I just watched Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings in the cinema, and I have thoughts™!
First of all – the movie is amazing! The first half is amazingly funny and exciting, the characters are charming and endearing, and the fight scenes are breath taking! I think there will be many comparisons with Black Panther, which gave the black community a movie that celebrated their culture and heritage, and I think this one does the same for the Asian American community.
But – I know what you all are thinking1: Does it redeem the Mandarin?
Well. Yes, and kinda no, but – I’ll allow it.
More – with some spoilers – after the fold.
First of all – this is probably the best villain in the Marvel movies since Killmonger in the Black Panther. Tony Leung, a veteran Chinese actor, portrays him as a multifaceted, flawed character, torn between his love to his lost wife and his family, and his evil past. While his actions may be that of a power-hungry megalomaniac, his tone and whole demeanour are soft, thoughtful, controlled – a true ruler. His ultimate redemption is wonderfully done, only conveyed through a last gaze between him and his son, and his willingly letting go of the Ten Rings of Power, giving them up in his final moments to his son.
And while there is no doubt, that he is portraying the Mandarin character from the comics, he not only is never addressed as such, he distances and ridicules the whole concept – there is one entire scene, where he explicitly makes fun of the name “The Mandarin”, comparing it with a Chinese takeaway dish and an orange.
Again, I understand why they did it – apparently the name “Mandarin” is problematic for the Asian community, and from Marvel’s point of view more importantly, for the Chinese market. Still, I did not care much for it and found it unnecessary. The Marvel movies were always respectful of their source material, and while they were very successful in updating the characters and concepts for the new medium, they never found the need to make fun of them.2 (Except Thor: Ragnarok – but that movie was terrible!)
So, I did not care much for that scene, but thankfully it did not take me out of the movie – in fact, in the same scene the Mandarin (yup, I am calling him that in my blog!) recounts that he has had many names in his millennia long life, including Master Khan (from Ironfist) and “the most dangerous man alive” which is just a cute way of saying Fu Manchu (who was the actual father of Shang-Chi in the comics, but then never could be used again due to rights issues, and also, due to being a racist imperialist stereotype).
With that minor issue, the movie goes to lengths of undoing – or better, recontextualising – the silly Mandarin character from Ironman 3, even bringing back Trevor Slattery, the ActOr, who provides some genuinely funny moments (Sir Ben Kingsley obviously has a blast portraying the character)!
And what about the Ten Rings of Power? Well – they are arm bands, which probably makes more sense in a martial arts movie, and they are used to great effect. Moreover, we never actually learn their origin – which was really refreshing in this age where every movie needs to explain and connect every single detail in their story – and at the end there is obvious setup for future movies, where they will play a bigger role. I am still holding out that it is revealed that the Rings actually have additional powers beyond what has been shown so far, just like they do in the comics.
In regards to the other characters – as I said, they were all great. The main characters Simu Liu as Shang-Chi (which is pronounced differently than I thought!), and Awkwafina as his best friend Katy are absolutely perfect together, with great chemistry. And I love that they do not end up together as a couple, but that they just deepen their friendship.
The martial arts fights are amazing, even when they become more superheroic in the latter half of the movie when the Rings of Power are used.
The big finale is maybe a bit weak, though, as it ends in a big CGI fest between a dragon and a demon (The Dweller in Darkness, whose concept from the comics is completely wasted here). Still, it’s great fun!
And finally – what about Fin Fang Foom? I was absolutely expecting that the demon behind the gate would turn out to be our favourite purple-pants wearing dragon, but they decided to take it in another direction. Still, the post-credits scene strongly suggests that there is an alien armada on the way to Earth, hopefully full of giant shapeshifting dragons who want their rings back. I am a bit worried that they may decide not to follow through on this, though, as they already had a big dragon and monster in this movie, and so it would be weird to do something similar in the sequel.
Anyway – an absolutely great movie! Marvel is back, baby!