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Kung-Fu Badass Shang-Chi Fears Nothing — Except Becoming His Dad

Marvel’s latest isn’t very good, but it does touch on a universal sentiment: We love our dads, even though (or perhaps because) they did a number on us

It’s no secret the Marvel Cinematic Universe has daddy issues. Much has been written about the fact that the franchise’s heroes are often not just battling the forces of evil but also their unresolved conflicts with their fathers, who often loom as great but difficult men casting a long shadow over their sons’ lives. (Or, in the case of Thanos, they’re just straight-up killing their kids.) Considering that these iconic superheroes were created largely by men, it’s probably not surprising this theme keeps popping up: Storytellers would rather invent psychologically scarred Avengers than go to therapy.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ central theme won’t be novel to fans who have noticed this trend in the MCU, but it actually plays out in a slightly more interesting way than usual — which is good, considering that the film (the first in the franchise starring an Asian actor) is otherwise only okay. Shang-Chi’s complicated relationship with his dad gives this movie its oomph — and, trust me, it’s complicated. And at its heart is a sentiment I think a lot of men can relate to. If you’re someone who loves your father, there’s still a part of you that fears turning into him — maybe because you don’t want to repeat his mistakes or because you want to feel like you’re your own person. It’s a poignant attraction/repulsion tension, and it helps further humanize Marvel’s latest superhero. Sure, Shang-Chi is an incredible kung-fu badass, but he’s also kinda scared of his dad.

When we first meet Shaun (Simu Liu), he seems like a fairly normal dude. He parks cars in San Francisco and goofs off with his pal Katy (Awkwafina), staying up too late, singing karaoke and in general not worrying too much about the future. This isn’t the type of guy you would say has much initiative. But, it turns out, he’s been keeping something from Katy. Early on in Shang-Chi, they’re taking public transportation and, inexplicably, a bunch of mean-looking dudes with freaky weapons attack Shaun. Even weirder, he knows exactly what to do, expertly kicking and punching in every direction until all the baddies have been immobilized. Where did these fists of fury and that acrobatic grace come from? Who the hell is this guy? 

Shaun is forced to explain to his buddy that his real name is Shang-Chi — and that he’s a trained assassin who grew up in China under the tutelage of Wenwu (Tony Leung), a centuries-old warrior who leads the Ten Rings, a deadly criminal organization. (Wenwu gets his powers from those rings around his arms, so don’t you dare think they’re just decorative bracelets.) As a boy, Shang-Chi was given a kill assignment that he refused to obey, instead running off and creating a new life in America. But now, that old life has found him. Shang-Chi must go back and finally face his past — and his dad.

Simu Liu as the titular Shang-Chi in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Photo by Jasin Boland. ©Marvel Studios 2021.

If that was all that Shang-Chi was about — this long-delayed reunion between father and son — and it had been developed more smartly, I probably would have liked the movie better. I’ve always gravitated to superheroes who hide their powers — I’m thinking of something like Bruce Willis’ tormented character from Unbreakable — because it runs counter to most people’s assumption about how they’d handle having an amazing skill. You’d want to show that off, right? So, what would keep you from doing that? Well, look no further than Shang-Chi’s dilemma: For one thing, he feared that if he used his skills, he’d alert his father to his location.  

As I’ve mentioned before, ever since Thanos died in Avengers: Endgame, the MCU has been listing, failing to come up with installments as compelling now that our heroes’ main nemesis — the supervillain whose importance was hyped over several films — is gone. Shang-Chi deals with the problem by being relatively small-scaled. (The fate of the entire universe doesn’t hang in the balance.) But now that Marvel has made so many of these movies — each one more epic than the last — it’s starting to feel like the studio simply can’t downshift. As a consequence, Shang-Chi is bloated with lots of plot, side characters and confusing worldbuilding. (The story eventually becomes a quest to free Shang-Chi’s dead mother from some phantom zone, introducing a fantasy element, including some surreal creatures, that feels jarring after the more stripped-down martial-arts excitement that came before.) 

Thematically, all that narrative busyness makes sense — without spoiling anything, let’s just say that mom’s death is another point of contention between father and son. But as a practical matter, it comes across as the Marvel brass (and director Destin Daniel Cretton, whose best film is the tiny, lovely character drama Short Term 12, which starred Captain Marvel herself, Brie Larson) anxiously cramming in as much showstopping spectacle as possible in order to satisfy fans.

If you can forgive the film’s excesses — and the depressing realization that this is yet another Marvel movie in which actors look really constipated while they shoot CG energy waves at each other — that father-son drama is adequately affecting, if also pretty familiar. (Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader could relate to what Shang-Chi and Wenwu are going through.) What helps matters is some astute casting. Liu is entirely believable as an amiable young man who never lived up to his potential. (If we had a thing called slackers anymore, he’d be one.) But, to be fair, that potential was in something Shang-Chi didn’t want to be — he has the talent for kung fu, but not the desire to use it to kill. That principled position makes him admirable, but it’s striking that, probably intentionally, Liu doesn’t have nearly as much grandeur and presence as Leung. 

Tony Leung as Wenwu. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2021.

Now 59, this longtime star of Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai’s movies (most memorably In the Mood for Love) exudes an almost mythic amount of serene chill. Leung’s unreadable face — Is that despair? Menace? — makes him a perfect Wenwu, who’s not just a fearsome terrorist but also deeply, deeply disappointed in his son. Wenwu doesn’t have to say anything to Shang-Chi: The blankness of his expression is enough for his son to project his own shame and guilt onto the situation. Shang-Chi didn’t want to become an assassin, and yet he can’t deny this complicated connection with his father, who sculpted him (often painfully) into the martial-arts wonder he’s spent his adult life trying to duck. (Adding to the sticky family dynamic, Meng’er Zhang plays Xialing, Shang-Chi’s estranged sister, who also tried to escape their father’s dark influence — although, as a woman, she was treated as secondary behind her golden-child brother, the apple of Wenwu’s eye.)

I’m forever grateful not to have a father who browbeat (or literally beat) greatness into me — someone who made his love conditional on whether I succeeded. But I imagine there’s a powerful, undeniably tangled relationship between a dad and his boy when that specific rapport does exist: You hate your old man for being so tough on you, and yet you feel bonded to him, forever wanting his approval. The physical and emotional trauma is woven into the fabric of the love you have for the man — they’re inseparable because they come from the same source. And if you try to walk away from your father’s influence, it can then be hard to define your own identity — after all, you’ve spent your whole life filling a role he envisioned for you. Who are you without him?

It’s one of the darker ironies of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings that when we first meet Shaun, he’s kind of a nobody — a nice guy, sure, but not someone you’d want to watch a comic-book movie about. He’s not Peter Parker, who was thrust into extraordinary circumstances thanks to a radioactive spider bite — or even Scott Lang, a smart-ass crook who becomes a better person once he’s Ant-Man. Shaun flees “greatness” because the toll on his soul was too much — although there’s a clever twist we’ll eventually learn that adds some intriguing complexity to his decision to leave China. 

Most people would give anything to be a superhero. For Shang-Chi, it comes with a heavy price. Only by returning to his homeland — only by returning to his father’s house — does he finally fulfill his destiny. He’d have never become a superhero without Wenwu — he doesn’t want to turn into his father, but he has his old man to thank for being in the same ratified air as the Avengers. Our fathers do a number on us, but they make us the men that we are — in Shang-Chi’s case, whether he likes it or not.