Despite Pessimistic Rumors, Shang-Chi Delivers Both Heartfelt Storytelling and Box Office Success

Young Shang-Chi and Wenwu
Image Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

There was a lot of chatter leading up to Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings. Cast and crew were raving about it, the usual suspects were penning sight-unseen takedowns based on leaked scenes and set photos, and people, in general, were split on whether this film was going to bomb or blow up at the box office. After seeing it, let me tell you that if this is the measure of Marvel’s Phase IV, we’re all in for a treat. Shang-Chi is AWESOME. 

I had a talk with myself before going to see Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings. The MCU has been so consistently awesome (barring the occasional Thor: Dark World) that I’ve been nervous about Phase IV, which represents a major shift in both cast and storylines. The Marvel TV shows have been great, and we all loved Black Widow, but… I mean, Shang Chi is the first new hero in a while to be introduced without a supporting cast of established heavy hitters.

Think about it. Monica Rambeau had Wanda and Vision (plus some fan-favorite supporting characters). Sylvie had Loki. Kate Bishop will have Clint Barton. Shang-Chi is an origin story, though. As much as it incorporates other MCU characters in cameos and background roles, it has to establish its characters on its own. 

It’s a lot of pressure. I had expectations that aren’t fair to lay on a movie going in. There’s danger in expecting too much of a fandom film. If you build things up too high, a perfectly fine comic book movie can seem like a huge letdown. I didn’t want that to happen with Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings, so I stuffed all my hopes for the film into a tiny little box as I bought my snacky-smores and sat down.

I couldn’t tell you if it helped. All I know is, I had so much fun watching this movie that I don’t remember what I was worried about.

Shang-Chi finds a perfect balance between honoring the established MCU and finding a new way forward. It’s probably the best film so far when it comes to showing how people have adapted to living in a world with superpowers and alien attacks and half the universe being Snapped out of existence, then back in.

Shaun and Katy hanging with friends
How awesome is it to see healthy male-female friendships? Even if the films take it in a romantic direction later, right here they’re just really good, healthy-for-each-other friends and I’m living for it.

For example, there is a scene early in the movie where Shang-Chi (played by Simu Liu) is eating with friends.  They give him a whole speech about how people can vanish at any time and he should make the most of every moment. Little touches like that make you think about how much the Snap changed everything. 

On a lighter note, there are other references to the strange world everyday people live in inside the MCU. When a superhero fight breaks out on a bus people are scared but also live-streaming. They’re a lot more willing to cooperate with unexpected superheroes. This is life for them now: bad guys appear, a hero stands up from somewhere to fight, bystanders move out of the way or help as needed. Just a fun story to tell at the office holiday party when Janet trots out the “Captain America saved my life during the Chitauri attack” story for the hundredth time. 

Something else this movie does really well is keep Shang-Chi in the Hero role while also giving side characters meaningful story arcs and development. Xialing (played by Meng’er Zhang) starts as a resentful, wary abandoned daughter and sister who has carved out an empire through sheer force of will. As the story progresses the sexism she experienced under her father’s rule is acknowledged, then gently moved aside to make room for her to own her strengths. By the end of the film, she’s secure in her power as the heir to Wenwu’s empire without that feeling rushed or forced. Shang-Chi takes the mystical inheritance, Xialing handles the material side.

Katy gets a solid B-plot as well. We get a lot of insight into her life as a Chinese-American who’s balancing both parts of her heritage. I felt sympathy for her when she has to admit that she doesn’t speak enough Chinese to follow the conversation. Even as it gives the characters a valid excuse to be speaking English, it pushes that awkward “between two worlds” theme so many of my fellow Americans experience in their daily life.

Not being Chinese-American myself, I don’t want to talk over those voices. I will direct the curious towards a couple of my favorite articles on the subject, one in Time and another in USA Today

I didn’t realize how big a role Awkwafina would have here, but she’s built up as someone who will be a major supporting hero. Watching her find her strength without losing the spirit that makes her special was a real treat. Bonus points to the scriptwriters for giving her a very difficult but not impossible task to fill in the final fight. That was a pivotal shot and no one else was in a place to take it- but the neck was a very large glowing target with a wide margin of error. It’s realistic that she could hit that as a novice archer. 

Even Razor Fist gets a little expansion. I saw him as a stock gimmick villain at first, but he has a nice little trial by demonic fire and comes out more interesting. I get the idea from the final scenes with Xialing that he played a role in cementing her role as Heir. She clearly has the force of character to take it anyway, but it had to have been easier with the support of one of Wenwu’s lieutenants. 

All of this happens without taking the shine off Shang-Chi. We get the full impact of his journey, with the inclusion of those other storylines serving to highlight his struggle to define himself. He’s the product of both his parents, but also his own person, and he has a hard time figuring out what that means for him. He moves through his story with a few steps back, then forward again, and you really feel every moment. Part of that is due to Simu Liu. He is just an astoundingly good actor in general, and he’s given all of his considerable talent to portraying Shang-Chi with heart and intelligence. 

I love that Shang-Chi gets a chance to call Wenwu out on emotionally abandoning his children in pursuit of vengeance. The trope of “grieving father ignores his children after losing their mother” is one that can feel stale and frustrating when not given space. We get that space here. You see that land on Wenwu’s face, and it informs what he does afterward.

Shang-Chi Screengrab courtesy of Marvel Entertainment
This was such a dreamy fight scene to watch. Bright colors, exaggerated movements, butter-smooth wirework- overall like something you’d see in a really good play.

There is one part I was concerned about, and that’s Li’s death. It’s a pretty necessary part of the story and the movie couldn’t happen without it, but I was concerned about Fridging.  In my opinion, Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings avoids falling into that trap. Yes, Li dies defending her children, but her life is celebrated instead of only using her death to spark the story. Her influence on Wenwu, Shang-Chi, and Xialing is felt constantly throughout the film. In the end, it’s what gives Shang-Chi the edge to beat his father.

It’s also what changed Wenwu enough to recognize the need to save his son over himself in his final moments. If Li had never inspired him to turn away from a millennium of tyranny, he wouldn’t have understood that there were two problems of his own creation: Shang-Chi was in danger and he, Wenwu, was also a danger. By passing on the Rings rather than fighting the soul-eating beast himself, he solved both problems.

That’s a lot of words to say, Li’s legacy wasn’t violence but love and self-awareness. It means something.

I could probably write a three-word review for this movie with just that: it means something. In a time where Asian-Americans are being reviled by plague cultists (you know who), this movie holds them up as heroes. It has excellent representation of women and people of color. The choreography is beautiful, the dialogue is a lot of fun, emotional beats are given the space they need to resonate, and everyone involved seems to be giving Shang-Chi their best effort. 

It means something, and I’m pretty happy with the direction the MCU is going now. We’re in good hands. 

A few more things I want to call out before I wrap this up:

  • The kid who plays Shang-Chi as a child- Jayden Zhang- is someone to watch. He conveys a lot of emotion with just a few small facial changes or a long hesitation. It lends the moments where he does react more weight and impact. That kind of subtlety so young hints at a ton of innate talent. 
  • I love, love, LOVE the fight scene between Wenwu and Li. It’s got a dreamy, fairy-tale sort of feeling to it, which makes sense as it’s a memory of a story young Shang-Chi was told. Later fights have more of a visceral, immediate feel that’s also good… but that first one is just gorgeous.
  • Does Wong break into the Raft to train with the Abomination on the regular? Can you imagine the guards there just going, “Okay, well, that wizard’s taken Blonsky again. Should we call Dr. Strange or just wait a few days?”
  • Bus Boy is an absolutely terrible name for a superhero. I see why Shang-Chi is just going to use his own name going forward. 
  • How much do you love that, despite everything, Shaun and Katy are still BFFs who make bad life choices about bedtime and alcohol? I had a fear the movie would go down the romance path. While I’m not against that in the long run, I don’t really think either of them is in the right place for romance right now.
  • Bruce Banner looks like Bruce Banner again. What’s going on with the Hulk? I see the sling so obviously, there are lingering Gauntlet effects… could those be wider-spread than we thought? I assumed he’d be backing out of the active hero lineup because Bruce is exhausted and heartbroken, but maybe not. 

So far Shang-Chi is killing it at the box office. Based on the Thursday take of $8.8 million and $25 million in Friday earnings, it’s looking like it will comfortably break the Labor Day Weekend opening totals. Just to be safe, though, I’m going to watch again Sunday night. Probably again next month when it drops on Disney+. 

It was a really good movie. 

Have you had a chance to see Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings? Let us know what you think in the comments!

Author: Khai

Khai is a writer, anthropologist, and games enthusiast. She is co-editor (alongside Alex DeCampi) of and contributor to “True War Stories”, a comic anthology published by Z2 Comics. When she’s not writing or creating games, Khai likes to run more tabletop RPGs than one person should reasonably juggle.

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