It’s hard to bring up this movie without mentioning one of Marvel’s projects that, in a sort of indirect way, allowed this movie to happen. That picture being 2018’s “Black Panther,” which stood alone in its category as a paragon of Black representation in popular media. Now, am I saying that this is just the same type of movie for the Asian community? It’s undeniable that this new Marvel project is the biggest film to have this kind of Asian representation ever. I only say “ever” because its first weekend has already made decent progress in beating “Parasite’s” box office numbers.
For thousands of years, the Ten Rings, headed by the ruthless Xu Wenwu (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung), have been toppling governments and destroying armies with his mythic weapons, the titular “Ten Rings.” In his journeys—specifically in 1996—Wenwu is besmirched by the beautiful Ying Li (Fala Chen), a member of the mysterious village Ta Lo. From their relationship comes our main character, Xu Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), and his sister, Xu Xialing (Meng’er Zhang). In the wake of their mother’s untimely death, Shang-Chi is sent to San Francisco to hunt down the man responsible for his mother’s death. However, Shang-Chi does not return to China, rather spending the rest of his developmental years in San Francisco with his new friend Katy (Awkwafina), working as a valet driver and changing his name to Shaun. After receiving a letter from his estranged sister in Macau, Shang-Chi must confront both his place in his father’s organization and the fate of his late mother.
Let me be the first to say that this is probably one of my favorite Marvel films. I think the roster of characters in this film are among the most complex that we’ve seen coming out of the gate, especially for a film whose main character hasn’t even been an afterthought in any other Marvel property. On top of that, and this may be an odd observation, but this is probably the most striking of the solo character movie soundtracks. Marvel hasn’t exactly had a great track record of producing striking original soundtracks, but when they really want to, they can bring the point home with these musical cues. For that, I must applaud Joel P. West and his crew. I say all this in spite of the fact that this is still a Marvel movie. That is to say, for all of the deep character moments, we’ve still got to have our protagonist punching some giant CGI something or another, and we’ve still got the quippy Whedonesque dialogue that I can’t say I have been a fan of for a while. The Marvel formula, for me, is more of a ceiling for how good a movie can be, rather than something that can make movies better. I just wish that this film had more of an opportunity to be its own movie, rather than a piece in a bigger puzzle. I really like what this film has to offer, but I think there’s more on the table here that we’re not seeing.
All these things considered, it’s still a Marvel movie, and these movies make big bucks for a reason. It’s still an excellent picture, but unfortunately, it’s a slave to the makings of Marvel movies, which I think in this case holds it back just a bit. What we’re left with is still basically all we could ask for, seeing as this is Shang-Chi’s film debut. It’s a fantastic look into a culture that is really put by the wayside historically, and the characters and direction really put this picture among the best that Marvel can offer us.