On Set: Fists and Jokes of Fury

KHOL film critic Jeff Counts considers what the new origin story of Marvel’s first Asian superhero movie means for the studio’s brand.
"Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings"
Stuntman-turned-actor Simu Liu plays the title character with incredible charm in “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.” (Marvel/Disney Studios)

by | Sep 10, 2021 | Film & TV

 

Marvel has a wealth of material to draw from as it crafts its post-Avengers universe. In addition to story continuations for characters like Captain Marvel, Thor, Spider-man and Dr. Strange, there are new voices to explore. We might finally get a proper Fantastic Four movie! I’ll believe that when I see it, but “The Eternals” film will definitely introduce a completely new team of heroes later this year.

First though, we need to be reintroduced to one of the original MCU antagonists. Tony Stark’s kidnapping by a shadowy crime syndicate known as the Ten Rings way back in 2008 was the event that made “Iron Man,” and all 20+ films of the “Avengers” saga, possible. They’ve popped up only occasionally since, with the most sustained appearance coming during “Iron Man 3,” when their name was used as a false flag cover for the misdeeds of Aldrich Killian. With Thanos gone for good, it seems like a good moment for the Ten Rings to finally move into the light.

“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is out now in theaters and it’s making a strong statement about the immediate future of the MCU. With all due respect to Benedict Wong’s character in “Doctor Strange,” Shang-Chi is the first Asian leading role hero in the Marvel movie pantheon. Played with incredible charm by stuntman-turned-actor Simu Liu, Shang-Chi is a scion of the Ten Rings’ ruling family. He gets pulled back into his father’s evil orbit after spending many years in the United States and is forced to settle a world-breaking conflict over his maternal heritage. It’s both high concept and low. Recognizable “sins of the father” drama and delayed coming of age angst are mixed freely with alternate dimensions and staggering mythical powers. It could so easily have been too silly and too earnest at the same time, but its neither. “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is funny, heartfelt and consequential in just the right amounts.

The kung fu film tradition “Shang-Chi” pays homage to is in excellent hands with Simu Liu and his co-stars. The fighting is physically impressive and designed with incredible precision by veteran fight choreographer Andy Cheng. That fact that Cheng worked with Jackie Chan (and even doubled for him on occasion) should tell you everything you need to know about the thrilling intricacy on offer in “Shang-Chi.” I spent much of my time in the theater wishing I could rewind the best parts and slow them down.

Equally sure-footed is the script. The friendships feel genuine. The jokes land. The expository sequences do their jobs without over- or under-whelming the energy of the plot. I’ve had my issues with Awkwafina in the past, but she was a spot-on casting choice for Shang-Chi’s friend Katy. Her sarcastic comedic timing is just what a film with so much comic book unreality to sell needed. The rest of the actors, from Tony Leung to Michelle Yeoh to Ben Kingsley, all seem to honestly enjoy the world they are building together. And their uncomplicated embrace of the Marvel ethos really helps during the rare moments, like the outlandish final battle sequence, where the wheels almost – almost – come off.

Marvel almost never misses what it aims at. Like “Black Panther,” “Shang-Chi” proves that there is plenty of room, and plenty of need, in their blockbuster tent for heroes from non-white cultures. Any concerns I might have had about how the studio would handle its brand following the retirement of the Avengers have been put to rest with this new spin. Ta Lo forever.

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About Jeff Counts

Before moving to Jackson in 2019, Jeff spent five years reviewing movies as co-host of the public access television program "Big Movie Mouth-Off." When not focused on film, Jeff writes about opera and co-hosts the classical music interview podcast "Ghost Light."

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