Marvel awkwardly kicks off Asian representation with ‘Shang-Chi’

Christopher Vargelis

“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” directed by Destin Daniel Crettin and starring Simu Liu as protagonist Shang-Chi, barely passes as an acceptable addition to the Marvel franchise. The film is a performative representation project — the main cast is entirely of Asian descent — that was more of a strategic response to allegations of racism than anything. Fortunately, its focus on Chinese culture feels legitimate, and most of the film’s characters will smoothly integrate into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). 

The plot centers around protagonist Shang-Chi’s family conflict. His tyrannical father, Wenwu, commanded the Ten Rings clandestine army for centuries. Since the Middle Ages, the Ten Rings secretly influenced world events through covert combat. However, Wenwu halts his global conquest after falling in love with and marrying Shang-Chi’s mother. However, after her death at the hand of his former foes, Wenwu returns to his past ways. Following his altruistic mother’s death, a young Shang-Chi escapes from his father’s influence and settles in San Francisco. Adopting the name Shaun, he graduates from high school and works as a valet with his friend, Katy (Awkwafina). When Shang-Chi is attacked by assassins on a bus, he is forced to face the past he left behind and return to his homeland and family in China. This storyline is told in melodramatic flashbacks that resemble ancient fables (think the exposition scenes in “Lord of the Rings”).

Speaking at the 2019 San Diego Comic-Con, Liu promotes the film.

When Shang-Chi is not engaged in combat or awkwardly working through family drama, he is busy satisfying the MCU’s requirements for a Disney-level comedy; a formulaic checkbox that has worked for some movies, namely: “Ant-Man” and “Thor Ragnarok” but ruined others like “Spider-man: Far From Home.” Awkafina’s unfunny and untalented performance as Katy, whom Shang-Chi brings along on the journey to his homeland, ruins certain aspects of the film. Liu and Awkafina are both subpar actors in this film, but Liu at least has an inexplicable charisma that his co-star cannot seem to match, no matter how many jokes she tries to make. Tony Leung stands out as the only exceptional actor in the cast, dominating scenes as Shang-Chi’s cold, complex father. He skillfully conveys Wenwu’s menace through subtle expressions and actions.

For a movie about martial arts experts, the fight scenes are generally boring. Crettin’s unnecessary imposition of excessive Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) in the movie ruins fight scenes that could have appeared more realistic. The ultimate result is a final monster-ridden battle that seems like a low-grade version of “The Hobbit’s” Smaug battle. The only scene in which Liu’s martial arts and choreography skills truly shine through is the bus scene at the start of the movie, which perfectly blends practical effects, an interesting environment and an intense soundtrack to create an impressive scene comparable to Captain America’s elevator fight.

The movie succeeds in generally maintaining itself within the zone of mediocrity that most Marvel movies rest in. The most exciting thing about the movie is its place within the Marvel universe, and how it will influence future films. Seeing Shang-Chi fighting alongside the Avengers, or perhaps even as a member of the team, would make for an interesting feature in future movies. Despite some disappointing cinematic aspects, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is a thematically important movie for Marvel that does its job within the franchise by introducing Shang-Chi and his world, while potentially opening the door for increased representation in the MCU.