‘I’ ON CULTURE
The good news is that the latest Marvel film, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, is one of the really top movies in the series. Since none of the films have been flops and only a couple mediocre, that is a very good sign. And this one, featuring an almost all-Asian cast, manages to be both exciting and fascinating, weaving in elements of kung fu, tai chi, Chinese wuxia and mysticism, along with the usual superhero and villain characters.
The film, beautifully directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, begins on an almost mystical note. Wenwu (Tony Leung) is the leader of the Ten Rings Organization, the rings allowing both immortality and the drive for conquest. The one thing he wants is control of an almost mythical village, Ta Lo. Once there, he finds it defended by the beautiful Ying Li (Fala Chen), who uses mystical powers in her fight against him, with hints of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. They have a beautiful battle that starts with incredible violence and gradually turns to what is essentially a love dance. He gives up his evil ways and has two children with her. Then she is murdered, and he returns to his conquests, losing control of both children, who resent his focus on revenge.
His son Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) is hanging out in San Francisco as a car valet with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina), spending his nights singing karaoke with her and generally going nowhere. She thinks he’s a fun goof-off until a squad of super assassins goes after him on a bus, and he turns into an incredible fighter. The scene is a real winner, by the way; great fighting and drama as the bus goes out of control racing down the city’s hills.
Shang-Chi and Katy go to China, where they meet up with his sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), who runs a fight club, and the two combine to protect the magic village from their father. Along the way, the meet their aunt Ying Nan (Michelle Yeoh), who teaches them the fighting form of their mother. And then comes the big battle with all sorts of special effects.
There are several elements that set the film apart from previous Marvel films. There are only a few quick hints about the rest of the Marvel universe, and except for the almost obligatory two after-film scenes during and after the credits, only one of the more or less regulars shows up briefly, although Ben Kingsley manages an interesting comedic character who has shown up once before.
But the film also focuses very heavily on family. As in Black Panther, family drama is both intensely personal and dramatic. The intra-family quarrels are such that motivations become more complex.
The action scenes, often combining martial arts with computer-generated effects, are incredible. The last part of the film is one huge battle, yet it allows for important interactions between the characters, and even incorporates a bit of humor.
The acting is excellent. Leung, one of Hong Kong’s greatest actors for decades, dominates the screen in a really complex performance, showing elements of both villainy and becoming a tragic hero. Liu casually excels both as slacker and warrior. His charm helps carry the film. Awkwafina manages a lot of the comedy well, as might be expected, but also works well in some of the more intense dramatic scenes. She is far more than the sidekick. Yeoh is marvelous, somehow being both a warrior and serene. Zhang, in her first movie role, is good as the fighting sister.
Marvel is not just becoming more diverse by focusing on Asian characters, but also in adding a whole group of strong women to its rolls. And the best part of all of it is that the film is so good you don’t sit and take notice of the change. The performers are all people, their ethnicity is not irrelevant, but they clearly are not different from anyone else. They are simply superb. And they manage it despite many nods to Chinese films and ways of life.
The movie is breaking pandemic-era box office records, bringing people back to theaters. And it is doing it by being a really good film, one you do not want to miss.