This column contains mild spoilers for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. The spoilers are mostly just things that were in or can be deduced from the movie’s various trailers, but be forewarned.
By Michael Robinson ~ PhD
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is the latest successful entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Created by Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin, Shang-Chi first appeared in Special Marvel Edition #15 in 1973. From his very first cover, Shang-Chi was billed as the “Master of Kung Fu.” His initial adventures centered around fighting his evil father, Fu Manchu, a sinister criminal mastermind with racist “yellow peril” overtones that Marvel had licensed after failing to obtain the rights to the popular television show, Kung Fu.
As with many other Marvel characters, Shang-Chi’s comic book popularity soon propelled him out into the larger Marvel Universe, a mixed-genre narrative space where horror-inspired characters like Ghost Rider or Son of Satan might find themselves on superhero teams and blaxploitation-themed superbeings like Luke Cage might end up battling Doctor Doom.
Shang-Chi was different due to his mastery of martial arts. This is a skill, not a superpower. In the earliest days of superheroes, there were many characters who had no special powers. Back in the World War II era when the genre began, it was enough to have a reasonable costume and the desire to punch Nazis. In some ways, Shang-Chi was just the advanced form of that kind of character, substituting intense discipline for anti-fascist moxie.
In a Marvel Universe increasingly dominated by radiation-infused superbeings, mutants, high tech combat suit wearers, and well, basically gods, Shang-Chi’s mastery began to seem like the exception rather than the rule. There was still a place for the superhero with skills. DC Comic’s Batman will always be the exemplar. There is, however, an unfortunate tendency to devalue those characters that rely upon skills rather than powers. Hawkeye, for example, has long been mocked as a normal guy who only shoots gadget arrows. In the MCU, accolades go to Sorcerer Supremes, not Archer Supremes.
That’s why for the first half of the new film, I was happy to see Shang-Chi just taking out adversaries through his supreme combat abilities. The movie features some incredible fight choreography. As an initial adversary, Razorfist, a guy with a sword for a hand, does not seem too farfetched. However, as the title suggests, there are also these Ten Rings to deal with and they bring with them an increasingly fantastic premise.
The rings belong to Xu Wenwu, a creatively redesigned version of an old Iron Man villain called the Mandarin. In the earliest comics, the Mandarin originally had a bit of unfortunate orientalism attached to him too, but here he becomes a compelling father figure, torn between empire and family. His Ten Rings are artifacts of considerable but undefined power, capable of punishing physical blasts and magical manipulations and reconfigurations. They have a conceptual kinship to Mjolnir or the Eye of Agamatto.
As the movie progresses, the premise becomes increasingly fantastic and Shang-Chi and Xu Wenwu are placed on a narrative collision course, a conflict that will resolve right from wrong but also settle matters between estranged father and son as they battle for control of these items.
Thematically, it’s classic Marvel. But it’s also classic Marvel in the sense that yet another person has been given a fantastic object of great power. We are assured Shang-Chi has more adventures to come. He has new Avenger written all over him. But along that way, I hope that Marvel Studios continues to highlight the martial arts mastery that makes the character special.