Midlife Crisis Crossover has dozens of unwritten rules and three or four written ones. Among the latter that longtime readers might recall: every film I see in theaters gets its own entry. Some entries get procrastinated longer than others, but sooner or later their turn will come, no matter how much I curse myself for establishing that stupid rule.
I saw Marvel’s most recent extravaganza Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings way back on Labor Day, the day after we got home from our big Dragon Con weekend. Even before I saw it, I knew its entry would have to wait while I prioritized getting our hundreds of D*C photos online ASAP, in case anyone cared about those. As with all my 2021 writing ideas, that 12-part saga took longer than expected to work through, so Shang-Chi had to keep waiting in my mental condo’s green room with our vacation photos, every book I’ve read since February, and In the Heights. To be candid, though, D*C wasn’t the only reason I put it off.
I’d been looking forward to the Marvel Cinematic Universe hopefully giving us The Greatest Martial-Artist Super-Hero Film of All Time, which may have been the wrong wish. In the old days Marvel had a habit of creating new heroes to cash in on various crazes, often years late to their respective parties. Ghost Rider was Easy Rider set on fire, Dazzler was the product of elderly men who missed disco’s obituary, NFL SuperPro was for the six jocks who read comics, and Shang-Chi was the star of Master of Kung-Fu, Marvel’s answer to the 1970s martial-arts craze. Parts of it haven’t aged well, such as his name, his karate-class costume, and his status as the son of the notorious Fu Manchu. (Copyright complications with the latter, a creator-owned embarrassment of a property, mercifully helped sever that link.) Nonetheless, it stood to reason Shang-Chi might still be formidable with the fisticuffs and could make up for dozens of choppily edited, lackluster costumed melees we’ve been handed over the years.
That expectation was met for the film’s first half. Then the cosmic lords of the great Marvel Cinematic Universe asserted their dominance and the second half pivoted to conform with assembly-line standards. I had been really, really hoping to enjoy it in toto and write a glowing review and sing in harmony with the majority at large and maybe even fit in somewhere for once. If only they’d split it into two films, I’d happily have endorsed Shang-Chi: Part One.
So, about the film we did get: once upon a time in a secret Asian land of mysticism, a child who would become Our Hero was trained in esoteric forms of hand-to-hand combat until evil forces sparked internecine squabbles that drove him to abandon his friends and the life he’d made. He journeys to America, where he hopes to find peace and a place to call home, but those same evil forces with their petty grudges follow his trail, ruin his new life and drag him back into The Game. When an entire evil army amasses, can he and his newfound American friends penetrate the secret Asian land’s weird mystic entrance and foil their scheme? And can he survive one final fight with a man who was once like family to him?
That was also the entire plot of Netflix’s Marvel’s Iron Fist. There’s also a great Image Comics series called Fire Power that changes up a couple of factors but largely follows the same pattern. I presume the same holds true for hundreds of ’70s films that I haven’t seen and Quentin Tarantino has watched a dozen times each. If Shang-Chi had simply followed the Iron Fist template through its entire run-time but done it a hundred times better, I’d be thrilled with that, because it would be like Shang-Chi punching Iron Fist in and through his whiny face. For about an hour, it’s on pace to do that.
To his credit, our hero Simu Liu (from the Canadian sitcom Kim’s Convenience) is nimbler, more charming, better dressed, and not working with the showrunner who also ran Inhumans into the ground. In his deep undercover identity as Shaun the Valet, Shang-Chi lives carefree in San Francisco, hangs out with his coworker and best friend Katy (Awkwafina, so good in The Farewell) and never revealing that his youth was spent in an abusive martial-arts boarding school. His happiness is ruined when henchmen come searching for a pair of MacGuffins, one in his possession and one held by his estranged sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), who owns a superhuman fight club overseas. A series of lively set pieces ensue — a great showdown aboard a city bus, some skirmishes at said club, and some acrobatics up and down a series of skyscraper ledges that evoke Jackie Chan’s old Hong Kong works for anyone with a limited frame of reference.
Pulling the string behind the scenes is Shang-Chi and Xialing’s father, Xu Wenwu. He’s not called Fu Manchu and he’s definitely not called the Mandarin, the old Iron Man villain he’s more closely patterned after. The name was previously used in Iron Man 3 but was revealed to be a facade for Ben Kingsley’s daffiest role since Thunderbirds. (We’ll come back to that.) The original comics Mandarin wielded ten rings, actual finger-sized alien rings with one (1) specific power assigned to each one. Now they’re bracelets imbued with the unified magical power(s) of Whatever the Visual Effects Team Felt Like Drawing. As brought to life by the Tony Leung (I’ve seen him in Hard Boiled, Hero, and Infernal Affairs), Xu Wenwu stands revealed as the formerly shadowy leader of the Ten Rings, the criminal organization whose MCU career dates all the way back to the very first Iron Man. He’s haughtier yet more mournful than the average mastermind, confident in his unstoppable powers and convinced in the righteousness of his crusade, which involves using the MacGuffins to invade a magical city called Ta Lo, where he believes he’ll reunite with his wife, whom everyone in the world but him believes to be dead, no matter who he has to kill to do it. Leung, in his first American film, is the best reason to catch the film.
A speedy Sunday test drive through an enchanted forest in a product-placed BMV SUV marks the exact fulcrum when the quest for Not-Shangri-La succumbs to the action-blockbuster gravity well and director Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12) has to steer the ship away from smaller-scale tussles and directly toward…well, what if Seven Samurai ended with a moderately massive Lord of the Rings army battle. Mythical critters also join the fray, running the full gamut from cutesy sidekick merch to Final Boss kaiju. Of course there are training sequences to arm and embolden the goodly pacifists of Ta Lo (led by a mirror-universe Michelle Yeoh, not reprising Aleta from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2). Awkwafina gets tired of being an endangered plus-one constantly screaming “AAAAAHHH! AAAAAHHH! AAAAAHHH!” and clicks on the “Mediocre Archery Lessons” button in The Jeremy Renner App. Eventually arrows and creatures and bodies and magic lasers are cluttering the screen at high speeds, some of it literally swimming through the same kind of murkiness I just complained about in my Dune: Part One entry.
But them’s the rules today: every superhero film, no matter how non-super the hero (hey there, Black Widow!), can have nothing less than world-shattering scope or consequences. Around this point I lost interest in what’s become the same old busy, blurring, mostly unreal choreography demanded by studio-executive math that says “more bodies + more EXPLOSIONS = $$$$$”. Their calculations might be accurate, which is pretty cool for the talents involved, but I get resentful paying to watch pictures of equations, like someone flipped an “Upconvert to Ground War” toggle in an MS Excel spreadsheet.
It’s not a major spoiler to note at the end of the day, Shang-Chi doesn’t die and more or less achieves his official superhero form with vague new capabilities that are…I mean, essentially he’s Marvel’s Green Lantern. Not that GL will be using his measly one (1) power ring in theaters again anytime soon, but still. There’s definitely no danger of confusing Our Hero with his 70s incarnation. In my mind, Liu deserved better.
He’s also only a couple of hand-signals away from making him Asian Doctor Strange. Even though we already have one of those. His name’s Wong. In case we forgot, he’s also IN this movie. Special guest star Benedict Wong himself drops in for a few scenes, just like TV characters used to do for launching their spinoffs. Remember when Arnold from Diff’rent Strokes visited The Facts of Life on the flimsiest of excuses, if he even had one? Or when the Golden Girls had to push the cast of Empty Nest out of their own nest? I’m sure behind the scenes it was an awesome hangout. On screen it implies sooner or later all of Marvel’s Asian characters will know each other. Can’t wait to see Shang-Chi and Agent Jimmy Woo share a slick BMV sports-car ride into the Eternals post-credits scenes. Which, okay, admittedly that’d be totally cool if they did and I’ll cheer if they do despite myself. But still.
Meanwhile in the customary MCC film breakdowns:
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Xu Xheng’s head minion is Florian Munteanu (big-bad Viktor Drago in Creed II) as Razorfist, one of the most ill-conceived Shang-Chi villains in his entire comics career and therefore among the favorites. Munteanu has one hand replaced with a sword. In comics, it was both hands. You can imagine the last couple decades’ worth of questions and jokes. Chretton and his concept artists are clearly cowards for not going all-in on Razorfist.
Besides Wong, characters returning from other MCU films include a fleeting Tim Roth, nursing some fight-club wounds and reminding everyone The Incredible Hulk is indeed canon despite its absence from Disney+; and, um, well, the aforementioned Ben Kingsley, reminding everyone Iron Man 3 is also still canon, like it or not. He is, um…well, he’s fun.
How about those end credits? To answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: yes, there are indeed two scenes after the Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings end credits. For those who tuned out prematurely, really want to know, and didn’t already read up on them in a timely manner…
[…insert space for courtesy spoiler alert in case anyone needs to abandon ship before it arrives on Disney+ on November 12th…]
…Wong interrupts another friends’ night out to warp Shang-Chi and Katy off elsewhere to introduce them to special guests Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo sans green skin) and Captain Marvel (Brie Larsen reuniting with her Short Term 12 director). Wong confirms the Ten Rings are vaguely connected to a beacon in space that will someday matter to us. Banner can tell the Rings are more than a mere millennium old. For now, that’s all they got. To be continued in some other Marvel movie! No idea which one. And then Shang-Chi, Katy, and Wong go karaoke. It’s not often an MCU film concludes with an old-fashioned happy-ending party with music. Especially not the Eagles.
Also, the Ten Rings (the mob, not the super-gear) are very much not disbanded despite earlier reports of their demise, by which I mean the part where we thought we watched their demise happen live. One organizational update: Xialing is their new leader and Razorfist is her lead minion. To also be continued, someday, probably!
[UPDATED 11/13/2021: Added a few details that’d slipped my mind in the two-month lag between viewing and typing. Mea culpa.]