Outlandish stories, from the Greek myths to modern day superhero films, have inspired and entertained me as long as I can remember. Still, the white dude superhero story arc makes me yawn. It’s been repurposed for centuries, from Perseus to Ironman: a son, born to a powerful father, lives a dissolute youth, has a wake-up call when a beautiful woman he desires can’t, or won’t, be with him because she’s got obligations and goals that don’t include him, so he finally uses the resources he was born with to slay the monster and win the girl. Lather, rinse, repeat.
There’s other stories to tell, there’s other heroes to hear from. And, with opening weekend box office projections set to exceed seventy-five million dollars, Destin Daniel Cretton’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings gives us the hero we need, an approachable, funny human being, struggling with grief and accepting himself, struggles he must weather to save first himself and then the world.
Shang-Chi, who goes by Shaun, played by Simu Liu (Kim’s Convenience, 2016-2021) and his best friend, Katy, played by Golden Globe winner, Awkwafina (The Farewell), work together parking cars at a high end hotel. The best friend chemistry between them is evident from their first scene together.
Their friendship motivates Shaun in the film’s first action sequence, which is arguably the best fight scene in any MCU film. The story and directorial decisions establish a deeper take on the “first time we see the hero’s powers” trope. Troublemakers accost Katy and Shaun immediately defends her. The outstanding choreography, the humor, the plot and character movement and the high personal stakes are set to the single, “Run It”, by DJ Snake, Rick Ross, and Rich Brian. In Captain America’s first big fight scene, he ran through the streets, breaking windows and leaping over fences, learning about his brand new Super Soldier Powers on the fly. He punches Nazis often, a worthwhile endeavor, for sure. But he knows he didn’t earn his powers and spends his tenure in the MCU proving to himself that he’s a worthy recipient. In contrast, Shaun fights to defend his best friend. He’s a confident and skilled fighter, due to years of practice. And in the moment, he has no problem bringing the pain.
Shaun’s father, warlord and holder of the Ten Rings, Xu Wenwu, played by Tony Leung (The Great Magician), his sister, entrepreneurial Xialing, played by Meng’er Zhang, and his best friend, Katy, all benefit from a solid script that include their characters as faceted people. Leung plays Wenwu with a subtle grief that he doesn’t allow to show voluntarily yet drives him. Zhang gives the successful and bad ass Xialing moments of sorrow and anger at her childhood circumstances. Awkwafina isn’t allowed her full range here, unfortunately, and still lets us know that Katy is a force of nature.
Sadly, this tight filmmaking did not make it to the final battle. If the first fight scene worked on many levels of the story to move it forward and show the viewers more about characters, the last one worked on only one level- to bring the film to the conclusion we bought tickets to see. Viewers know that this scene could have been better. The third act got lost in the action and the incoherence undermines a vital heroic moment for a character. In Infinity War (2018) and Endgame (2019), filmmakers established order in chaos by concentrating on one aspect of the battle at a time, like vignettes. Shang-Chi would have benefitted from a similar technique.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings launches MCU’s Phase Four. It doesn’t forget previous MCU installments, though. There’s a supporting role that bridges previous films. Benedict Wong’s cameo plays for comic relief and the story arc. The cinematography by Bill Pope (The Matrix Trilogy) layers color that establishes Shaun’s character arc as a hero and also ties in this film with the first MCU installment, Ironman (2008). And, as the world slowly opens up again, this film will bring us back to the cinema (masked, of course), where such films must be seen.