Written By: François-Noël Vanasse
Last week Disney released All Hail The King, a “Marvel One-Shot” originally available as a special feature on the Thor: The Dark World DVDs, onto its streaming platform Disney +. This act seemed to effectively canonize the conceit of the One-Shot directed by Drew Pearce in which Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley) aka The Mandarin is freed from prison by an acolyte of “the real Mandarin” masquerading as a journalist (Scoot McNairy). Back when it was released in 2013 Iron Man 3 directed by Shane Black attracted controversy from fans and journalists for its exploitation of a classic Marvel comics villain, and Iron Man arch-nemesis The Mandarin, a throwback to the days when yellow-peril bad guys were socially acceptable. The film’s marketing suggested Ben Kingsley and the creative team had taken the character in a different direction, capitalizing on the “Ten Rings” featured in Iron Man (2008) as largely middle-eastern in origin. The film’s release however revealed that the so-called Mandarin was in fact a sham created by the film’s actual villain, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), to distract the world from his villainous machinations. While the degree of secrecy with which the sham was maintained was clearly praiseworthy, fans of the comics and the highly anticipated Mandarin-Iron Man showdown were sorely disappointed. The aforementioned one-shot offered salvation that the character of the Mandarin, and his magical rings of power, would one day see justice within the MCU.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) is the film which delivers finally on this delayed promise. Normally these MCU reviews begin with describing the author’s personal relationship with the material being adapted. Growing up with Saturday morning cartoons featuring Iron Man or Spider-Man makes relating to those characters fairly easy. Shang-Chi on the other hand comes from a less well-marketed side of the Marvel comics properties. Aside from a brief mention here and there the character remained relatively unknown to me. Untethered from any sort of preconceived continuity or baggage the film must therefore stand on its own as all films should. The question then becomes what Shang-Chi is trying to accomplish and whether it met those goals.
This Marvel film is the first origin story in quite a while. For die-hards, this film feels like the sequel to the Infinity Saga which came to a close with Endgame (2019). But for the studio and for casual fans this film marks the beginning of a whole new adventure. It’s interesting to compare this film with Black Widow (2021) which shares many of its themes and difficulties. The troubled childhoods, the estranged siblings, the sinister criminal patriarch, and the journey of self-discovery that ends with the promise of new adventures. Like Widow, the Shang-Chi film struggles a bit to get started. There’s an origin story of sorts for The Mandarin renamed here Wenwu (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) and the rise to power of his medieval criminal syndicate, as well as his love affair with Shang-Chi’s mother, Ying Li (Fala Chen). Afterwards we meet an adult Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) working a dead-end job in San Francisco with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina). After being assaulted on a bus in broad daylight by Ten Rings thugs, Shang-Chi and Katy travel to Macao in search of Shang-Chi’s sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) . All three end up captured by The Mandarin and his thugs and locked away in his mountain compound. But lest you think the movie is now finally ready to begin, have some patience for, after a brief interlude, the gang escapes the compound and ventures on their own to the mystical land of Ta Lo, the birthplace of Li and a magical land of tai chi and mythical beasts. Here the siblings meet their aunt Ying Nan (Michelle Yeoh) and all is finally revealed. With the pieces in place the Mandarin’s forces attack, Shang-Chi confronts his father, discovers himself, defeats his father, kills the monster, and saves the day.
It’s a bit of a long walk to get where the filmis headed. The action choreography goes down smooth even if some of the scenes are lit a bit unevenly. Everybody looks like they know how to fight and the fantasy elements are well integrated. The good guys on the run from the bad guys who get kidnapped by the bad guys anyway is not a trope I find particularly enjoyable but it’s apparently what was needed to get us through that act break. Shang-Chi also leans into a medieval fantasy aesthetic somewhat reminiscent of Thor (2011) but with elements from Chinese mythology and martial arts. Despite a Ten Rings assassin being shown wielding a sniper rifle and chemical explosives in the film’s opening sequences the Ten Rings goons throughout the picture are only shown wielding “high-tech” versions of melee weapons. Some kind of electric taser crossbow appears in the final act but guns and bombs seem to be so-last-century.
Shang-Chi is also rife with subtitles, unusual for an American blockbuster, where at best the bad guys speak in subtitles. Not a word of English is spoken for the first 15 minutes of this film. It’s quite a choice and one hopefully audiences will respond to. One can’t help but wonder if this, aside from possibly a ploy to lure in the coveted foreign market, is an attempt to allay the concerns that popularizing Shang-Chi is retreading some fairly racist history on Marvel’s part. The Mandarin is a fairly unambiguous yellow-peril era villain, at the very least the comics version was an homage to older films featuring such villains. In the comics Shang-Chi’s father and mentor was named Fu Manchu, also an evil immortal wizard, and Shang-Chi’s only power was “kung-fu”. There’s a lot of ground here steeped in some uncomfortable history that people might object to the very concept of trying to redeem. Similar concerns towards Iron Man’s alcoholism, Ant-Man’s domestic abuse, or Captain America’s apparent jingoism are frankly dwarfed by both the sincere desire by audiences to see an Asian superhero and the complicated cynical ground a corporation like Disney/Marvel has to walk to make that happen.
By now it’s clear audiences are absolutely ready for Shang-Chi to become as commercial a star as ever there has been. For audiences this is a breath of long overdue fresh air and for Marvel this is the ignition of an entirely new revenue stream for a C-list character and crucial inroads into what must clearly be an untapped market. This is the bedrock on which Phase Four is set. At the end of the film a repeat cameo by Wong (Benedict Wong), and surprise appearances from a de-hulked Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), and Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) invite Shang-Chi into the MCU. This gives Shang-Chi the seal of approval while reminding audiences that Tony Stark and Steve Rogers weren’t the only superheroes in the MCU. We can all look forward to new adventures featuring these guys. Doctor Strange, though not present in these scenes, will be back in the next Spider-Man and his own standalone featuring Scarlet Witch. Captain Marvel is coming back for both the television show Ms Marvel and the future Marvels film. And you better believe Bruce Banner is going to pop up in She-Hulk at least once and they do keep threatening to release a standalone Hulk movie again someday.