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Marvel and martial arts combine to show off Simu Liu's potential in Shang-Chi

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten rings is a step forward for Asian representation and gives fans their first taste of the next phase of Marvel's cinematic ambitions. While the film struggles at times, what's unquestionable is Shang-Chi's potential — and what Simu Liu brings to Marvel's newest generation of heroes.

Marvel's take on martial arts fantasy style offers plenty of action in a super-charged family drama

Shang-Chi delivers mythic martial arts and a new Marvel star

1 year ago
Duration 7:06
Eli Glasner reviews the much-anticipated arrival of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings starring Canada's Simu Liu.

In Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, actor Simu Liu plays a son running from his destiny.  But to get this starring role, Liu manifested his own path, first snarkily tweeting to Marvel back in 2014, asking the company for better Asian representation. 

Flash forward to today, Liu is living the dream as the star of Marvel's first Asian-led movie. 

Credit where credit is due, the Mississauga-raised actor put in the work. Canada — and fans around the world — fell in love with him as goofy hunk Jung on Kim's Convenience where he flexed his comedic chops (and found ways to show off his athletic prowess). 

With so much riding on Shang-Chi's shoulders it's hard to separate the film from what it represents. Similar to 2018's Black Panther, it's a long overdue dose of diversity, adding more Asian characters to the Marvel Cinematic Universe with a film inspired by Chinese folklore and film styles. It's also the first theatrical release for Marvel's much-hyped Phase Four. Discounting the ever proliferating Disney+ shows, Shang-Chi gives fans their first taste of the next decade of Marvel's cinematic ambitions. 

The result is a film with inspired moments, but nowhere near the breathtaking boldness of Black Panther. With that film, director Ryan Coogler drew on his own experience growing up Black in Oakland California to inform Killmonger, one of Marvel's most vital villains in a decade. 

Once again with Shang-Chi, the villain nearly steals the show.  Legendary Hong Kong film star Tony Leung opens the film as Wenwu, the power-hungry general and keeper of the ten rings, mysterious weapons of devastating power he's used in the shadows for centuries. Wenwu doesn't have Killmonger's visceral sense of rage but instead, Leung gives us an antagonist that's more magnetic than monstrous. A crimelord driven by a tragic sense of love and loyalty. 

Wenwu (Tony Leung) and Ying Li (Fala Chen) face off in a moment where a battle scene blurs into something like dance near the beginning of the film. (Marvel Studios)

Marvel channels a classic Chinese film style

When Wenwu meets Ying Li, the protector of a mythical village, we are quite literally swept into a wuxia film, the soaring martial arts genre popularized in the West by Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  What begins as a posturing battle turns into something closer to dance as Wenwu and Ying Li trade blows, like slender branches bowing in the wind. 

Soon we find ourselves stateside, where we meet Shang-Chi, Wenwu's grown-up son, hiding from his father while working as a valet. With his best bud Katy, played by Awkwafina, at his side, it appears Shang-Chi's life has stalled until Daddy's thugs show up. 

Perhaps you've seen the bus scene in the trailers as Simu Liu battles the bad guys in close combat as the vehicle careens down San Francisco streets.   

WATCH | Shang-Chi face off against opponents in a fast-moving fight scene from the film:

While the stunning fight choreography (created with a member of Jackie Chan's stunt team) may impress Marvel fans, it also demonstrates what Liu brings to the big screen.  Even in the midst of a flurry of kicks and punches, there's an inherent kindness to him.  Like Spider-Man or Captain America, he's aware of bystanders, constantly peppering the fight scene with apologies. It's the kind of grounded relatable character Liu channels effortlessly. 

From there we're quickly pulled to Macao where Shang-Chi finds himself in what can only be described as Fight Club, Marvel style. Yes, there are fun cameos I'll let you enjoy for yourself, but also an articulation of Chinese culture and lingo that's a first for the MCU. 

WATCH | The trailer for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings:

Somber father-son struggles

As Shang-Chi is reunited with his long-lost sister, the film's tone shifts back into a more sombre mode when Wenwu reveals his plan to finally conquer the mythical realm of Ta Lo.

Beneath the dazzling rings and furious fight choreography is a story about a son struggling with who he was meant to be, and fighting to leave his father's shadow. Those grander themes come at the cost of the more light-hearted humour which Liu and Awkwafina excel at. 

In interviews, director Destin Daniel Cretton has talked about relating to Shang-Chi's journey of self discovery and emphasising the Asian dedication to family. Cretton himself isn't Chinese; his mother was Japanese-American, his father white and he grew up in Hawaii. Shang-Chi co-writer Dave Callaham (best known for his work on The Expendables) is Chinese-American. Cretton's frequent writing partner Andrew Landam is also credited.

Together, the writing trio earnestly attempt to infuse some elements of Chinese myth and storytelling into what's known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. 

From left to right, director Destin Daniel Cretton, fight instructor Alan Tang, crew camera operator, and Simu Liu on the set of Shang-Chi. (Jasin Boland)

But the action set pieces Marvel movies demand risk overlooking what makes Simu Liu such a refreshing addition to the MCU. When Cretton first popped on on Hollywood's radar, it was for small but emotionally perceptive films such as Short Term 12. By the time Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings gears up for its climatic battle, any sense of sensitivity has been jettisoned in favour of a wide screen spectacle where a menagerie of computer animated creatures blend into a chaotic blur. 

While the film struggles with pacing issues and at times a plodding plot, what's unquestionable is Shang-Chi's potential — not just the character, but what Simu Liu brings to Marvel's newest generation of heroes. 

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