Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Back in the 1970s the world went a little kung fu crazy. The likes of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan were huge movie stars, and in 1974 Carl Douglas had a massive international hit with his disco song, “Kung Fu Fighting”. Not wanting to miss out on the craze, Marvel created the character of Shang-Chi, the “Master of Kung Fu”. He first appeared in Special Marvel Edition #15 (December 1973), written by Steve Engleheart and drawn by Jim Starlin.

The character was a bit embarrassing, not in the least part because the Marvel management insisted on making the main villain for the stories be Fu Manchu. So not only were a couple of white guys trying to do a Chinese character, but they were doing so within the context of an existing deeply racist setting.

Fortunately for us, Marvel later lost the comic book rights to the Sax Rohmer properties, and Shang-Chi’s backstory had to be adapted to something more original. The new background reveals that “Fu Manchu” was only an alias for Shang-Chi’s villainous father. The movie takes that idea and runs with it.

Before I get to that, though, I want to note that some of the fight sequences in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings are extraordinarily beautiful. The Black Widow movie based a lot of the fighting moves of the Widows on Russian ballet, because of course you would. But the Shang-Chi movie out-does this magnificently. The early fight sequence between Shang-Chi’s father, Xu Wenwu, and his mother, Li, where they start as enemies and end up falling in love, is extraordinary. Li’s fighting style, also used by her sister, Ying Nan (Michelle Yeoh), is apparently based on Tai Chi.

Meanwhile, back to the plot, and another piece of orientalist garbage that Marvel is trying hard to erase. If you are at all familiar with Iron Man you will know that one of Tony Stark’s main enemies from the comics is a thinly-disguised version of Fu Manchu called The Mandarin. In Iron Man #1 we see references to a mysterious terrorist group called the Ten Rings. Iron Man #3 finally introduces us to The Mandarin, but in a brilliant twist we discover that he is actually a British actor called Trevor Slattery who has been hired by the terrorists to play a Fu Manchu like villain to confuse and terrify the Westerners.

If you can see the connection between that and Shang-Chi’s father playing the role of Fu Manchu, you would be spot on. Xu Wenwu is the secret leader of the Ten Rings, and is a thousand-year-old supervillain. He has trained young Shang-Chi to succeed him, but when the teenager is sent to the USA on his first assassination mission he instead goes undercover and tries to live as an ordinary Asian-American man. Inevitably, his father will catch up with him.

Shang-Chi, calling himself Shaun, lives in San Francisco, where he works as a valet parker for the Fairmont Hotel (the one right at the top Nob Hill in the centre of the city). His best friend, Katy, also parks cars, but is a bit of a speed demon. Her driving skills will be key later in the movie. One day, while on a bus on the way to work, Shaun and Katy are attacked by a gang led by Razor Fist which has been sent to bring Shang-Chi back under the control of his father. This leads to a magnificent extended fight sequence on board a typical San Francisco bendy bus as it races, often somewhat out of control, through the city. This very much references the legendary Steve McQueen car chase from Bullit, including the hopping from one landmark to another despite many miles being between them.

As the action moves to China we discover that Shang-Chi has a sister, Xialing, whom he abandoned to his father’s care. Although officially banned from training due to being a girl, she has taught herself to fight and is every bit as good as her brother. She’s also a lot more streetwise. Xialing’s story is the one false note in the movie. It is clear that she’s been very badly treated by both her father and brother, and the movie doesn’t give her much opportunity for justice because it is all about Shang-Chi. Indeed, despite her fighting with the good guys here, there is some suggestion that she will take her father’s place as Shang-Chi’s principal antagonist in the future.

Having said that, the script does something that I’m keen to see feminist film critics talk about. A key element of the plot is that Shang-Chi’s mum gets fridged. But it is father who takes the motivation from this. Of course Xu Wenwu vows bloody revenge, but while his mother’s murder is clearly a pivotal moment in Shang-Chi’s life, it is not his primary source of motiviation. I think there’s an attempt to do something interesting here, but I need to think it through more.

I should also make mention of Tony Leung, who plays Xu Wenwu. I understand that he’s one of the best-known actors in China. He’s also won Best Actor at Cannes. I’d not really noticed him before, but he’s amazing. I’m in love.

Shang-Chi is played by Simu Liu, a Canadian actor and martial arts specialist. He has a tough job, because the original character was drawn to look like Bruce Lee and Liu doesn’t. However, he has just the right cheeky comedy style that the film needs, and he works brilliantly together with Awkwafina as Katy.

Is that everything? No, because I haven’t mentioned the CGI dragon battle that is the high point of the film. Nor have I mentioned the return of Ben Kingsley as the clueless but charming Liverpudlian thespian, Trevor Slattery. And then there is Michelle Yeoh as Shang-Chi’s aunt. Everything is better with Michelle Yeoh.

In short, I really loved this film. As far as I’m concerned, it is right up there with Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther as one of the best things that Marvel has done. I believe that Chinese diaspora audiences have also taken to it. I do hope that we see more of Shang-Chi (and Katy) in the future.