Widening the World of the MCU
Marvel Studios has been playing a spot of catchup in recent years. After a decade of films piloted primarily by white men, the demand for more diversity within the planet’s most popular franchise found itself at breaking point. 2018 saw the release of Black Panther, a film that addressed the previous 10-year’s lack of diverse voices by hiring an almost-all black cast and crew to pilot the project. The final result was a feature with a unique story to tell, not to mention a vibrant and rich environment to help it stand out amidst its MCU counterparts. The film also made an extortionate amount of money, making it both a cultural triumph, as well as a model Marvel would most likely intend to replicate over the years to follow.
Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings (2021) is such an attempt to repeat past glories; an attempt to offer up a fresh collective of unique voices, albeit this time through the lens of Asian cinema. The result garners similar successes. Shang-Chi is a gorgeous film, laced with action set pieces fizzling with kinetic energy, not to mention a fluid level of clarity rarely applied to Hollywood Blockbusters. At the time of its release, the film went on to become the biggest box office success following on from the global pandemic. While it only brought in $430,355,828 by comparison to Black Panther’s whopping $1,347,597,973, considering this came out in an era where people are avoiding cinemas like the plague they were actually in, 400+ million certainly isn’t a figure to turn your nose up at. This is a huge success, and for good reason too.
In addition to widening the scope of opportunity for talent often overlooked, there are also a number of narrative positives when it comes to offering filmmakers and performers from a multitude of backgrounds the chance to pilot a blockbuster feature. For one, this allows for new voices to swoop in and tell stories from unique positions. Human experiences shape the stories we tell. Bringing in storytellers from different cultures expands the potential for new ideas and worlds to be explored. This sort of narrative growth within an already 14-year franchise allows the MCU to build new corridors and avenues within its own fictional space.
There’s a heap of emphasis on Marvel’s expansion into the multiverse at this moment in time. While this serves up the possibility for a number of thrilling crossover events and alternative takes on old tales, there is a chance that stretching the Marvel landscape too far sideways runs the risk of warping the focus away from the world-building elements of the franchise. Fortunately, films like Shang-Chi are a reminder that despite all the upcoming reality-splitting capers lined up for the near future, Kevin Feige’s mission statement to develop the existing timeline has not been lost amidst his reality-sliding ambitions.
One of the many interesting elements with regards to Shang-Chi’s visual structure relates to the use in which it utilises non-western action, particularly when it comes to hand-to-hand combat sequences. This isn’t to say the film doesn’t at times descend into the usual, CG-heavy bombast often associated in such movies. Occasionally, it does. For the most part, however, we get a feature that embraces the martial arts sub-genre who’s roots can be traced back to China. While western cinema has often utilised rapid editing and close-ups as a means of communicating hand-to-hand action, Hollywood’s eastern neighbours are more inclined to pull the camera back, serving up long takes that favour kinetic movement over rapid shifts in imagery. Though this decision makes performing such energetic sequences all the more of a challenge for cast and crew – notably through having to choreograph and perform every moment to a fastidious degree – the finished product is often all the more worth it. BBC film critic, Mark Kermode, has often compared action cinema to that of dance, going so far as to suggesting the features popularised by Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1980s fire up similar pleasure receptacles in the mind as the works of Gene Kelly and Rita Hayworth. by this logic, the joy audiences feel when watching dynamic action play out in the form of cinematic spectacle mirrors the experience of watching a dazzling dance number. The similarities in choreography, movement and structuring of the human form between these two sub-genres of visual expression makes for a sound comparison.
Shang-Chi functions as a near-perfect example of this action-as-dance theory. The film’s long takes and fluid movements allows the camera to package and present its more thrilling of moments as something considerably alluring. Not only does this allow us to witness every kick and punch in all their manoeuvred glory, it allows the film’s performers to communicate their characters’ inner states with a clarity seldom seen in Western cinema. Great action is capable of delivering narrative progression, character motives, humour, and even heartbreak. This is one of the areas in which this film shines brighter than most of its Marvel counterparts. Its story burns and bristles to the surface, not through mounds of dialogue, but through stories its performers tell through their physical actions. Shang-Chi’s use of hand-to-hand combat isn’t merely here to bedazzle and excite, it’s capable of adding substance and layer to the story it’s telling. Director Destin Daniel Cretton’s decision to have the camera sail at liberty through the feature’s more energetic moments allows to communicate the more nuanced motives operating behind such events.
The opening sequence, in which Xu Wenwu (Chiu-Wai Leung) engages in combat with Li (Fala Chen) functions as a perfect example of this. They glide through the air, slide into and out of one another’s arms, sashay their way around their environments and brush up against one another. The sequence opens as an invitation for hostility from both parties, yet as their performances progress, the combat transforms into something else entirely. These are two people falling in love as the combat unfolds. Two souls connecting through movement. This is not the first time a Hollywood feature has used hand-to-hand combat to communicate the physical connection of two characters, yet in a franchise often reliant upon such sequences to portray two sides attempting to eradicate one another, this feels completely dissimilar to what we are accustomed to. It feels new, it feels exciting, it feels beautiful.
When it comes to the other fights seen through the film, such as Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) taking on Razor Fist (Florian Munteanu) and his cluster of henchmen on an out-of-control bus, these moments too further evokes feelings of action-as-a-dance-number. The camera glides around our performers as they skip, flip and kick one another in a bid to steal Chi’s pendant. We are invited to experience every move in its entirety, a flawlessly choreographed set piece that reshapes the narrative with every kick and thump. This isn’t a fight for fight’s sake, it’s a routine packed with humour, dread and plot progression.
The relationship between Shang-Chi and Katy (Awkwafina) doesn’t fall into the classic trapping of your usual romance plot. There’s a friendship between the pair that feels relatable and sweet. Buddies since school, the duo have grown to form a connection that doesn’t require a passionate dynamic in order for it to operate properly. There’s a tired cliché within Hollywood films for lead stars to possess a romantic chemistry if they happen to be of different genders. It’s a tiring trope, and one that often feels forced. Why can’t people just maintain friendships when it comes to these fictional realities? Not every heterosexual man and woman has to automatically fall head over heels as if it’s the only way to engineer a happy ending.
Shang-Chi not only understands this by maintaining that Chi and Katy are best buds as opposed to lovers in the making, it furthermore understands the peculiar expectation that society has when it comes to friendships between different genders. Both the older members of Katy’s family and various Ta Lo villagers all seem to be pushing, or at least expecting the pair to someday marry. The idea that deep friendships must always end in love may well be false, but is still a common perception amongst a lot of people. The creators behind this film are away of such expectations, which is why they spend time addressing such expectations throughout, without resorting to making it an actual plot beat. The awareness is there, yet the urge to succumb to it remains at bay.
I’m glad the film sticks to its guns in this respect. Venturing away from the trope of “boy meets girl” helps to paint a much more honest portrayal of two characters with a history between. Considering Marvel is attempting to flesh out a fictional world that feels relatable and lived in, it makes sense to try and fashion characters who don’t just feel like protagonists manufactured primarily to function solely as movie props.
A Villain of Sympathy
When Iron Man 3 (2013) attempted to break down the racist stereotypes associated with Marvel’s original interpretation of the Mandarin character, a few feathers were ruffled. I was always of the opinion that Ben Kingsley’s interpretation was a clever way to take the racist characteristics associated with this character and incorporate them into the plot as a form of much needed social commentary. Revealing Aldrich Killian (Guy Peirce) to be the “real” Mandarin, while Kingsley’s character was an actor named Trevor Slattery serves to trick audiences as well as the fictional society within the MCU. Seeing as both the in-universe and real world audiences were both raised within societies that find it alarmingly too easy to buy into such notions of “the dangerous outsider”, Killian’s manufactured enemy was effective enough to distract both parties from the homeland threat committing the actual terrorist atrocities from within. Unconscious biases and societal prejudices functioning as a shield to distract from the homegrown monster that was Killian himself. Despite the clever attempt to use racial prejudice as both a narrative and in-universe ploy, many saw Iron Man 3’s twist as a cheap gag, one that relied primarily on shock value and fell victim to the bathos crime Marvel is often accused of committing.
When it was announced Shang-Chi would return to the character of the Mandarin, in a bid to make a more menacing and less gag-oriented interpretation of the character, I expressed hesitation. Turning back the clock on what I saw as a clever way of utilising a piece of source material dripping with negative stereotypes ran the risk of igniting the characteristics of a character devised during a less enlightened era of comics. Fortunately, Shang-Chi avoids this, successfully managing to retain the Slattery/Killian plot-line from 8-years-prior. The film manufactures a genuinely dangerous version of the character through the portrayal of Wenwu, one that avoids venturing into the realm of negative stereotyping.
The film is largely able to have its cake as well as eat it, catering to both audiences who liked and disliked the previous attempt to port this character into the MCU. This is achieved by returning Trevor Slattery into the mix so that he can function alongside Wenwu’s Manderin. When we are introduced to Slattery in Shang-Chi, we learn that he’s spent the past 8-years imprisoned by Wenwu for essentially stealing Wenwu’s identity and mocking it for Killian’s personal gain. After years of incarceration, Slattery has realised the errors of his ways, acknowledging his blindness to the atrocities that his actions allowed. Both Slattery’s shame, not to mention Wenwu’s fury a having his image tarnished in such a fashion allows the film to both retain the motives and logic to Iron Man 3’s self-aware take. Wenwu stands in for the audience who disliked Slattery’s false-Mandarin. He operates as their audience identification figure. Shang-Chi successfully manages to recontextualise the criticism fired at Iron Man 3’s twist by adding a narrative logic to the so-called disservice some fans felt this version inflicted upon this antagonist.
The sympathetic portrayal of Wenwu as being a powerful man poisoned by sorrow means the version of the Manderin established here does not slip into the stereotypical trappings associated with its source material. He isn’t constructed as a terrorist or an “enemy of the west”, but as a man who’s lost his way, consumed by grief. He’s also being exploited by unknown forces known as the Dweller-in-Darkness; entities using Wenwu’s grief as a means of manipulation.
Wenwu’s story is the tragedy of a man driven mad by the death of his wife. His actions pose a significant threat upon the residents of Ta Lo, not to mention the wider world that exists beyond it. Nevertheless, he’s not out to scorch the earth. He doesn’t exist to inflict fear upon the citizens of earth. He’s just a lost sole unable to accept that the woman who once helped him find his way is no longer apart of the same world as he. Wenwu’s motives run the risk of causing harm to the wider world only as a by-product of his delusions, not the endgame of a sadistic goal.
For all the hesitance I initially held toward the possibility of Marvel returning to the drawing board on this matter, reinventing the Manderin as a sympathetic soul while retaining the character of Slattery creates a best of both worlds scenario. Critics of Iron Man 3’s depiction get to walk away with the relief of knowing Slattery wasn’t the MCU’s only incarnation of the Mandarin, whereas supporters of the previous depiction can rest easy knowing the second attempt steered clear of descending into the sorts of dated stereotypes which have no place in the modern era.
Shang-Chi sets itself the task of fleshing out a glowing new corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. We are invited into a vibrant realm, the likes of which we’ve never seen up until this point. There’s a freshness to this which feels welcoming. Up until this point, phase four has spent much of its time revisiting old faces and reflecting upon events as they transpired during the Infinity Sage (2008 – 2019). Similarly, the Disney+ spin off shows have thus far spent their days flirting with the concept of the multiverse, forcing us to wonder whether the world-building characteristics of Kevin Feige’s 25-billion-dollar empire had been forfeited in favour of timeline-collision exercises instead. Shang-Chi puts to bed such potential fears, assuring us that new worlds, characters, ideas and possibilities are still to head our way as this cinematic serial moves into the future. Mix all of this in with an antagonist shrouded in tragedy, a leading cast that feels as layered as they do interesting, and an aesthetic style peppered to the nines with energetic beauty, you find yourself with an impressive addition to the Marvel Studio’s never-ending canon.
A moving, impressive and gorgeous piece of work that most certainly deserves the success it received. For a film that dropped at the tail of one of the 21st Century’s grimmest years, this is a beacon that reminds us how stunning and stirring cinema can be. If phase four can maintain this level of quality, perhaps the post-Infinity War ear is in safe hands.