Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings – A New Kind of Fable

Hi fellow Marvel nerds! I have some thoughts on the MCU’s latest addition, and I’d like to share them. Spoilers ahead, as I have many small details and connections to analyze

This latest addition to the MCU follows Shang, a Chinese-American 28-year-old, living in post-Endgame San Francisco and working as a valet. When his estranged father and sister attempt to reunite with him, he and his best friend Katy must navigate a new mythical world, family tensions, and their own emerging identities as heroes.

The narrative structure of the film is interesting. Much like Doctor Strange, it begins in a typical urban setting, with the protagonist’s life starting to unravel. But midway through act 2, the setting shifts to a magical fantasy land, akin to James Cameron’s Avatar. This blend of fantasy and urban action is more seamless than other Marvel attempts, and the two worlds are less divided.

Characters

Shang’s name may be in the title, but he is not Marvel’s most engaging or charismatic protagonist. He’s lost and confused most of the time, which the audience can relate to. He has a sense of duty and direction, but it changes and shifts through the film, as opposed to the unwavering mission of heroes like Steve Rogers. Shang is a hero for the modern age; he is one of us. While T’Challa had an entire kingdom to inherit, as well as a sterling character and diplomatic poise, Shang is making his own scrappy way in the world.

Katy, played by the ever-hilarious Akwafina, fills a new role in the MCU. Katy is Shang’s best friend of a decade, and only his best friend. The complete avoidance of rtomance allows both characters to focus on their personal growth, which is a refreshing thing to see in the MCU. Katy jumps headfirst into Shang’s bizarre world, before realizing she has no idea what she’s gotten into. Her hero’s journey is equally important as Shang’s, and one could argue they share the narrative role of “protagonist”.

Shang’s sister Xu Xialing is an amazing badass and I want to be her when I grow up. Her arc involves leaving home at 16 and immediately starting an underground fight ring. To Katy’s amazed reaction, she simply replies “If my dad won’t let me into his empire, I’m gonna build my own.” Her independence is admirable but nuanced; she’s clearly repressing grief and anger at being left behind by her family. While she never fully gets a chance to process her trauma, Meng’er Zhang’s performance conveys depths of emotion that beg to be unpacked in sequels. Her character is akin to Mordo from Doctor Strange; a passionate but wounded soul who could cause severe damage if they get far enough down the wrong path.

As the patriarch of this dysfunctional family, Wenwu is the villain by default. I simply and deeply despised him during my first viewing, but the second viewing showed more complexity in his character. Yes he’s an ancient immortal warlord, but he is also a grieving man who needs therapy. He’s bad, but nuanced. I do think it was unfair that neither of his children got the justice/closure of personally killing him.

I would be remiss if I didn’t give a shoutout to Ben Kingsley’s comic relief as bemused actor Trevor. He and his furry faceless sidekick Morris add plenty of laughter and heart to this intense story.

Cinematography

Off the bat, I thought this movie leaned too heavily on direct verbal exposition. The action movie trope of “parent explaining lore to children overlaid with cool visuals” is effective, but is it entertaining? I think Aquaman pulled off this trope best of all the action films I’ve seen. Shang-Chi adds an interesting layer by speaking Mandarin. authentically honoring the story’s cultural context. This makes the exposition somewhat more engaging, but it still slows down the pace of the story. The story also lags during the “classic training montage” of the third act, although the stunning visuals are better at engaging the audience.

One of the other unique elements of this movie is the elegance and variety of the combat scenes. When Wenwu (Shang’s father) and Ying Li (his mother) meet in a mythical forest, their initial test battle is more akin to a lovers’ dance, with long shots highlighting their grace. However, when Shang reunites with his sister Xu Xialing, their reunion boxing match conveys their strained relationship. In typical marvel movies, all of the “good guys” are working together to fight bad guys, and the fight scenes adhere to a traditional format. The fights between Shang and Wenwu are an interesting blend of martial arts and traditional “action punches”. Overall, the film did a good job of varying the action sequences and honoring cultural traditions.

While every action movie has an epic final battle, the third act of Shang Chi had a uniquely mythical and spiritual element. Most “action battles” can be seen as allegories of the larger ongoing fight between good and evil, but I drew several direct parallels between this film and the Book of Revelation in the Christian Bible. The presence of a lion and two dragons rang a familiar bell, along with the depiction of souls as small rainbow balls of luminescent energy. I do not know what Chinese mythology or folklore the film may have alluded to, but I plan on learning more about this.

Within the cultural context of the movie, I noticed some interesting color choices in the third act. During the final battle all of the Talo soldiers wear red, except for Xu Xialing who wears white. Additionally, the film clearly distinguishes Wenwu’s gray, bland compound from the vibrant colors of Talo. These vibrant colors and sharp contrasts enhance the fantasy elements of the film, and vice versa.

Concluding Thoughts

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings proves why Marvel leads the action movie industry. With some interesting twists on a classic plot structure, Marvel reuses and improves upon favorites like Black Panther and Doctor Strange for a fun adventure that values internal and external journeys equally. 9/10 for entertaining characters and engaging cinematography. One point lost for the lack of justice in Wenwu’s death. I recommend this for Marvel buffs, date nights, and family movie nights with teens.

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