22 September 2021

First Impressions: Shang-Chi and the Ten Rings

Here we go again - another Marvel movie! But this one's different...it's Asian! Shang-Chi was a pretty solid entry that is somehow both safe and extraordinary, which is all typical Marvel stuff by now. But I've always rejected that idea, I think these movies are really just movies. But let's get into how great this flick was, with assorted weird moments. SPOILERS abound, ye mateys, ye be warned.

Any way you go about it, Shang-Chi was an odd character for Marvel to pick as the next hero to get the big screen treatment. He's not very popular or well known, and his adventures peaked in the 1970s mostly as Kung Fu exploitation with stock Asian characters and stereotypes. The villain was literally Fu Manchu. Obviously it's a tall order to upgrade this stuff, especially since he's an obvious character to thrust into 2021. Disney, as is everyone, is looking to expand into the burgeoning Chinese market, and wants a Chinese hero to center its next phase on. I suppose that Shang-Chi is the only Asian hero Marvel has? Besides Amadeus Cho or like...Jubilee? So from that angle it makes a lot of sense.

But in-universe it's also a natural play. After Infinity War (2019) blew the wad on just about every hero ever, it's tough to dig up anyone else reluctantly hiding wherever. I guess Shang-Chi didn't feel the urge to join anyone in the final conflict or maybe he just didn't get the memo. He wasn't on HYDRA's secret person list. But the film puts a bow on the Ten Rings organization first presented back in Iron Man (2008), then teased more in Iron Man 3 (2013). I don't think anyone was really looking for answers for these burning questions, that were more a fun reference to the classic Iron Man villain the Mandarin, who is cool but just so damn racist. This is why we can't have nice things. His fun ring powers and magic that ran counter to the logic of Tony Stark's science would have been a great conflict, but c'mon you can't have this dude on the big screen. That's nuts. So instead we got like villain after villain of jealous corporate assholes trying to copy his technology. Great.

Shang-Chi shines a like on Wenwu, who is an immortal conqueror who found ten alien rings that granted him all sorts of fun powers. There is a little bit of Mandarin reference, like they can do things like create shields, fly through the air, shoot energy stuff. Not really any Mento-Intensifiers, though. What's even the point? He falls in love with a secret forest woman, they have a baby, she dies because of his old crimes, he blames his 8-year old son for being a weak baby, trains him to be an assassin, he doesn't like it and they become estranged. There is all sorts of great character work here, especially between the principal father, son, and sister. It's full of regret, delusion, blaming, attempts at redemption, sliding back into evil, oh it's so fun.

This movie does its character work well, but it still falters. Shang-Chi becomes less interesting the more he embraces his destiny, but it was nice to see a hero not so obsessed with quips. It exists in contrast to the What If... series going on right now which seems to have gotten stuck on the quip setting. Just let them be actual characters! It's like when something works once it's driven into the ground and sucked dry for all eternity. But Simu Liu is charismatic, fun, and will be a great addition to this universe. It's another great example of Marvel's fantastic job with casting, the foundation for everything else that works afterwards.

But we already get into problematic territory. It's a weird zone when it comes to Awkwafina's Katy. It's as if they didn't want every female co-lead to exist only as a love interest to give their main heterosexual male hero motivation, and this film works by solidly announcing them as only friends. However, this was maybe not the right time to pull this off, because it tends to feed the stereotype of the sexless male Asian, who is never allowed to have a romantic interest. It feels like addressing surface level stuff, like romance is okay if the characters have agency and desires. We obviously want to avoid Rachel McAdams in Doctor Strange (2016) which is probably the worst of these, but we can have someone be interested in somebody. Maybe I'm just horny.

As for Awkwafina, she's good, but I felt the same way in Raya and the Last Dragon (2021), where her Awkwafina-ness keeps bubbling to the surface above any character she's doing. It was hard to see her as a character and not just Awkwafina. And I don't know if Awkwafina worked in a magical setting shooting arrows at giant Cthulu monsters. This isn't really a new thing, we can argue that the same thing happened with Gilbert Gottfried's Gilbert Gottfried-ness with Iago. And please don't get me wrong, I think it was great that Katy's character arc ended with her decisive action against the Cthulu monster. But she still hasn't found the right vehicle for her Awkwafina-ness.

So, is this thing racist or not? I don't know. Not every Asian American is enthused. It is a nice celebration of another culture, but I get how it's not actually distinctive, just generic Asian, and full of magical Asian whimsy. I also get how I am a heterosexual white dude who shouldn't be planting my opinion in other people's voices. So, maybe see what other people's opinions are? It is assuredly a great step towards representation, but there are still some hang-ups here. So with the understanding of all that, let's just talk about the screenplay, plot, and structural bones stuff (and lore!) and stay in that realm.

As I mentioned, the character works is all very good. There is an ebb and flow to the relationship between Wenwu and Shang-Chi that is all articulated and motivated. And by ebb and flow of course we mean sometimes trying to kill each other, sometimes begrudgingly loving each other. Okay, most of the time fighting. Everyone in the MCU has daddy issues, but this is one of the only movies where the father is actually the main villain. Okay, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017). And yeah, I guess Thanos. Okay, this trope has actually been done to death, but the characters are really nuanced here!

The films starts off great as MCU's kung fu epic. The best scene is probably the bus fight, which is clever, surprising, and oddly comical. We avoid a big laser battle, mostly, but the left turn into the Dweller in Darkness is a bit jarring, but fun. It may have worked better if that was set up in some more coherent fashion instead of throwing it at us as a huge existential threat so late in the film. There are again easy parallels with Dormammu here. Except they do get to fight this one.

Lastly, there are all kinds of weird implications for the universe. These Rings may end up being a pretty big deal. Why on earth was Wong training the Abomination? I am happy someone finally acknowledged that the Abomination is one of the few villains still alive and kicking in this universe. Just more 2008 throwbacks. It's all fine, although I still find myself a little exhausted and struggling to care about new people in this universe. My hype for The Eternals (2021) is at an all-time low. When does Moon Knight come out?

I have to compare a little bit to Black Panther (2017), because obviously, minority MCU heroes are such a rare thing (and Shang Chi definitely got dusted. Only white people and Rhodey remained). But really it felt very similar in establishing a whole secret world in another country, where the hero was this prince of destiny, in some fashion. I'm wondering when they will feel comfortable giving a minority hero an American story, or is America reserved for white people?

Shang-Chi was an enjoyable romp full of competent movie-making, great action scenes (yes, it beats Black Widow [2021], which may have been the previous high bar). It doesn't quite match the lofty heights of the best MCU films, but it's far, far from the bottom of the barrel. It works well as an origin story that evolves organically and sets up some interesting points to keep spinning in the future.

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