Written by David Holland
In 2008 audiences watched Tony Stark escape from a terrorist organization calling itself the Ten Rings. Most audience members (including yours truly) did not know the full canonical history of that name. Then I learned that in the comics the rings belonged to an Iron Man villain named… The Mandarin. Not exactly the most progressive title. But after the Iron Man trilogy ended, it seemed like both the Mandarin and the Ten Rings would be shelved in the MCU, until actor Simu Liu discovered that you should be careful what you tweet:
Today we will take a look at “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” to understand how this movie stands on its own and how it moves the MCU forward down the path of Phase 4.
Unlike most origin stories, Shang-Chi doesn’t need a lab accident, magical training, or a bite from ten radioactive rings to become powerful. When we meet him in the present, he is already a trained assassin, more skilled than any that his father could send against him. Shang-Chi’s father, Xu Wenwu, is over a thousand years old thanks to the power of the Ten Rings, magical devices and the namesake of his cabal of shadowy assassins. The film bounces back and forth between the past, where we see an idyllic childhood ripped away after the death of Shang-Chi’s mother, and the present. After his mother died, his father trained him as a killer and neglected his sister, Xialing. Eventually both children escaped, but Wenwu always kept tabs on them. Shang-Chi befriended Katy and lives a quiet life working as a valet. Xialing, on the other hand, started an underground fight club in Macao. Going by the name Shawn, Shang-Chi kept his former life a secret even from Katy, but when his father’s assassins show up and demand the pendant given to him by his mother, he has no choice but to reveal his mastery of martial arts. When the pendant is stolen, Shang-Chi searches for his sister, only for both of them to be confronted by their father and taken back to his compound for an awkward family dinner.
At last, Wenwu explains why he has reconnected with his children after all these years. The voice of his dead wife has been calling to him from a gate in Ta Lo, her village, which is also home to many magical creatures. Wenwu is convinced that she is being held there and he plans to storm Ta Lo with the full might of the Ten Rings assassins to free her. He recruits his children to help, but instead they come to the aide of Ta Lo and take up arms against their deluded father. The assassins of the Ten Rings battle the magical forces of Ta Lo, but in the chaos Wenwu slips away to the gate. Before Shang-Chi can stop him, he weakens the gate enough for the Dweller-in-Darkness to escape. The Dweller was the source of the voice in Wenwu’s head, a soul-consuming beast potentially powerful enough to destroy all life. Shang-Chi (now master of the Ten Rings), Xialing, Katy, and the dragon known as the Great Protector destroy the Dweller-in-Darkness and save the world.
Shang-Chi and Katy are brought into the Avengers’ fold. Bruce Banner (not Professor Hulk for some reason…), Wong, and Captain Marvel (back with long hair) study the Rings, which pulse with energy. Meanwhile, Xialing assumes leadership of the Ten Rings with the ominous promise that they will return.
What does it mean for the MCU?
Shang-Chi brings a unique flavor to the MCU. It is obviously inspired by the comics canon, but the influence of martial arts films is also very clear. Like “Doctor Strange”, it is not afraid to lean into some of its more fantastical elements, especially in the village of Ta Lo. Our first glimpse of the mystical world feels a little bit like stumbling into Narnia. Marvel has spent well over a decade and 25 movies cultivating trust among its fans. We are a long way from watching Robert Downey Jr build a suit of armor in a cave to fight terrorists (who also called themselves the Ten Rings, and get a bit of a retcon nod from Wenwu). Now there are magic rings, dragons, and mystical dimensions. This growth, much like unlocking the multiverse, provides fertile ground for more unique storytelling. One common criticism of comic book movies is that they generally all feel the same, but in one summer we have travelled the full spectrum from Black Widow’s spy thriller to Shang-Chi’s mystical martial arts. Shang-Chi is also a victory for Asian representation in the MCU and on the big screen in general. The overwhelming majority of the cast, the director, and the writers are Asian or Asian-American. Like Black Panther before it, this movie represents a huge step for the MCU, which not that long ago featured an “Avengers” film with a superhero team that was overwhelmingly white dudes. And in case there is any doubt as to whether ticket sales would suffer, they did not. It’s almost like people just want to see good superhero movies.
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