"Never take off the mask."
"Never take off the mask."

Unmasked: “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”

An Asian Marvel dish

Everyone who’s for some reason still reading this blog knows that Marvel is a very soft spot of mine (and probably will continue to be such while they’re still making movies/series). Maybe that’s one of the reasons why I rarely find the time and the will to write about these movies, simply because it’s way cooler to just enjoy and experience them than write reviews that are almost impossible to be objective. And MCU is already a cult franchise in the history of cinema and the studio definitely knows how to leave small doors open for themselves and prepare their audience for the upcoming franchise development. Therefore every new movies leaves you wanting more and more and makes you feel that you haven’t watched the entire thing which makes even harder the task to write a few paragraphs and encompass all the aspects and references included in such a small part of the puzzle (not that it makes sense to write a review for the whole thing once the last movie ever comes out, though).

In any case it’s a fact that I planned a review for “Black Widow” as well but maybe the amazing mediocrity of the movie stopped me or entirely wiped my desire to invest any time and thoughts in it. Later what I started thinking was: “Oh well, Shang-Chi won’t be anything special anyways, I’ll write a double review and honor accordingly both of them”, but to my surprise, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” turned out to be a hidden gem in the dark corners of the vast Marvel treasury and managed to impress us all. Therefore I decided that the first Asian superhero in the cinematic universe deserves much more than an honorary mention and that’s why in the paragraphs below you’ll read a bit more about Shaun and his fairytale adventures.

Marvel feng shui

And Shang-Chi’s plot is indeed a fairytale. And no, I’m not saying that it’s a perfect and flawless movie but it literally is a colourful and filled with wonders story that’s taking place in an almost heavenly world with weird creatures and small green villages. Destin Creton is relying quite a lot on the chinese mythology and its characteristics and its influence is obvious in every shot of the movie. It takes a sharp turn (much like its heroes at one point during the action) from reality, the normal and dynamic life of the modern world towards the beauty, peace and harmony of the fantasy one, similar to “Doctor Strange”. We can also find some similarities with the first African superhero, i.e. Black Panther, where we see Wakanda which also exists on our planet but is more an utopia and something unreachable for the regular human being. While there we see the latest and greatest and even the impossible as far as technology is concerned, though, here we see the weapons and the tools of the early and middle ages, intertwined with a bit of magic but in a pure fantasy style (not sci-fi) which is a breath of fresh air in the otherwise futuristic setting of the movies in the universe so far.

The fight between a father and a son puts in its ring pocket similar combats such as the one between Scorpion and Sub-Zero from the latest “Mortal Kombat” and that was maybe the only part of that movie which was actually worth it (even from a purely visual and colourful point of view the two are quite alike, don’t you think?).

It won’t be enough to say that in a visual aspect Ta Lo’s world is gorgeous. From horse-like and pig-like mythical creatures through zombie-like gargoyles and, of course, DRAGONS, the nature of this extraordinary reality emits life and creates a breathtaking and somewhat soothing atmosphere even in the more tense moments. The authentic chinese sounds, the whirlwind of leaves, the weapons from dragon scale and the traditional clothes are only a part of the things that are a sight to watch and it’s probably the first time for a long time now when I haven’t really been disturbed by the 3D but quite the opposite, there was a fair amount of moments in which the effect of actually going into the screen was satisfying. The soundtrack is also in harmony with what’s happening on the screen and even Shaun and Katy’s bad singing (but a pretty nice icebreaker, in contrast to everything else) couldn’t ruin the emotion that is creates.

Acting Ma(rvel)stery

And since this time I started reviewing a bit back to front (considering my standard approach when structuring my reviews), I cannot deny that, as expected, there are two main faces that drive the movie onwards and upwards will all types of powers. Simu Liu, although popular rather with sitcoms than with tougher roles until now, manages quite skillfilly to give life to a future hero who can be both concentrated and serious and hilarious and joyful at the same time. The thin sense of self-irony that can also be easily noticed from the actor’s Twitter posts actually shows how dedicated he is to what he’s doing and that can be seen on screen as well. It’s never an easy task to be the first superhero in whatever aspect and it’s a huge responsibility but he does it with an amazing finesse, in spite of all the preliminary expectations and critics towards the tone and the quality of the movie.

And the coolest thing was that Destin Creton has really achieved the yin-yang effect, especially when we have Tony Leung on the other side who complements his younger colleague with the tons of movies and years of experience behind his back and also does a great job in being simultaneously a support, a motive and and an opponent for Liu. Even though they’re a family in the movie, the two of them face off on a couple of fronts, no matter whether we would talk about the understandings of the adult and the youth, the obsession and the rational thinking when striving for the ultimate goal or even the symbolics behind the blue versus orange colour, if you’d like. Both of them have their backs covered, ignoring the fact whether it was acquired by force or not, and still the difference is obvious – Xu Wenwu’s army is soulless (and led by a Romanian with an exquisite name – ’nuff said) and a bit mechanical whereas on Shang-Chi’s side we have a bit more distinguishable support actors led by Michelle Yeoh.

A very pleasant surprise was Ben Kingsley’s appearance who, despite not being the real villain neither in “Iron Man 3” nor here, manages to fit in and clear the atmosphere, bringing in that dose of humour and freshness that would cool down the emotions in an otherwise heated situation. The appearance of Wong and Abomination wasn’t a bad idea too but unfortunately most of their screen time was already in the trailer which kind of numbed down the effect of their arena battle. The final moments of the movie, though, provided more sense and context into what we’ve seen before that so the characters were definitely not only an honorable mention.

Aaaah, the love from first sight (in this case from first fight) … as always, the main driving force behind not only the development of family relationships but also the visible and headlong growth (or fall, for some other) of the main characters.

The female part of the cast is mainly presented by Nora Lum a.k.a Awkwafina (whose name I always read as “Awkwardina”, maybe there’s something right about it) who enters as Katy, i.e. Shang-Chi’s sidekick and handles her part pretty well since her character’s development is pretty positive, although it was a bit predictable (but we’re talking about a fairytale after all, so I’ll let that slide). Her being there means that Xu Xialing is left a bit in the shadows and to be fair, Meng’er Zhang wasn’t really that creative and I saw nothing special in her performance but considering the fact that this was not only her first major role but also probably her first noticeable role in general, even her stiffer behaviour is acceptable.

Marvel fu

It’s a well-known fact that usually the best piece is saved for last so this time I decided to keep this tradition and talk here about likely the most satisfying aspect of Shang-Chi’s legend, namely – the martial arts. Bill Pope’s cinematography is amazing – I’ve watched hand combat in buses before but this one definitely stood out, not to mention the one on the skyscraper scaffolding. The fighting sequences were shot extremely professionally and not in a single case I had the feeling that I couldn’t capture and comprehend everything happening on the screen, it actually was the exact opposite – both in a close-up and in a distant shot I could enjoy every single detail from the kung fu skills of the actors who have mastered it to such a degree that I could easily mistake them for trained fighters (well, it’s not really evident where it’s their performance and where that of their stunt doubles but they still deserve admirations for what they’ve achieved).

From the fighting stance and the respect towards the opponent, through the moves with and without a weapon or magical artifacts, through the smooth transition from one action sequence to another, everything was so well tweaked that it really managed to impress me. Creton has succeeded in greatly balancing between more dramatic scenes, exposing more about the skills and mindset of their hero, and more dynamic ones, filled with much less talking and more traditional Chinese ass-kicking. Having this in mind, the impact of the magical rings is considerably lower and it was also apparent to everyone who will control them at the end, so they could be a bit more creative and unexpected in this aspect, I’m sure it wouldn’t have hurt the story as it unfolds.

I have to note that, however, it is demonstrated to us after all how powerful the superhero weapons are and they get their shining moment in the first bonus scene which answers part of the questions but also asks 10 times more, so it definitely did its job in increasing the interest towards Shang-Chi’s future. And since I mentioned bonus scenes, there’s a second one which was expected to some extent but definitely looked like something that can influence the events which whill happen in MCU in the next couple of months/years.

Final Score: Marvellous!

Shang-Chi’s suit is definitely not amazing and is rather simple compared to other heroes of his category but is actually a pretty good and close representation of its comics equivalent.

After all the pesimism and hate that has poured before the movie’s premiere, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” clears entirely any doubts that it could turn into a failure. Creton’s movie is probably one of the strongest origin stories in Marvel’s universe and deals with ease with other similar heroes’ ensemble expansions  (yes, “Captain Marvel”, I’m talking about you). The plot development and the final/bonus scenes indicate quite intriguing collaborations to follow in the upcoming movies and I definitely look forward to seeing the re-appearance of Shang-Chi and Katy which, as it seems, actually won’t be so far in the future.

Whatever happens, the fact is that, even with a few notes and issues here and there (a perfect movie doesn’t exist, after all), Shang-Chi and his fellows raise the bar quite high for the coming new superheroes (quite soon – “Eternals”, not to mention all the other replacements of the current Avengers that will gradually start appearing) and provide a pleasant and eye-catching movie experience and I keep thinking that this is one of the rare cases lately which actually deserves the time and money spent for going to the cinema. Considering the fact that, even as part of MCU, the movie can still be seen as a completely independent one, I don’t see any reason for it not to be watched even from the more biased of you, so don’t hesitate and directly book your spots in the movie theatres. If not for anything else, at least you’ll help to save your favourite industry and support it so that it keeps giving us the opportunity to enjoy movies of such quality.

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