Where does the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) go now that Avengers: Endgame (2019) tied up its first few phases with its bewildering use of Infinity Gauntlets and time travel. Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) gave a small taste of what is to come. Yet, it used one of the more famous characters to ever grace comic book pages. Put differently, it was expected. Just like there does not seem to be a Marvel without a Captain America, it would be strange to have their movies sans the familiar webslinger. Thus, who do you turn to when many of the other big names are either killed off or going in other directions with their careers? Be honest, before you saw a trailer for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, how many of you had heard of this character? I have been a fan of Marvel since the early 1990s and while I knew about him, my only knowledge was that he existed. Hence, my first thought when finding out they were making a movie about him was, gee, they must be scraping the bottom of the comic book barrel over at Marvel and Disney. Now that I have seen the movie, I sincerely hope the rest of their films are as good as this one.
The first person introduced in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is not the title character, but rather the undying Xu Wenwu (Tony Chiu-Wei Leung). He is the keeper of the title jewelry, items with legends as to how he came to possess them ranging from being from outer space to being found in a cave. However they were discovered, they possess immense power that he wields for a millennium in creating an empire that became the secret hand behind history. In his quest for more power, he learns of a mythical village in another dimension called Ta Lo, said to contain a special brand of kung fu and enchanted beasts. On his quest to get there, he encounters a woman guarding the entrance named Ying Li (Fala Chen). It is the first time anyone has been able to best him in hand-to-hand combat, and it results in him falling in love with her. Please note here that I am not telling this in the order it is presented in the film. There are a lot of flashbacks, and they usually annoying me. Here, though, it works, but it makes less sense to describe it as it appears in the film. The people of Ta Lo do not trust Xu, but such is their bond that Li agrees to leave with him, giving up her power to start a family. He also puts aside his rings, feeling he has finally found somebody with which to grow old. The result of their marriage is Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) and Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), and a happy family for a brief time. What shatters it is Xu’s past catching up with him. One night while he is away, a gang of thugs come to his home, and Li dies protecting her children. Xu blames himself, and redonning the rings, gets revenge and focuses once more on his shadowy organization. At the same time, Xu begins to school his son in martial arts, hoping to make him his eventual successor. Xu’s daughter is left to learn from watching others. When Xu feels Shang-Chi is ready, he sends the teenager on his first mission. Before Shang-Chi leaves, he promises Xialing that he would come back for her. Instead, Shang-Chi runs away, settling in San Francisco and changing his name to Shaun. He works with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina) as a valet at a fancy hotel. They met in high school and have been inseparable ever since. While he is more serious, she is free-spirited, convincing him to joyride cars they are supposed to be parking, and going out for late-night karaoke. Things are normal until they are attacked on the bus on the way to work, the primary attacker being a giant of a man with a machete for one forearm going by, unsurprisingly, Razor Fist (Florian Munteanu). They are after the medallion worn by Shang-Chi, which had been given to him by his mother in order to help them one day to travel to Ta Lo. Barely surviving the scuffle, but losing the necklace, Shang-Chi and Katy return to his apartment where he takes a look at an unsigned postcard from his sister in Macao. Feeling she is in danger, he decides to travel there immediately, and Katy refuses to leave his side. Once there, it turns out that she has built up an underground fighting ring. She also did not send the mail. Actually, Xu had sent it, hoping to bring Shang-Chi to Asia and capture both of his children. He takes her medallion as well, and uses them to reveal a map that leads to Ta Lo. Xu wants to get there because he believes Li is alive there, and he needs to free her. Shang-Chi and Xialing do not trust their father, and they manage to escape. They take Katy, too, as well as Trevor Slattery (Sir Ben Kingsley), who is a character from Iron Man 3 (2013). Read the review of that to get his full story, though he is the weakest part of the movie. He has befriended a magical creature that helps guide them to Ta Lo. They get there before Xu, and are able to warn the village about Xu’s impending arrival. Still living there is Shang-Chi and Xialing’s aunt, Ying Nan (Michelle Yeoh), who informs them about the real dangers they are guarding. Xu is being lured to the village by a vicious creature known as the Dweller-in-Darkness, who senses the power of the rings and feels they can be used to release it. Once out, it will come to our world to literally devour souls. In the resulting battle, Shang-Chi learns what his mother really meant when she told him that he has the heart of a dragon, summoning one known as the Protector in order to combat the Dweller-in-Darkness’ mini versions of itself, as well as the bigger one. He is also able to defeat his father, taking the ten rings from him, and dad is eventually finished off by the Dweller-in-Darkness. Still, it takes all their efforts, including Katy’s newfound skills with the bow and arrow, to defeat the monster. This is basically where the film ends, though there are a couple of end credit scenes that set up the inevitable sequels.
I enjoyed Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings because it nearly flawlessly combined to things I like separately: the MCU and kung fu movies. Please notice that I specified “kung fu” and not the more generic “martial arts” sobriquet. Marvel has attempted this marriage before with its Iron Fist (2017-2018) Netflix series, not to mention the title character’s, Danny Rand (Finn Jones), appearance in The Defenders (2017) show from the same streaming service. I enjoyed it, but not many others did. I cannot blame them. By all reports, Finn Jones did not put much effort into his martial arts training, and if you know what you are looking at, it shows. As somebody who studied kung fu for a few years, it is something that usually catches my eye. My time learning the original Asian martial art was a special one for me, and it is a big reason why I like to see it done well on the big screen. That is certainly the case with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Where it incorporates references to the MCU is what completes the picture, though some of it could have been left out. It alludes to the so-called “blip” at the end of Avengers: Infinity War (2018), when Thanos (Josh Brolin) snapped half of the people in the universe out of existence. I also like the use of Wong (Benedict Wong) from Doctor Strange (2016). As I mentioned above, though, I felt like Trevor is unneeded. In Iron Man 3, he is an alcoholic actor used to impersonate a terrorist leader known as The Mandarin. In Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, this turns out to have been a pale copy of Xu’s persona, so this all-powerful criminal leader decides to imprison Trevor? It is a very small thing, but it did not add up to me.
That is my only criticism of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Interestingly, my Faith connection to the film also relates to martial arts. As I have journeyed further in my Faith walk, I have become more of a pacifist. I recognize that many of the old reflexes are still there, but I often wonder whether or not I could actually hurt another person if called upon to do so. Film may be the only place left to me where such fancies can be indulged. What struck me about the movie, though, specifically pertains to how Nan teaches Shang-Chi her village’s brand of kung fu. As they spar, he continues to attack with clenched fist, while she is able to defeat him easily with her open hand. It sounds simple upon writing it, but this is quite technical kung fu theory. When you study these moves, or if you pay close attention in movies, you hear many styles of kung fu described by the way the hand is positioned, the kind of “fist.” Entire forms are based solely around the way you contort your fingers, and some are more effective than others. When I saw Nan’s open palm, it reminded me of the orans prayer posture, something I knew nothing of until I encountered Charismatic worship. It is a way of holding your hands in surrender to the Holy Spirit, showing that you are open to however It wants to guide you. Many Catholics do this without realizing it when we pray the Our Father at Mass, and it alludes to how Jesus wanted us to pray in the first place. That is not to say there is any right or wrong way of holding your arms while praying, but it is the openness that is important. Only by giving way to what God wants for us can we be truly triumphant. I feel this is an apt metaphor for why Li and Nan were able to beat Xu and Shang-Chi, respectively.
If you are feeling up to it, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is worth a visit to the theater. I was a bit apprehensive about Awkwafina being in it, but like nearly everything else in the film her humor is blended well into the story. It has everything you want from a Marvel movie, while also bringing in the fresh element of kung fu. There are a few brief curse words in it, and it can be a touch violent, but all in keeping with its PG-13 rating. I gave it a full recommendation.