a new character in a standalone film is Shang-Chi, are arguably lesser known hero from Marvel’s deep catalog. The character’s relative obscurity for modern audiences gives Marvel the chance to make the character a unique addition to their world while also not having the same fan-applied pressures that come with adapting more well-know characters. Guardians of the Galaxy is one of the most successful examples of this, and I hoped it would play out the same way for Shang-Chi. Not to mention this is Marvel’s first film with an Asian lead (something we shouldn’t even have to be applauding at this point because it’s the bare minimum effort). Yet, the cultural significance of this can’t be denied, as pressure is now put on Marvel to make something culturally respectful instead of justing making the same film they’ve been making for 15 years now with Asian decorations put on top.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings never truly sways to one side or the other on these scales, keeping it from being outright bad but hindering it from being so much more than it could be. While the film contains a fun soundtrack and boasts some of the best hand-to-hand fight scenes the MCU has seen so far, the shackles of Marvel sameness in its writing, world building and presentation definitely made me feel like I’ve been down this road before.

Tony Leung as Xu Wenwu (left) and Simu Liu as Shang-Chi (right)

Valeting expensive cars by day and rocking out in karaoke bars by night, Shaun may seem like your average young man just scraping by, but he holds a dark past that he keeps from everyone, including his best friend Katy. His real name is Shang-Chi, and since he was a child he was trained to be a hardened warrior by the Ten Rings army, led by his father Xu Wenwu. Coming into possession of the titular artifacts, the Ten Rings, over 1000 years ago, Wenwu has torched his way across history as a conqueror and warlord thanks to the ring’s gifts of power and immortality. When Shang-Chi was 14, his father sent him on a mission to kill his first target, but decided to go AWOL and escape to America to start a new, normal life. Leaving behind his sister Xialing and father, his past one day catches up with him as the Ten Rings mercenaries come for Shang-Chi and his sister, leading to a globe trotting journey that eventually brings them to an entirely new reality existing right outside their own.

Portrayed by Simu Liu, Shang-Chi is a humble man looking to move beyond his past and do right with his talents. Liu‘s background in taekwondo, gymnastics and Wing Chun makes him one of the most visually stunning and believable actors to watch in the MCU. While the character himself doesn’t ooze the same personality as Tony Stark or Thor, Liu‘s down to Earth persona at least makes him easily likable. Yet, his more intimate, emotional moments don’t carry as much weight as I expected, while his lack of character flaws make him one of the lesser compelling heroes of the MCU. His partner in crime Katy, played by Awkwafina, naturally brings most of the film’s comedy, but also naturally may cause some divisiveness on the film’s humor. Awkwafina is a terrific actress as The Farewell has proven, but her style of comedy does tend to divide people. Though very clearly the designated comic relief, I was surprised to see her arguably gain more significant growth than the film’s lead. While not every joke lands, the dynamic between Shang-Chi and Katy is fun enough to make following their journey of self-discovery enjoyable.

The most dynamic and interesting character here is without a doubt Tony Leung as Shang-Chi’s father, Xu Wenwu. Marvel villains are very hit or miss most of the time, bu Leung’s portrayal adds significant emotional depth to character only previously known as an international terrorist. Struck with grief after the death of his wife, Wenwu’s actions in the film are driven by the belief that he has found a way to bring her back. Though his methods are cruel, he simply yearns to rebuild his family after alienating his son and daughter. You sympathize with him even though much of his past is irredeemable, with his moments of vulnerability bringing a breath of fresh air to the realm of Marvel villains. It would have been very easy to make him the power hungry warlord everyone expected as soon as “The Mandarin” was mentioned in Iron Man, but this depiction of the Ten Rings ringleader humanizes and develops a once one note (and a little racist) character.

The defining trait of the film is its focus on intricate hand-to-hand fight scenes that utilize the main actor’s talents and makes the film feel uniquely its own. These battles are creative in their execution and are usually show pretty clearly, straying away from the shakey cam fights that have plagued action movies for years. From the choreography to the implementation of the sets, these are by far the most realistic and hard-hitting fight scene the MCU has seen since the Daredevil television series. As the film reaches its climax, it does tend to delve into the familiar, flashy, CGI heavy final battles that the MCU is more known for. While the CGI isn’t too overbearing or ugly, it is a shame that the MCU struggles to avoid a green screened final battle when the rest of the film had managed to remain pretty grounded. The CGI tends to dip into the fight scenes early on as well, never fully allowing the impressive fight choreography to reign supreme without mostly unneeded touchups, turning some moments into a complete blur of pre-rendered graphics.

The writing is sure to detract a few people, as Marvel’s humor never really seems to change from movie to movie except for the few exceptions where the director’s style undoubtedly shines through. MCU comedy is usually one of its biggest detractors, but while the film’s jokes tend to miss more than they hit, the film is never trying to be explicitly a comedy. I actually thought the film got funnier as it went on thanks to a surprise appearance of another MCU character I won’t spoil, along with some cute animal gags thanks to a weird faceless winged marmot looking thing named Morris. What Marvel more or less tries to produce is a story about crafting your own destiny while dealing with the past trauma that brought you to where you are now. This is what I think the intention was, as the story that we get does little to instill depth to a fairly generic and straight forward tale. While Leung‘s ability as an actor allows him to pull the emotion needed for his character despite the script, Liu‘s Shang-Chi seems void of true growth or development by comparison. Rarely attempting to make use of Shang-Chi’s past trauma as a motivator rather than a weak plea for sympathy, the script stumbles with giving him a journey worth conquering beyond the very surface level “father vs. son” dilemma. You feel as if Shang-Chi is already at his peak, beginning the film as an incredibly competent fighter who’s only real growth was getting a little bit better at fighting. While there are some minor self conscious inner turmoils, they never feel heavy enough to completely drive Shang-Chi’s story. The final act ultimately undermines this with its large scale warfare that zooms out from the father and son conflict to the point where you don’t feel much by the conclusion.

While never really reaching the level of culture significance I hoped outside of simple but needed representation, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings at least manages to produce some engaging action scenes that attempt to set it apart from the other films in the MCU. Unfortunately it fumbles its emotional depth and uniqueness while establishing a new hero by not doing enough to make Shang-Chi stand out amongst the MCU’s ever growing roster. It takes more than punches and kicks to make an enthralling character, and its a shame the MCU’s first Asian hero wasn’t given as much care in development considering the admittedly smaller fanbase won’t be able to back the character as intently as a Iron Man or Captain America. While many people were fully aware of those character’s potentials, Shang-Chi is a relative unknown that really needed that extra “oomph” to set the stage for Marvel’s future. I can only hope Marvel wises up in building its new Avengers, because if not, its only a matter of time before we have Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans showing back up thanks to some dumb deus ex machina purely to sell tickets.

Did I just describe Spider-Man: No Way Home? Only time will tell.

Rating

(out of a possible 5 dragon scales)

The Mandarin

While Xu Wenwu may not associate himself with the name, The Mandarin has been a foreboding identity across the Marvel Cinematic Universe since its inception. Is it also the name of an orange? Yes. Is there mandarin in this drink? Yes. Am I super smart and original? Don’t answer.

The Mandarin cocktail is a blend of citrus and fruit flavors supported by a small kick of spice. Gin and lychee liqueur give the drink a noticeable yet not overpowering boozy body, complimented by the naturally sweet mandarin juice. Sneaking oh so subtlety in is a small splash of homemade ginger syrup, adding a bit more sweetness as well as flattering spice that pairs well with the fruit flavors. To make the ginger syrup, I used the standard simple syrup recipe (equal parts water and sugar) while including two peeled and thinly chopped ginger roots. This cocktail is easy to drink and allows you to create some ingredients that can be used to spice up your favorite cocktails. I’ll take any chance to have lychee liqueur in a drink personally.

Ingredients

  • 1oz gin
  • 1oz lychee liqueur
  • 1oz mandarin juice
  • 1/2oz ginger syrup
  • 1/2oz lime juice
  • Garnish: Mandarin wheel

Instructions

  1. Add ingredients to a shaker and shake with ice.
  2. Strain into chilled cocktail glass.
  3. Garnish with mandarin wheel.

Video

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