NOTE: This review was written mostly before the stunning and unprecedented events in Ukraine. If you wish to donate to one of a number of vetted charities to help those suffering due to the criminal actions of the Putin regime, you can do so HERE.
Here’s a challenge for you. Try to find a book, article or blog post about the phenomenon of “Yellow Peril” that does not include a reference to Sax Rohmer’s fictional creation Doctor Fu Manchu.
One of the earliest fictional supervillains, Fu Manchu was a brilliant, devious Chinese scientist and master criminal who sought world domination and was basically the entire concept of the Yellow Peril incarnate in one man. And if you think I’m being unfair to Sax Rohmer, please be aware that the phrase “Yellow Peril incarnate in one man” is a direct quote describing Fu Manchu from the first novel he appears in. He is a hugely controversial creation, and no, not just in these more enlightened times. Fu Manchu has never been uncontroversial and every fresh wave of popularity for the character has prompted massive backlash and accusations of racism which are pretty damn hard to refute as, by his own admission, Rohmer basically just monetized anti-Asian xenophobia and based the character on Bayard Taylor’s notoriously racist descriptions of the Chinese.
But, here’s the thing…Fu Manchu also kinda rules? I mean, he is like Asian Dracula. He is badass. He is cool. He has menace and charisma to burn. He has a moustache named after him. He is a fantastic villain and pretty much codified the whole archetype of the brilliant, dastardly criminal mastermind, even more so than (I would argue) Professor Moriarty. And he has been incredibly influential in film too, having been played by such notable Asian actors as Christopher Lee, Boris Carloff and Nicholas Cage (oh shit, I think we took a wrong turn and ended back in Racism Town).
So on the one hand you have an extremely compelling villain with ninety years of rich history, but on the other hand you have the incredibly uncomfortable creation of the character. It’s a very thorny problem. How do you extricate Fu Manchu from Rohmer and Taylor? Could you do a non-racist Fu Manchu? Is it worth trying? Who would even want to take that on? And how would you go about it?
Well, Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin took a crack at it in 1973.
The comic that would eventually become Shang-Chi was initially pitched to DC as an adaptation of the hugely popular TV series Kung Fu starring noted Asian actor David Carradine. DC passed and Englehart and Starlin took the idea to Marvel who agreed to the basic premise of a kung fu themed comic with the following stipulations:
- That the main character be the son of Fu Manchu, who Marvel had just acquired the rights to.
- That the main character be half-white.
Why 2? Well, Marvel had recently tried to cash in on the blaxploitation craze with their character Luke Cage but had been burned when some Southern retailers had refused to display a comic with a black main character. By making Shang-Chi half white, they hoped to avoid a repeat. Which…how does that work exactly?
Despite that deeply compromised beginning, Shang-Chi went on to become Marvel’s first Asian superstar character, carrying his own book for a very respectable 125 issues (which was only cancelled when Marvel declined to renew their rights to Fu Manchu). While he’s never recaptured the same prominence in the comics that he did during the Kung Fu craze of the seventies and eighties, he’s always been a well respected and popular mainstay of the Marvel universe. So when the time came for Disney/Marvel to turn their all-seeing rapacious eye to the martial arts genre, naturally they first thought of…
But when the time came for Disney/Marvel to make their second attempt at the martial arts genre, this time with an eye to Asian representation (and absolutely nothing to do with cracking the obscenely lucrative Chinese market they’re perennially eyeing like a dragon’s horde to the point that they will desecrate their own properties and literally collaborate with a genocidal regime just for a chance of making some cold hard yuan and I think need to wrangle this sentence back into shape) they chose Shang-Chi.
Alright, something I need to get off my chest. Rings are cool. Bracelets are not.
I don’t know if I can explain why but it’s just a fact. It’a the same principal that swords are cooler than clubs. They just are.
The movie begins with a flashback to Ancient China where a narrator tells us the story of Xu Wenwu who discovered ten magical rings which granted him immortality and all kinds of awesome super powers which he used to found the Ten Rings, a secretive criminal organisation that’s been active throughout history. They are also bracelets, and not finger-rings like in the comics. And that’s lame.
So I touched on the character of the Mandarin in my Iron Man 3 review but for a quick recap; the Mandarin was an Iron Man adversary from the sixties who was basically Fu Manchu with the added gimmick of having ten magical rings. The Mandarin (sort of) appeared in Iron Man 3 played by noted Asian actors Guy Pearse and Sir Ben Kinglsey as the creators decided to steer hard away from the character’s whole “Yellow Peril” schtick. But, after some backlash, the short film All Hail the King revealed that the Mandarin was a real dude who Aldritch Killian had basically ripped off to create his bogeyman. That’s this guy. To put it simply, Trevor Slattery was playing the Mandarin at the behest of Aldritch Killian who was a rip-off of the Mandarin who was actually Xu Wenu who is based on the Mandarin who is a rip-off of Fu Manchu and Fu Manchu.
In the nineties, Wenwu discovered the legend of Ta Lo, a mysterious lost village full of mysterious people with mysterious powers.
So he sets out to discover it for himself and is stopped by Ying Li, a guardian of the village. They have a beautiful, wuxia-esque fight and they fall in love.
Fast forward to the present and Wenwu and Ying Li’s son, “Shaun” (Simu Liu) is living in San Francisco and working as a valet with his best friend, Katie (Awkwafina). Shaun met Kate in high school when she interceded on his behalf with a bully who called him “Gangnam Style” and wait what? That makes no sense! This dude is like in his mid-twenties and Gangnam Style only came out…
Oh Jesus Christ.
How am I even still alive if I’m this old?
Anyway, Shaun and Katie are having dinner with their old school friend Soo who is now a lawyer and passive-aggressively chides them for not doing more with their lives. They decide to show how responsible they can be by staying out all night getting drunk and singing karaoke. The next morning Shaun swings by Katie’s house to pick her up and her mother likewise chides her for not living up to her potential.
So I am now going to give my review of this movie. What do I mean by that? Well, Shang-Chi isn’t one movie, it’s three. And we’ve just about reached the demarcation point where movie one ends and movie two begins. Movie 1 is…nice. I like it. It’s not fantastically written, the dialogue is a little artificial sounding but it’s a nice, engaging little piece about two goof off friends who are happy where they are and don’t see why they should have to change. Awkwafina is great, honestly and Simu Liu gives a nice, likeable understated performance. I also like little details like the faded posters for Blip support groups in the background and the scenes with Katie’s family. They don’t particularly go anywhere but there’s a nice low-key vibe to them. I dig it.
Now we get to the bus scene. The bus scene is what cinema scholars commonly refer to as “dude, dope as fuck.” It’s honestly one of the best fight scenes we’ve seen in the MCU, right up there with the elevator scene in Winter Solider or the corridor fight in Daredevil. Anyway Shaun gets attacked by a bunch of dudes on the bus who want a pendant that was given to him by his mother. Shaun then reveals that he’s no mere valet and busts out a near-Ukranian level of kickass on his assailants. The scene isn’t perfect, some of the CGI is a little weightless (there’s one particularly egreious moment where Shaun punches a guy out a window like he’s made of aeroboard) but it’s a ridiculously fun Jenga tower of escalating violence and peril, culminating in Katie trying to steer the out of control bus through the streets of San Francisco while Shaun battles like six dudes and a Romanian with a sword for a hand. Said Romanian tells Shaun that they’re coming for his sister so, after the fight has been one, he decides to jet to Macau to see her. And Katie decides to tag along because she’s the comedy relief and what else is she gonna do?
On the flight over Shaun explains that his real name is Shang-Chi and that he was raised by his father, Wenwu, to be the perfect assassin. But Shang-Chi refused to carry out his first kill and has been hiding from his father ever since.
The pair arrive in Macau and find that Shang-Chi’s sister, Xialing, is running an underground fight ring and we get two cameos, Wong fighting the Abomination. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but the impression I got from Doctor Strange was that the Masters of the Mystic Arts are supposed to be a secret, mysterious order protecting the Earth from the shadows. And yet, here’s the frickin’ Sorcerer Supreme using his magic in full view in cage fights being broadcast on the internet, apparently just to make a few bucks.
Actually it’s worse. We see him afterwards talking to Abomination and it’s clear the fight was rigged. Wong is cheating the honest paying customers of this underground Dark-Web snuff factory!
Anyway, Shang-Chi is now famous because the video of the fight on the bus has gone viral and he gets duped into participating in a fight. And…somehow the crowd is excited to see a perfectly normal human fight after seeing a literal wizard battle an actual monster. But whatever. Shang-Chi’s mysterious opponent turns out to be, of course, as we all expected, Betty White.
No, OBVIOUSLY, it’s his sister. She kicks his ass and then after the fight he tells her that their father is coming for her pendant. Xialing reveals to Katie that Shang-Chi abandoned her when she was still a child and that she had to escape from their father on her own. Suddenly the Ten Rings attack the building and Shang-Chi and Xialing have to fight hordes of assassins while hanging off the side of the building from bamboo scaffolding. It is, as the old Irish saying goes, dope as fuck.
Wenwu shows up and takes them all prisoner and brings them to his secret fortress of villainy. Over dinner, he tells Shang-Chi that it is time for him to take his place as his heir. He has a conversation with Katie where they discuss the importance of names, and he reveals that over the centuries he was known by many names, including “Master Khan”. Ohhhh boy. So, Master Khan is a minor Iron Fist and Doctor Strange villain. So that’s three villains this guy is an amalgamation of. Any others you want to throw on the pile?
Wenwu tells Katie how he fell in love with Shang-Chi and Xialing’s mother and convinced her to leave Ta Lo and return with him to Earth. For a while they were blissfully happy and he renounced his criminal empire. But then she died and he went back to his old life. nd it’s right around here that Movie 3 begins and more’s the pity. Because Movie 3 fucking sucks. And it makes up like two thirds of the total run time. Wenwu tells his children that Ying Li has begun appearing to him in visions and that she is waiting for them in Ta Lo. Obviously his kids think that’s crazy so he takes their two pendants, puts them in a wooden dragon statue, which starts sweating profusely, and then the sweat freezes and forms an ice sculpture of the bamboo maze that surrounds Ta Lo, revealing the way in.
Yeah, this movie takes a HARD turn into magical fantasy and it really doesn’t work. The tonal shift is jarring as all hell and worse, the movie just completely loses its sense of fun. The plot becomes this overly complicated slog of maguffins and new characters and just more and more…stuff. Not individual parts making up a greater whole, just…stuff, piled on top of itself.
Wenwu tells his kids that the Ten Rings are going to storm Ta Lo and force them to return his (dead, I remind you) wife to him or he’ll destroy the village. Before Shang-Chi and Xialing can have a hushed conversation in the next room about nursing homes, he imprisons them. There, we get a little a ray of sunshine.
Yes, T. Slatts is in the house. Turns out that the Ten Rings were so impressed with his Shakespearean monologues that Wenwu spared his life and he’s now his court jester.
He also has a hundun named Morris (a hundun being a legendary Chinese creature with four wings, two asses and no face) and he’s very relieved to learn that Shang-Chi and Katie can see Morris too (as he believed he was simply a hallucination brought on by too many lovely, lovely drugs).
Anyway, he helps them escape and they go to Ta Lo to warn the village that their father’s coming.
There they meet a shit ton of new characters, including Shang-Chi and Xialing’s aunt Ying Nan (played by a thoroughly wasted Michelle Yeoh) and she tells them that thousands of years ago Ta Lo was attacked by a demon named the Dweller in Darkness but they were saved by a dragon called the Great Protector who sealed the Dweller…
Stop. No. No. You cannot dump that much lore on us this late in the game. Either get Cate Blanchett to recite this over the opening credits or trim this shit.
Anyway, it turns out that Wenwu is being lured to Ta Lo not by his (very dead) wife but by the Dweller in Darkness. The Ten Rings attack and Ta Lo mounts a spirited defence, including Katie who is now lethal with a bow and arrow after a few days training.
And it was around here that I realised I’d completely checked out of the movie and couldn’t even remember why anyone was doing anything. I couldn’t even remember how I’d gotten here from that fun little martial arts flick I remembered watching so long ago. Ultimately, the movie’s biggest sin is failing to understand the appeal of its genre. This is supposed to be a combination wuxia/chopsocky flick, Crouching Tiger, Enter the Dragon if you like. And the main appeal of both those genres is a reliance on practical stunts and effects. No one wants to see Bruce Lee fight CGI opponents, and no one wants to see a martial arts film that devolves into airless, weightless computer generated sludge.
And my GOD but the CGI looks phoney.
Anyway, Wenwu succeeds in freeing the Dweller in Darkness and realises that his wife was not in fact an eighty foot long dragon and that he’s been played. Before the Dweller kills him, he gifts the ten rings to Shang-Chi who uses them to slay the beast and save the world.
Back in San Francisco, Shang-Chi and Katie relate this tale to Soo and her husband and are aghast when they don’t believe that these two valets were kidnapped by the one thousand year old immortal warlord and then saved the world by defeating a soul-eating dragon in an alternate dimension.
This scene just left me agog. Why? Why do Katie and Shang-Chi think anyone would believe them? Why do they not realise how batshit insane they sound? Do they just not care.
Well, speaking of characters with no fucks left to give, Wong just straight up portals into the restaurant in full view of everyone (my, these jade post-Blip millenials) and whisks Katie and Shang-Chi away.
Well dang. That was…quite bad. There have been Marvel movies before that I found to be lacklustre or dull but never less than competent. Shang-Chi is not a good film. It starts out…”strong” is a strong word (obviously) but “pleasant”. Good martial arts action, fairly likeable characters. But I did not make the Frozen 2 comparison lightly and it really does suffer the same problems; character bloat and a mythology that is at once overly complicated and kinda samey and generic at the same time.
In the interests of fairness I have to abstain from giving a score. I haven’t read the original Shang-Chi run, or indeed anything featuring the character apart from a few guest appearances in other books.
Our Heroic Hero: 08/25
It’s truly maddening watching Shang-Chi morphing from a likeable, laid-back everyman protagonist to a weightless void at the centre of his own film.
Our Nefarious Villain: 09/25
I don’t get it. I don’t get the “greatest villain”/”greatest performance in the MCU” accolades. I just don’t get it.
Our Plucky Sidekicks: 14/25
Awkwafina carrying this whole damn thing right here.
Shang-Chi and Katie get taken to the Sanctum Santorum where Wong shows the Ten Rings to Bruce Banner and Captain Marvel. And then Shang-Chi, Katie and Wong go sing karaoke.
And the audience went…
The Second Stinger
We discover that Xialing has taken over her father’s murderous criminal empire, but that it’s fine because now it has women and it’s an equal opportunities murderous criminal empire.
And the audience went:
Are there X-Men yet?
FINAL SCORE: 36%
NEXT UPDATE: 17 March 2022
NEXT TIME: For Saint Patrick’s Day, we’re going green…