"I told my henchmen they couldn't kill you if they tried. I'm glad I was right." - Xu Wenwu
It’s confession time again.
When I heard that Marvel Studios planned a big screen version of their Shang Chi character, inwardly, I moaned and sighed heavily. Of all their characters… why? I felt it was a weak character with limited potential and out of step with the overall Marvel Movie Universe. It’s true, I felt the same way when I heard about Guardians of the Galaxy – but I hadn’t ever read any of their comics. I have read some Shang Chi, admittedly it was way, way back in the day. But still…. (sigh)
Back in the early seventies, around 1973-74, martial arts hit pop culture in a big way, fuelled by the untimely death of Bruce Lee and the release of his last completed film, Enter the Dragon. (Still, incidentally, the greatest martial arts movie committed to film in my opinion). Soon, we had badly dubbed Chinese films packing audiences in cinemas, Kung Fu premiered on prime-time TV and Marvel Comics were keen to grab a piece of the action. As I recall, Shang Chi the Master of Kung Fu was their first such title. The more super powered Iron Fist came later.
I read those first few issues back in 1974, or thereabouts. Basically, Shang Chi was the son of Sax Rohmer’s classic villain of the 1920s Fu Manchu books. He was his father’s finest assassin but chose to ignore his legacy and instead, battle against him and his criminal empire, the Si-Fan.
This is how I remember him….
So, not exactly Marvel Movie material, and I’m not even sure they could even show Fu Manchu these days. Disney and negative racial stereotyping don’t go together very well.
But, I’m not about to miss a Marvel Movie tentpole at the multiplex, so their first screening on opening day was duly booked. 1:20pm, and the screening was surprisingly packed. Reassuringly, the pandemic hasn’t cost Marvel its audience. But as for this particular audience member….
I was hooked within the first ten minutes. Might as well be honest about it.
The Ten Rings I remember in the comics belonged to an Iron Man villain, The Mandarin. The Mandarin operated (remember this was in the sixties) behind the Iron Curtain in Red China and was a ruthless warlord. He wore a ring on each finger and thumb, which bestowed him with incredible powers, thus he was able to build his own criminal empire and plot against the decadent west. He’d found these rings while he was a humble peasant and came across a crashed alien spacecraft.
In the Marvel Movie Universe, the Ten Rings have featured since its beginning. They were the organisation who kidnapped Tony Stark in Iron Man. And, of course they featured heavily in Iron Man 3 which showed us The Mandarin – or did they? It was always left open whether we saw the REAL Mandarin, or was Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley) a decoy?
Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung) is the bearer of the ten rings, whose origins he doesn’t know. (Although they’re more like steel wrist bangles than rings) One of the properties of the rings is a vastly extended lifespan – Wenwu has been alive for over a thousand years. And in that time, he has built up an organisation that has toppled governments (and let’s not forget kidnapped billionaire industrialist arms dealers, tried to kill presidents –basically Fu Manchu, under a different name. But he says he’s had a few names over the years – so it works.) They’re assassins, criminals & terrorists. Eventually Wenwu fell in love with Li (Fala Chen) herself a mystically powered martial arts master – and what an incredibly balletic fight scene when they meet. Li relinquished her powers; they married and had a son and daughter.
In the present day, Shang Chi (Simu Liu) lives in San Francisco and works as a humble parking valet, along with his best friend, the loud and irrepressible Katy (Akwafina – who practically steals most of the scenes she’s in). Katy only knows her bestie as “Shaun” – he didn’t change his name THAT much, which makes it easy for his father’s henchmen to find him. They want a jade pendant his mother gave him, and all of a sudden, the meek, nerdy Shaun is defending himself against a squad of black clad assassins, one of whom has a machete for a hand – to Katy’s surprise.
The chase is then on to save Shang Chi’s sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), who’s running an illegal fight club in Macao and he must face his past if he wants to know exactly why his father wants those jade pendants back – at the cost of his kids’ lives if need be.
But that brief, spoiler free synopsis doesn’t fully do the film justice. In reading it back, it seems like the life and strife of a dysfunctional Chinese family. It’s more than that. So much more. If we thought Mortal Kombat was going to be the fight film of the year, then truthfully, we had no idea what Marvel were concocting. This is truly a martial arts movie with a dose of the Super Soldier Serum pumped in its arm for good measure. It successfully weaves action, comedy, mythology, legend and fantasy into a whirlwind 130 minutes with not one minute wasted. Add to this the talents of the incredible Michelle Yeoh who brings grace and dignity to her every role and we truly have a film that can be considered a successful crossover between the American superhero genre and the Eastern martial arts films. There’s plenty here for both audiences to enjoy.
It fits comfortably within the established Marvel Movie Universe and fixes some dangling plot threads from an earlier film in a very satisfying way. There are some surprising appearances by established major characters, and there are two stings during the final credit roll. We’re being pointed in the direction of dire threats incoming, assuring us that we’ll be seeing both the new characters we’re being introduced to, and our old favourites in action for quite a number of films yet.
For me, personally, it’s made me suddenly optimistic about the future of Marvel Movies and how they’ll move forward now the Infinity Stones saga has been told. I’m even optimistic about the upcoming Eternals – another comic I’ve never read, that’s the basis of the next Marvel Studios offering.
Yes, post pandemic – the future is glowing brightly, like a Tesseract.
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