‘Shang-Chi,’ The Perfect Movie for 2021
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a fun Marvel flick that also delivers relevant twists to its themes about heroism.
With the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s pandemic-era releases being hit-or-miss, I was skeptical about going to the theater for this verbosely titled movie about a character I’ve never heard of.
But my worries—that Shang-Chi would be no more than a mediocre cash-grab in Marvel’s quest to seemingly adapt every comic-book character in its archives—did not come to fruition.
In certain ways, the movie doesn’t feel like the MCU: aside from minor appearances by Doctor Strange’s Wong (Benedict Wong) and Iron Man 3’s Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley), Shang-Chi sits as its own story, making itself distinct from the franchise by tangoing with allusions to Chinese cinema and mythology. On the other hand, it maintains the best elements of the MCU, including fast-paced fight scenes and Guardians of the Galaxy-esque, occasionally raunchy humor.
At times, Shang-Chi leans into what GoodFellas director Martin Scorsese complained about when he notoriously called the MCU “theme park” cinema. But that’s to be expected from Marvel, and this particular MCU entry offers more than rollercoaster entertainment; its biggest strengths are in its themes and characters.
The main characters, Shaun (Simu Liu) and Katy (Awkwafina) start off as valet drivers and professional underachievers in San Francisco. Katy, a UC-Berkeley grad, is nagged by her immigrant family to do more to achieve her potential, but she insists that she’s content to cling to her life of joyrides, late-night karaoke parties, fanny packs, and bright-colored pants.
But Shaun (whose real name is Shang-Chi) is secretly the son of Wenwu (Tony Leung), the immortal leader of a secret army, and Ying Li (Fala Chen), who came from a hidden forest dimension.
When Wenwu’s goons attack them on the bus one day, Shaun and Katy run to China, where they meet Shaun’s sister (Meng’er Zhang). Wenwu forces them into his quest to bring his wife back from the dead, even if he has to burn her homeland, Ta Lo, to the ground.
As Katy is swept into defending Ta Lo from destruction, her character arc centers around learning to aspire to a higher purpose (“You aim for nothing, you hit nothing,” one of Ta Lo’s citizens tells her before the film’s final battle.)
In 2021, the zeitgeist seems to be closer to Katy’s attitude at the start of the film: valuing comfort over achievement. With one million more unfilled job openings than people looking for work in the U.S, some individuals have even stopped caring about working. In our non-aspirational time, it’s a welcome surprise that Shang-Chi so directly tackled the trending disillusionment (though this theme is perhaps undercut by one of the end credits scenes).
The film also delivered a fresh angle on an old theme that relies on the fact that Katy and Shaun are established as platonic friends. I don’t want to eliminate heterosexual romance from movies, as Frozen (2013) was hailed for doing. But there’s a trope in films like this that the male protagonist’s heroism wins him the female lead’s attraction. Shang-Chi subverts this slay-the-dragon-and-get-the-girl trope and shows that heroism is valuable other than as some kind of romantic ticket for men to signal their virtue to the opposite sex (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
Shaun risks his own safety to protect others and holds to moral commitments even though he is tempted to get revenge on his father. Displaying these heroic virtues doesn’t incite Katy’s romantic interest in Shaun (The movie hints in that direction, but it’s not clear that either character wants that.), but rather it inspires her to take an active role in the story herself.
Whether you see it in theaters or wait to see it on Disney+, Shang-Chi is worth a watch and provides a pleasantly unique story about why we should aspire to do more with our lives than just sit around.