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Non-Review Review: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

There’s something unsettling on how conservative Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is, even by the standards of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

This is particularly frustrating when Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings positions itself as a progressive piece of pop culture. There’s a lot to appreciate about the film, conceptually. It is the first film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe from an Asian American director. It is the first entry in the franchise with a predominantly (almost exclusively) Asian cast. It exists in conversation with the company’s long-standing history of clichés and stereotypes, exploring and reconstructing them. Even more than that, it has a fundamentally charismatic cast and a fairly solid emotional arc, both of which should sustain it.

Stick with it.

However, all of this ultimately feels like empty window dressing arranged around a weirdly traditionalist and pandering core. At its heart, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a story about how “kids these days” really don’t know what they’re doing or where they’re going, and really just need to get back in touch with their roots and learn from their elders. There are points when Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings feels a little bit like a Jerry Seinfeld joke about stupid millennials with their gap years and their gig economy.

There’s something disheartening in all this, particularly with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings positioned as the first true origin story to follow Avengers: Endgame, the herald of a new era for perhaps the most ubiquitous pop culture franchise in the world. However, when Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings should be looking forward into a bold new era, it casts its gaze backwards.

To be fair, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is not the first project in this new wave of Marvel content. However, it is the first major project to focus on an entirely new character. After all, Spider-Man: Far From Home was really an epilogue to the so-called “Infinity Saga”, dealing with the fallout from the death of Tony Stark. Black Widow was essentially a prequel film set between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War. Even the Disney+ shows – WandaVision, Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Loki – were about advancing the stories of existing figures, pushing supporting characters into focus.

In contrast, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings marks the first movie following Endgame to focus on an predominantly new cast. There are a variety of returning characters from a number of other Marvel projects – Tim Roth from The Incredible Hulk, Benedict Wong from Doctor Strange, Ben Kingsley from Iron Man 3 – but the bulk of the cast is made up of new actors and new characters. This is supposed to be what the future of the shared universe looks like. In the movie’s first postcredits scene, another returning face tells the eponymous new hero, “Welcome to the circus.”

Theoretically, it means a lot that the first new hero of this stage of the shared universe is a character like Shang-Chi. Most obviously and superficially, it means that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is becoming a more diverse place. The fate of the universe no longer depends on a bunch of white guys, three of which are blonde men named “Chris.” Coupled with other recent entries like Black Panther and Captain Marvel, this suggests that the future of this franchise might look a little bit more like the world that these characters are continually tasked with saving.

More to the point, there’s an important corrective here. Pop culture in general, and comics in particular, have not always been particularly graceful in their handling of Asian culture. There has long been a tendency towards fetishisation at best and villification at worst. This is obvious even in the case of Shang-Chi himself. The character was launched in the mid-seventies in a bid to cash in on the martial arts craze of the era. When Marvel failed to secure the rights to Kung Fu, they instead opted to license Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu universe, and cast Shang-Chi as the character’s son.

Shang-Chi: Homecoming.

As such, Shang-Chi was tied up in stereotypical “yellow peril” stereotypes from the outset. He was largely written by white creators. He was initially coloured bronze. He was a bundle of clichés, spouting pseudo-philosophical nonsense while also wandering through the world as a complete innocent confused by concepts like water parks. While there is a lot to recommend the pulpy thrills of the original Master of Kung Fu run, it has not always aged gracefully. Subsequent portrayals of the character would obviously improve on this, but Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings feels like an obvious reclamation project.

However, there’s also something frustratingly cynical about all this, as if Marvel Studios is unwilling to commit entirely to the idea of moving past the familiar stereotypes and reinventing the character for a new era. This is most obvious in the big emotional arc of the film, which is rooted in Shang-Chi’s relationship to his father. Obviously, this is a thorny subject. It’s notable that the comics have struggled with reconciling this – trying to retain the character’s core arc while divorcing it from both the copyright and the legacy of the “yellow peril” villain.

Comics like Ed Brubaker’s Secret Avengers have gone out of their way to give Shang-Chi’s father a name that is miles away from the “Fu Manchu” archetype. Brubaker named him as “Zheng Zu.” In contrast, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings opts for the name “Wenwu.” As played by Hong Kong legend Tony Leung, Wenwu is the heart and soul of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. The movie opens with an extended prologue focused around him, and it is his desire that drives the plot – Shang-Chi himself spends most of the movie reacting against his father rather than doing anything proactive.

There’s a kernel of a much better movie tucked away in all this. The premise of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a potentially interesting generational conflict. In many ways, Wenwu is the ultimate boomer. Wenwu is a guy who amassed tremendous wealth and power by virtue of being in the right place at the right time. He happened to find a bunch of magic rings in a cave or a crater or a… look, it doesn’t matter. He doesn’t know where they came from, and he doesn’t care. All that matters is that he’s used them to accumulate an absurd amount of power.

All the best martial artists have daddy issues.

Like most of his generation, he owns properties that his kids can only dream of one day inheriting, including a luxurious holiday home – sorry, “compound.” Like any boomer, Wenwu’s obsession with recreating a lost and nostalgic past threatens to unleash an unimaginable horror upon the world. (“He Who Dwells in Darkness” feels like a late show bit about President Donald Trump, a reference that might seem more pointed had the movie not been delayed.) Wenwu also refuses to listen to anybody and the starting premise of the movie is that he simply will not die.

In contrast, Shang-Chi is presented as a stereotypical zoomer. He’s idle. He’s listless. He’s failing to live up to his full potential. He has rejected the sort of steady job his father can offer, and wants nothing to do with his father’s value system. He works a minimum wage job. Katy, his best friend, lives with her parents. The pair are described as “running from adulthood” by their own friends. In order to get where he’s going, Shang-Chi has to take the occasional nixer, like fighting in an underground martial arts tournament from which Katy is obsessed with receiving a financial reward.

The premise of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is that Shang-Chi has taken a decade-long gap yearm only to find himself drawn back into his father’s orbit. This seems like a pretty solid movie about the collision between old and new – about past and future. There is something compelling in the idea that the hero is a generation Z immigrant, which suggests that maybe the film might champion modernity or understand the importance of making one’s own way in the world.

However, there are two big problems with this set-up. The first is the weird obsession the movie has with tying Wenwu to comic book mythology. The character is obviously not Fu Manchu, but he is slotted into a familiar and archetypal role associated with Fu Manchu. This is a man with a secret army who has ruled the world from darkness for more than a single lifetime, who appears to have a mastery of both science and magic to aid him in this quest.

(Death) Deal with it.

To be fair, this is fine. There’s nothing wrong with that of itself – it’s a pretty solid supervillain hook, albeit one that should probably avoid drawing any clearer lines to yellow peril stereotypes. Unfortunately, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings doubles down. It attempts to tie Wenwu to the mythology of the classic Iron Man villain the Mandarin, a comic book villain clearly modelled on the same yellow peril stereotypes that drove Fu Manchu – “the most feared Oriental of all time!”

Iron Man 3 already deconstructed the Mandarin as a concept, exploring how the stereotype was simply a piece of American mythology designed to justify the villification of convenient political opponents and encourage an increasingly militaristic stance. Indeed, in its best scenes trying to unpack that mythology, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings essentially makes the exact same arguments as Iron Man 3, as Wenwu complains that the Americans named a caricature of him “after a chicken dish” or “an orange.” That would be enough of itself.

However, this gets back at the weird paradox of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the sense in which the movie desperately seems to want to have its cake and eat it. The film isn’t content to have Wenwu simply reiterate the perfectly justified complaints about the way in which American culture has treated Asian characters. It also then wants him to be an example of those trends. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings wants to have its cake and eat it. It wants Wenwu to rightfully call out the history of the Mandarin as an offensive stereotype, but also wants him to be the Mandarin.

It’s a circle that the movie cannot square, and every time the film attempts to reconcile the two elements, it collapses into itself. In the film’s opening monologue, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings makes it clear that Wenwu is slipping into the narrative space occupied by the Mandarin in the comic books. He is an ancient and immortal being, a man empowered by ten magical and mystical rings, who has stalked across history. However, the film can’t really delve into that.

“You’ve seen Skyfall, right?”

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is intentionally and deliberately vague, for example, about how Wenwu came across the eponymous ten rings. This would seem to be important, given that the rings are the title of the movie, framed as an important mystical artifact, and the entire identity that Wenwu has built around himself. Of course, there’s good reason why the film probably can’t depict the character’s embrace of the rings on screen – given that the comics framed it as “the origin of the dragon myth in China”, which seems deeply insulting, stereotypical and patronising.

This tension runs through Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, where it’s clear that the movie very much wants to assert that Wenwu is “the real Mandarin from the comics!” to appease those angry fans upset at the way that Iron Man 3 deconstructed the comic while also understanding that maybe the villain in the studios’ first Asian-centric superhero movie shouldn’t be entirely defined by his relationship to “the specifics of Fu Manchu stereotyping.”

This is obvious in a number of ways. Most obviously, the connections to the Mandarin are forceful, but also largely disconnected from the actual story of the film. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings brings back the character of Trevor Slattery from Iron Man 3, the character who portrayed the Mandarin for Aldrich Killian. However, despite constantly having the character on screen, Slattery never directly interacts with Wenwu. Ben Kingsley and Tony Leung never share the screen. They feel like they are in two entirely disconnected movies, and only the edit is concerned with tying the pair to one another.

More to the point, outside of the production design and iconography, outside of the voiceovers and exposition, the plot of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings doesn’t actually require Wenwu to be the Mandarin or to be a Fu Manchu archetype. So much of what makes Wenwu resemble those archetypes is told via exposition rather than shown on screen. The actual plot of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings doesn’t require Wenwu to have ruled from the shadows for centuries, and the plot doesn’t really explore that aspect.

Stripped down mythology.

Instead, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings understands that Wenwu is most compelling – and Tony Leung is most effective – as a really rich and powerful man who has never come to terms with the loss of his wife, and so has committed tremendous resources to trying to restore her, while alienating his children in the process. There is nothing in that story that requires resurrecting the concepts of Fu Manchu and the Mandarin, and the film seems to understand this. However, it keeps trying to arrange these elements as set dressing around Wenwu.

This emphasis on the Mandarin feels like an unforced error in the pursuit of empty fan service, to the point that Kevin Feige has somehow found himself having to spend interviews insisting that Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is not a stealth “Fu Manchu” movie and that “definitively, Fu Manchu is not in this movie, is not Shang-Chi’s father, and again, is not even a Marvel character, and hasn’t been for decades.” Maybe if the movie didn’t work so hard to tie Wenwu to the Fu Manchu archetype and the Mandarin mythology, it wouldn’t be an issue.

The other big issue is one related to theme, with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings effectively undermining its most interesting emotional hook at the midpoint. Around half-way through the movie’s runtime, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings takes a pretty sharp turn. It seems that this isn’t supposed to be a classic Star Wars narrative about a son finding his own way by confronting and vanquishing his father. Instead, the movie suggests that Shang-Chi is supposed to reconnect with his mother’s ancient heritage and embrace her values.

In the world of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, zoomers really do have a lot to learn from their elders, as the film reinforces with a healthy emphasis on exposition and flashback. Shang-Chi does need to connect with his roots, and can only become the hero that he’s meant to be when he gives up on his globe trotting and adventuring and returns home to pay proper respect to those who came before him. It’s a really frustrating “kids these days, am I right?” turn from the movie that feels very much in keeping with the messaging that Disney layered into their recent remake of Mulan.

Making a splash.

It’s interesting to wonder if this might be the result of cynical pandering to Chinese censors, in the hope that the film might hit big in that rapidly-expanding market. It’s no small irony that the film has yet to secure a release date in China, and that rumours are swirling that it may not release at all. As with Mulan, there’s a strong sense that the second half of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is about tempering individualism and progressivism in favour of collectivism and tradition.

Ultimately, Shang-Chi should listen to his parents. He shouldn’t rock the boat too much. There’s certainly nothing wrong with the world that requires a bold new approach to fix. There are obviously interesting stories to be told about immigrants reconnecting with their homeland. Even within the Asian American community, these tensions were explored in movies like The Farewell or Crazy Rich Asians. However, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is far too uncritical of this nostalgia and this traditionalism.

When Shang-Chi returns to the village of Ta-Lo, he points out that these people effectively exiled his mother. They cast her out into the world, where she died. That doesn’t sound like a community that deserves respect or veneration. It sounds like an insular and xenophobic community. The elders of the village insist that they simply refused to open their gates to Wenwu, and that is enough for Shang-Chi. It’s glib, it’s shallow, and it ignores an interesting point of conflict that Black Panther explored in its critique of Wakanda’s isolationism.

There’s never any discussion of the fact that Wenwu surrendered his power to marry Jiang Li, and that he seemed to become a good person in their marriage. Certainly, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings suggests that Wenwu was a good husband to his wife, and that he was a good father to his children until he lost his wife. Could Ta-Lo have helped him? Maybe having Jiang Li’s family around to support him after her death could have honoured her memory? Maybe the extended family could have offered shelter and protection to Shang-Chi when he needed it, rather than waiting until he was an adult?

It takes a village to abandon a child.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings doesn’t explore these interesting questions. Instead, it uncritically portrays Ta-Lo as a paradise. It is a magical world, filled with wonder. It is the place that can tell Shang-Chi who he really is, despite abandoning him when he needed it the most. “At least your mother knew who she was,” his aunt taunts him during training. “Do you?” Even Katy is given purpose in the village. Complaining about her inability to stick with anything long enough to master it, she is given a bow and arrow, and somehow finds a purpose lacking in her life to this point.

Even beyond the clumsy bungling of the movie’s themes and character, there’s something very frustrating about Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. After all, there is something interesting in the idea that Shang-Chi is the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, even beyond the long overdue diversity in front of and behind the camera. To put it simply, Shang-Chi is a different kind of comic book character than Iron Man or Captain America or Thor.

Shang-Chi was introduced in Special Marvel Edition. His debut was so successful that the title was rebranded as Master of Kung-Fu, one of the non-superhero titles of the seventies designed to capitalise on the martial arts craze of the era. Running over one-hundred issues, the closest point of comparison is probably Tomb of Dracula, the comic that introduced the character of Blade. This is of note, as it really seems like Stephen Nortington’s Blade is the kind of superhero movie that Marvel simply couldn’t make anymore.

Sadly, Blade feels more like a martial arts movie than Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. After all, Wesley Snipes had trained in martial arts since the age of twelve, and it shows on screen. In contrast, before he was cast, Simu Liu’s martial arts experience was largely “backflipping in [his] backyard when [he] was a teenager and doing parkour with [his] friends.” While it’s clear that Liu trained for the role, he is not a martial arts film star, and there’s only so much a film can do to disguise that.

Aisle be back.

Director Destin Daniel Cretton has cited Hong Kong cinema as a major influence on the movie. After all, this is the film that marks Tony Leung’s arrival in Hollywood. Cretton also hired several people who had worked with Jackie Chan, including the late Brad Allen, to shape the movie’s choreography. The film’s action sequences include overt shoutouts to everything from Rumble in the Bronx to Rush Hour 2. It’s clear that the movie has been made with a lot of love for the genre and its history.

To be fair, the choreography is more impressive than that on display in Mortal Kombat or G.I. Joe Origins: Snake Eyes, but it still pales in comparison to its influences. Part of this is simply down to the house style, as Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings constantly cuts away from the action to one-liners or jokes involving the supporting cast that undermine the tension and distract the audience’s attention. It’s enough to watch Shang-Chi fight a bunch of goons on a bus as spectators film it on their phones, without cutting to one observer promising to do a “blow-by-blow” commentary on it.

However, part of this is a broader issue with contemporary Hollywood’s use of computer-generated imagery. The stunt team are undoubtedly doing great work, but it’s hard to properly appreciate it when the camera is moving in a way that is physically impossible or the shot is saturated with computer-generated imagery. It robs what few practical elements exist of weight and gravity, underscoring how easily they could be manipulated in postproduction.

This isn’t just a problem with the big action scenes. The movie opens with a charming prologue that explains the love story between Wenwu and Jiang Li. Wenwu is travelling through a bambo forest when he comes to a clearing. He sees a woman sitting at a pool. The two fight. They flirt. They move gracefully, their choreography becoming a dance. It’s elegant. It’s charming. Perhaps the closest point of comparison in American cinema is something like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Flirting with danger.

However, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon had a tactility that is sorely missing from Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. When the characters in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon moved through bamboo forests, those bamboo forests seemed like they real – even if they were just props on soundstages. They had mass and substance. In contrast, when the bamboo moves around Wenwu and Jiang Li, it looks fake and blurry. It resembles a cartoon rather than anything with weight.

This is a deeper problem with the film. The whole premise of Shang-Chi as a character is that he is not a normal superhero. He is a martial artist and a spy. He doesn’t need energy blasts or magic artifacts. He’s good enough at martial arts that he has earned his place among these heroes. Ed Brubaker and Warren Ellis drafted him into the Secret Avengers, while Jonathan Hickman folded him into the main Avengers line-up. He is a mortal man, and the fact that he stands alongside characters like Captain America and Iron Man says something important about who Shang-Chi is.

However, the Marvel Cinematic Universe cannot seem to understand this. The climax of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings finds a character known as “the Master of Kung Fu” squaring off against one of the greatest actors in the history Hong Kong cinema, and just asks them to fire generic blue and orange energy blasts at one another. It then descends into the sort of generic computer-generated noise that seems to be the climax of every modern Marvel Studios production, with any humanity quickly lost to numbing spectacle.

Perhaps the eponymous ten rings are the weakest aspect of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Once again, it’s weird how the company seems so strangely uncomfortable with jewelry that could be coded feminine. Guardians of the Galaxy famously rebranded the “Infinity Gems” from the comics to the more masculine-coded “Infinity Stones.” Here, the “ten rings” are not jewelry worn on the holder’s fingers, as is traditional in the comics – presumably because that would be too feminine and make it difficult to market toys to boys.

An unhealthy glow.

The rings also don’t have any specific powers like the ability to create darkness or obsession. Instead, they just fire generic energy blasts like Iron Man’s repulsers. It strips any of the magic or interest from the concept in favour of stock superhero movie nonsense. To be fair, there’s no reason why the movie should use the ten rings at all, but it’s interesting how eagerly the movie bends over backwards to fold in the outdated clichés associated with the Mandarin, but balks at the idea of letting the character wear rings on his fingers.

More to the point, the use of the ten rings in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings plays into the recurring preoccupation with power as an end unto itself within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The structure of the story seems to suggest that the rings corrupt their wearer. Wenwu uses the rings to conquer and invade. When he falls in love, he takes the rings off and lives a good family life. When his wife dies, he puts the rings back on, and proceeds to alienate his family and become an inhuman monster. The rings play as a metaphor for addictive or self-destructive behaviour.

The central theme of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings would seem to be that power corrupts and that nobody should wear the rings. Of course, the film cannot commit to this idea. Just like invasion of civil liberties was only bad when kinda-but-not-actual-Nazis did it in Captain America: The Winter Soldier or how assembling the Infinity Stones was only bad when Thanos did it in Infinity War, it turns out that having the rings is only bad when Wenwu uses them.

The rings ultimately provide redemption for Shang-Chi. They make him powerful enough to become a major player in the CGI-driven climax. This is frustrating. The main appeal of Shang-Chi as a character is that he is just really great at martial arts. He is so good at that stuff that he is an Avenger. So why does he need magic rings? Why isn’t he good enough as he is? After all, one of the central points of both The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron was that Natasha and Clint were good enough to be on the team without any top-tier superpowers.

Helicopter parenting.

That said, there is something interesting in how the third act of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings feels like a weird re-appropriation of Iron Fist, albeit on a more significant budget than Netflix would ever allow. In the broad strokes, the climax of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is built around elements from the more conventionally superheroic Iron Fist mythos: hidden cities, buried dragons, mystic histories. After all, the village of Ta-Lo has no real association with Shang-Chi’s comic book history, but feels more like Kun Lun from The Immortal Iron Fist.

There’s certainly some value to this, given how much of Iron Fist was rooted in cultural appropriation. However, like so much of the re-litigation of Iron Man 3, it never feels like Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings knows what to do with any of this stuff once it has it. It really just feels like crass opportunism. After all, Danny Rand was a much more conventional superhero than Shang-Chi. Danny Rand had actual superpowers. Danny Rand worked with an organisation called “Heroes for Hire.” Danny Rand had dragons and mysticism.

The reappropriation of these elements traditionally associated with Iron Fist doesn’t feel like an overdue reckoning with decades of cultural appropriation. Instead, it feels like a cynical calculation to strip out many of the elements that made Shang-Chi unique, to transform the character from a unique and distinct part of the shared universe like Blade into something much easier to commodify and package alongside characters like Black Panther or Captain Marvel. It’s frustrating, taking a character that should stand apart from so many of the contemporaries and reducing him to a “one size fits all” box.

Then again, this is what is so frustrating about Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. It’s that the character seems trapped and confined within the demands of the larger universe, the company’s brand management and the perceived expectations of Chinese censors. None of which let the character find his own voice or tell his own story.

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