The Lego Movie combines with The Truman Show, They Live, and TRON.
What They Say:
Martial-arts master Shang-Chi confronts the past he thought he left behind when he’s drawn into the web of the mysterious Ten Rings organization.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
With the Shang-Chi film, I managed to get something that I hadn’t really had since the first Guardians of the Galaxy film – a property I really wasn’t familiar with. I knew the 30th-century Guardians comics but the present-day came after I left reading Marvel Comics and that kind of follows here. I was never a fan but I was familiar with and had some of those 70s Master of Kung-fu comics that the character came from but I never read any of the modern age books. What I was familiar with was several of the cast members, the general basics of the Ten Rings and the Mandarin which has been changed much over the years and in translation here, and a general love of what was going to be presented within here.
I can’t and wont speak to how the film handles the experiences of those within when it comes to Chinese heritage, but the film excels at dealing with the family dynamic and the complicated relationships that come from it. And a huge amount of why it works is in the stellar casting of Tony Leung as Wenwu, a man who a thousand years ago gained the Ten Rings that he wears on his arms. The powers within let him fight like no other but they also essentially gifted him with immortality and other protections. He utilized this for centuries to build the Ten Rings and that resulted in a fantastic classic villainous mountain base that just makes me grin. But, things changed about twenty-five years prior when on the search for more power through a secret village known as Ta Lo, he ended up meeting Ying Li, a defender of the entrance who bested him in battle.
The two fell in love and while I won’t say he renounced his evil ways, he put everything on pause in that world and left it to spend time with her and eventually his son, Shang-chi, and his daughter Xialing. The flashback moments show an incredibly human Wenwu during this where you could see how Ying Li helped him to see more to life and fill a hole in his heart he didn’t know he had. Which is why when she’s murdered by a rival group while he was away that he ends up shifting back to not just how he was, but even harder. And even more traditional, forcing young Shang-chi at age seven to begin serious training and then sending him to kill the man that orchestrated his mother’s death at fourteen. Xialing, on the other hand, was given no due as a girl but she found her own path in watching and replicating the training her brother was getting and going in her own direction.
But that mission is what caused the true split as Shang-Chi fled to American and took on the name Shaun to get away from his family and the memories while Xialing opted instead to build her own empire in order to get what her father would never include her in. All of this is being drawn back together in the present as Wenwu needs the necklaces that Ying Li gifted to them as children because they hold the clue in how to navigate the secret path to Ta Lo. It is, at its core, a fairly straightforward story. Wenwu has been sold a lie over the years of his research into where Ying Li is from and he can’t see past his loss. He does want to have his family back together but in his mind there is no real family without Ying Li being there. Of course, her being dead is complicated but that’s dealt with in an interesting way here.
But it’s when we cross over into the other dimension of Ta Lo that things lean hard into the Chinese mythology. We see in the Marvel Assembled special for this – which I highly recommend – that writer David Callaham was thrilled to finally write a story that was about himself instead of others. It was able to go into talking about the things that they grow up learning about and bring to life as well as the complications of those who were either born in China and left of first-generation kids born overseas to parents from China and how difficult expectations are. The feeling of being of both worlds but belonging to neither is a common theme in comics because it is so hard to find your place when you feel that way. It’s easily accessible and it’s something that all of those in this zone express well here in different ways.
The story builds to a really big ending that thankfully avoids the mysterious cloud or energy being thing and gives us something very engaging to watch as it plays out in a physical way but with a real spiritual component. I loved when Doctor Strange subverted things in his origin film with dealing with his primary villain and while this is a bit more traditional, it feels like it’s special in its own way because of where it takes place, the larger history, and the stakes that are playing out. The film provides for a solid growth path throughout for everyone so that when we do get to the epilogue you see them in these new places but still with the ties to who they were and are. It’s traditional in that it sets up what’s to come but at the same time, it feels complete – not that I want this to be the end by any stretch of the imagination.
In terms of connections, there are the obvious pieces and then some of the fun subtle pieces. Wong and the Abomination are clearly the big obvious ones that you see in the trailers. I also liked seeing Shang-chi visiting Katy’s place and there’s advertisements outside for dealing with post-Blip anxiety. The biggest surprise for me was the discussion Wenwu had about the appropriation of the Ten Rings and the inanity of how Trevor, being used by others back in Iron Man 3, called himself the Mandarin of all things. Bringing Sir Ben Kingsley back for this – his third appearance of the character – was utterly brilliant and unexpected to be honest. His bond with one of the Ta Lo creatures just made it even more beautiful. I can see some feeling some of the jokes about him being a bit too worn into the ground at times, but it just feels like he’s a very well-realized character.
I had spent the year before this film watching Kim’s Convenience where Simu Liu had appeared and the Marvel Assembled special talks more about his past and how it influenced him into this film – not only his first blockbuster film but first film in general. He really captures the right tone of the character with what he’s experiencing and director Destin Daniel Cretton is able to draw out of him the right kind of expressions. There’s a lot that comes through in subtle ways here that really delivers. With Awkwafina, I’m always feeling a bit hesitant with her because she’s been the go-to Asian comedy actor for a few years now and part of me had hoped for someone new to help expand that field. She does a solid job here but it felt like once they got to Ta Lo that they began to realize what they could do with the character and Awkwafina was totally game in the right way.
And you really do have to talk about Tony Leung separately. Marvel has managed to get some great talent over the years that you can imagine would never do superhero movies before so much of what Marvel has become. Tony Leung made a huge impression on me when I first saw Miramax bring out Hard Boiled back in the early 90s. That, along with Chow-Yun Fat and The Killer film drew me into the world of Hong Kong cinema, and Jackie Chan and Michelle Yeoh, who also has a wonderful turn here. But Tony Leung is able to elevate this film almost singlehandedly in his performance as Wenwu. We get the easy scenes of becoming the crime lord that his with the Ten Rings, but when we see his fight with Ying Li, who is subverting all of his energy, and then the shift to husband and father, being playful and loving with all of them, it’s magical. But the weight of that loss is what drives the character and the scenes of that, whether with others or by himself is just so nuanced and expressive that you feel it. It takes him from being a villain to someone that you can completely empathize with. It doesn’t remove the big evil element, nor does it erase all that he did, but it made him the most human character in the entire film for me. I think that he accomplished the character complexity that Tom Hiddleston has managed with Loki but in the space of a single film.
I loved this film. It utilizes its running time exceptionally well to accomplish a lot with a sizable cast that includes some great surprises – especially once you watch the Marvel: Assembled special and realize who is involved behind the scenes as well. Even what they had to do to deal with COVID as only the first act had really been filmed at that point adds some fascinating color to the film. But, at its core, the film as a whole is just fantastic. Marvel has been able to build out to these fascinating areas for a long time, since the first Thor and the introduction of Asgard really, and giving the world this realm and what’s within is almost hauntingly beautiful and something that I’ll appreciate even more on future viewings knowing what I do about what went into it afterward. I’m excited to see where these characters end up as time goes on because they add something a little different to the mix and it’s also great to have more west coast characters because I’d love to see a weird incarnation of West Coast Avengers come to life someday. I can’t recommend this film enough and I can’t wait to be able to buy the Blu-ray for it.
Streamed By: Disney+