Shang-Chi and the Legend of Ten Rings Review: How is Marvel’s First Asian Superhero Holding Up?

Picture of By Quynh (Stephanie) Bui

By Quynh (Stephanie) Bui

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings has been making headlines for the past weeks, wowing the world with its entertaining and bad-ass wits and charms. However, as the first Marvel film featuring an Asian superhero (and does it well), the film holds so much more impact not only for the Asian representation in Hollywood but also the Asian community. So as a self-proclaimed film connoisseur, I wonder if the film holds up to my standards and anticipation? 

*Warning: This article might contain some spoilers

Who is Shang-Chi?

I will keep the spoilers to a minimum for those who have not seen the film yet. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings follows the story of the valet driver Shang-Chi (our stock-photo lord Simu Liu), or Shaun (you’ll understand why he has two names), who, alongside his feisty best friend Katy (Awkwafina), is running away from his parents’ expectations. And rightfully so: Shang-Chi’s father, The Mandarin, or Wenwu (Tony Leung), holds the power of immortality gifted by the Ten Rings that helps him conquer the world and start his own assassin army. Shang-Chi’s life takes a turn when he is summoned by his father to carry out a secret mission, forcing him to face his darkest fears and re-examine his identity.

Homage to Asian culture

It is truly refreshing to see such an overwhelmingly Asian cast in a Hollywood blockbuster, featuring Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Tony Leung, and Michelle Yeoh (the legends, if you’re familiar with Asian cinema), and many more. The film’s director Daniel Cretton, who was born in Maui, Hawaii, understood the film’s crucial role in propelling Asian representation in Hollywood: “I never had a superhero who I could identify with when I was a kid, and to be able to have an option for a new generation of kids who look like me or who have a similar background as me, that’s very special.” Shang-Chi is indeed made by Asians, with the cast members heavily involved in its production. Simu Liu, the film’s leading actor, stated how the directors were “receptive to his feedback.” Thanks to this, “[it] all directly impacted the way that [the] story was told and allowed it to be told with the level of nuance and authenticity that it has been.”

What sets Shang-Chi apart from previous all-Asian movies is that it is not exclusively a story about Asians or Asian culture – it is still a pure-bred superhero movie, with Asian elements delicately interwoven into it. The film adopts a unique Asian aesthetic and pays proper tribute to the wuxia genre, capturing its essence through insanely satisfying martial arts sequences. No need for the direct punches, the bloodshed, the gore – Shang-Chi puts a twist on fighting, with every move carefully choreographed to the extent that the sequence resembles a dance performance. This effect was achieved with the director purposefully slowing down the movements to submerge the audiences in the harmony of the choreography. The lack of special effects and the usual extra fluff was further emphasized by Simu Liu, where “[what] you see is what you get.” Growing up, I always stumbled upon Asian martial films, yet I never imagined that one day, Hollywood would be able to capture these cultural elements in such great detail and nuance that nothing feels stereotyped or played up. See, Hollywood, that’s why Asian filmmakers and actors should take this responsibility, not random people who fail to grasp the culture and whatever it entails fully.

Moreover, the film’s soundtrack, produced by 88Rising, an all-Asian music company, also caught the Asian community’s attention, featuring a spectacular lineup of artists such as Rich Brian and NIKI. While most of the tracks are performed in English, some are in Mandarin, and even Japanese, illustrating the film’s efforts to popularize the Asian experience. But what surprised and stood out to most Asians, including myself, while watching the movie is how the characters converse interchangeably in English and Mandarin. As the film features both Chinese-Americans and mainland Chinese, the film embraces its bilingual self, where the cast was allowed to converse in “whatever made sense for the scene.”

Not all heroes wear capes

Shang-Chi goes beyond comedy and skilfully challenges the preconceived notion of a traditional superhero while underpinning the theme of identity. Cretton, the film director, states how Shang-Chi “doesn’t get splashed with chemicals to get his superpower,” taking an indirect jab at other *cough* Marvel *cough* superheroes like Captain America or Iron Man. Shang-Chi had no intention of being a hero as he was running from his past traumas and rejecting himself and only took up the role as the situation demanded of him. He truly is a commoner who trained super hard to be an assassin then tried to escape that vicious cycle that his father wanted him to inherit. The film focuses on Shang-Chi’s journey of re-discovering, accepting, and embracing his identity, both the good and the evil within him. The message is powerful: You cannot run away from who you are, and whatever happened has helped shape you today, whether you like it or not.

The film also features badass, boss-bitch, independent female characters like Shang-Chi’s sister, Xialing (Meng’ er Zhang), Shang-Chi’s mother (Fala Chen), the aunt (Michelle Yeoh), and his BFF Katy (Awkwafina), with me sometimes fixating on them more than Shang-Chi. The introduction of these powerful figures also defies the male-dominated superhero trope, especially in the patriarchal culture of China. My favorite line from the film, spoken by none other than Xialing: “If my dad won’t let me into his empire, I’m going to build my own.”

The lack of depth? 

While the movie was extremely entertaining to watch, I needed to put on my film critic goggles and point out a few missing ingredients. Like many Marvel movies that introduce new characters into the MCU, Shang-Chi cannot escape the curse of over-simplification, which makes sense because these movies tend to focus on the hero’s back story. Therefore, the plot can sometimes be less extensive and well-developed than other cinematic pictures that are crucial to the MCU timeline, requiring less intensive analysis from the audience. But as a viewer, maybe you don’t always need to zoom in on every little detail or hunt all the Easter eggs to enjoy the film. However, to me, it is a bit less mind-blowing than some other Marvel films I’ve seen.  

Yet, due to the simplistic plot, the flow and characters’ action justification were not very coherent. For instance, Wenwu suddenly gave up his whole career that took him years and years to build because he fell in love and wanted to start a family only to, later on, reboot the operation when his wife passed away. Furthermore, he knew where Shang-Chi lived the entire time but decided to let him “live his life,” only to call him back dramatically, resulting in a great but somewhat unnecessary scene. These somewhat contradictory details slightly affected my enjoyment. Moreover, I noticed that the characters tend to verbalize their thoughts and behaviors instead of acting them out. As a film lover who marvels at actors’ non-verbal micro-expressions, this element was missing in the film, making the storyline a bit shallow at times and hindering the deeper exploration of each character’s emotions. Nevertheless, I will gladly exclude Tony Leung from this critique – his eyes spoke wonders, and the subtleness in his actions truly outshone others. 

Lukewarm portrayals

Simu Liu is great as Shang-Chi, no doubt, and I could see that he had poured his heart and soul into making the film. But his depiction of a character that has been scarred by so much childhood and family trauma and guilt is, in my opinion, a bit flat and unsatisfactory. While I understand that the film focuses on action more, I wanted to see more of the emotional growth and mental transformation that Shang-Chi undergoes, rather than learning about his struggles through flashbacks and dialogues. While I could see the pain that Shang-Chi carried, I could not feel it in my heart, which had to do with both the script and the acting. 

Moreover, as a fan of Awkwafina’s brilliant performance in The Farewell, it’s honestly sad to see her typecasted by Hollywood as the loud, quirky side character. While she plays the comic relief character very charmingly (Crazy Rich Asians, Jumanji 2), I just wish that Hollywood would give her more roles with subtleties and depth because she is capable of playing such a role. And in Shang-Chi, despite having a vital role in the film, she still couldn’t escape this trope, which is a real waste of her talent.

“Should I go watch it?”

Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed the film and laughed out loud multiple times in the theaters, and I understand the hype the film is receiving. For me, it’s not disappointing because it hit all the marks I expected. However, from my perspective, it was a bit underwhelming and unmemorable (which usually happens with Marvel’s stand-alone movies anyway). Regardless, I encourage you to see Shang-Chi in the theaters because it is still a very glorious movie that deserves the attention and praise it has been showered with.


Cover: Geekdom Movies

Edited by: Gaukhar Orkashbayeva

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