Thursday, September 2, 2021

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings - Movie Review

The Movie: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

The Director: Destin Daniel Cretton

The Cast: Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Tony Leung, Michelle Yeoh, Fala Chen, Meng’er Zhang, Florian Munteanu, Ronny Chieng

The Story: Shang-Chi must confront the past he thought he left behind when he is drawn into the web of the mysterious Ten Rings organization.

The Review:
When this movie was first announced, I had high hopes that Marvel would do justice not only to the character of Shang-Chi but also to what he represents when it comes to the Asian community, the culture, and even the history of Asian and martial arts cinema. There is really a lot riding on whether or not Kevin Feige, Marvel, and Disney could and would get this movie right, I mean it could easily fall into the traps of cliché and stereotypes. Before watching the movie, I didn't know a whole lot about the character of Shang-Chi although, as with any of the MCU theatrical iterations, there is always more inspiration from the source material than direct translation so don't feel like you have to read a bunch of comics or do a bunch of internet research before watching the movie yourself.

The story of course takes place within the Marvel universe and there are plenty of connections, nods, references, and Easter eggs although the story absolutely stands on its own with characters that are very well fleshed out and a history that provides a great backstory to build off of. There are a ton of big action sequences as you would expect from a Marvel movie and I was most impressed with the martial arts and fight sequences that were put together for the film. You can tell that a lot of thought was put into every scene and the movie absolutely feels like a culturally authentic martial arts blockbuster production that just happens to also be set within the MCU. The history and culture that the story is immersed in is so beautifully done including the action choreography, the wardrobe, the vibrant color pallete, and also the representation of a nearly all Asian cast in a Marvel movie.

A Marvel movie. That label has meant you are about to see something special ever since Tony Stark first declared himself as Iron Man and Nick Fury mentioned this little thing called "The Avengers Initiative." Even within the elevated status and expectation of the films that fall under the MCU umbrella there have been a few entries that stand out as just a little more special than the rest. Along with the original Iron Man, you will find movies like Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther, and of course the game changer of all game changers, the original Avengers movie as examples of MCU films that have that extra something special.

The reason I bring this up is because I am here to tell you that I am putting Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings right there at that same level and am placing it firmly into my top ten all time MCU movies. Yes, it's that good. It's a game changer for so many reasons. It's a great story. It's a fun movie. Shang-Chi is a fantastic character and is played perfectly by Simu Liu who has immediately cemented himself as a major player in the world of Marvel right as the franchise is diving head first into phase four. Surrounding Liu is a roster of talented actors including legendary performers Tony Leung and Michelle Yeoh as well as rising star Awkwafina who perfectly weaves her naturally comedic personality into the story without stretching too far or leaning too much into her wacky personality.

If you don't know Tony Leung, you should go straight to Wang Kar-Wai's In the Mood For Love which is quite simply one of the greatest movies ever made and you will understand why he is such a legend. If you don't know who Michelle Yeoh is, I'm not sure I can help you at this point. She is the queen, the legend, the one and only superstar. She's basically cinematic royalty and she shows off all of her skills both as an actress and as a martial arts fighter in this movie. I got chills and felt the emotions during a couple of her scenes, especially when she gives Shang-Chi a few training tips. As for Awkwafina, it was great to see her in a role like this where she can provide some comic relief but also stands her ground as an actress. If you haven't seen her in The Farewell, drop everything and fix that right now.

In terms of representation, I can just imagine all of the Asian boys and girls, and men and women for that matter, who will be profoundly affected by this movie just like how Black Panther gave the black community and black culture a huge step forward in so many ways. This is especially important during a time when the Asian American community has been struggling with a country and a segment of the population that has decided to act out in unnecessarily hateful and racist ways. To have a movie like this right now as a celebration of Asian culture and history and representation is just such a good feeling and it makes the movie feel that much more important to the point where I was getting emotional at several different points.

The writing team of Dave Callaham, Andrew Lanham, and Destin Daniel Cretton, who also directed the movie, fills the story with a lot of fun surprises most of which I will say nothing about so you can enjoy them for yourselves. The one thing to note that I feel is a bit of a surprise and something I need to talk about is the performance turned in by Meng'er Zhang who plays Shang-Chi's sister Xialing. She absolutely owns the role from an acting perspective and also when it comes to the action and fight scenes. What's noteworthy about her performance is that it is her debut on the big screen having performed on stage in theater and musical productions. I really hope we get to see just as much of her in future MCU movies as we are sure to see Simu Liu as the title character.

Shang-Chi's arc is of course an origin story and the fundamentals of his hero's journey are very familiar and not anything we haven't seen before, but what makes it stand out as unique and special is everything I have mentioned about the history and culture that the character is derived from. At the beginning of the movie, we see him as Sean, a man who has taken on an American existence and value set while doing everything he can to stay as anonymous as possible, essentially hiding from who he is and how powerful of a human being he can and really should be. The story stresses the importance of family and identity and that's where the heart of the movie lies even as it's wrapped up in a gorgeously filmed super hero, action movie.

The Verdict:
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings kicks Marvel's phase four into high gear with an action packed martial arts, super hero spectacle that is steeped in the culture and history of the MCU's first Asian lead character. Family is at the center of the story which sees Simu Liu bring Shang-Chi to life alongside an all star cast that includes Awkwafina, Meng'er Zhang, Tony Leung, and Michelle Yeoh.

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