If Marvel’s latest superhero action flick, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, looks, upon first inspection, like it came out of nowhere then eagle-eyed MCU fans won’t be fooled.
The shadowy Ten Rings organisation has been an underlying element of the MCU since 2008, when it surfaced to kidnap Tony Stark in the first Iron Man film. Five years later, the person behind the Ten Rings organisation was deceptively introduced in MCU’s Iron Man 3, in the form of Iron Man’s arch-enemy The Mandarin, who first appeared in Marvel Comics in 1964, a decade before Shang-Chi.
Iron Man 3 revealed that the person purporting to be The Mandarin was actually an actor named Trevor Slattery, played by Ben Kingsley, hired by the leader of the Ten Rings to impersonate him and promote his agenda.
In this new origin story, the modern-day, reimagined Shang-Chi is revealed to be the son of the Ten Rings founder. Wanting nothing to do with his father, whom he blames for the death of his mother, Simu Liu’s Shang-Chi flees China as a teenager, making a new life in San Francisco. Hiding his identity, he goes by the name of “Shaun”, as we meet him today now working as a hotel parking attendant with his best pal Katy, portrayed by Awkwafina.
A polite and cautious young man, Shaun is content with his new life, assiduously avoiding unwanted attention.
The same could be said for the film’s breakout eponymous star, Simu Liu, a mild-mannered chap who left his Chinese homeland, aged five, for a new life in Canada, pleasing his aeronautical engineer parents by becoming an accountant.
But, when Liu was laid off from his accounting job at a big consulting firm, he found it difficult to tell his hardworking folks that he preferred to pursue his dream of becoming an actor.
“We had a lot of arguments and my parents felt like I was throwing my life away,” recalls Liu, 32, who has since made his parents proud, starring as the MCU’s first Asian superhero.
Not that success happened overnight. Hired as an extra in Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim in 2013, he landed a series of small acting jobs, three years later scoring a lead role in Canadian TV comedy Kim’s Convenience, about a Korean family who run a convenience store.
If it seems like Marvel took a major risk casting the little-known Liu to helm its latest superhero movie, then MCU honcho Kevin Feige, is hardly risk-adverse.
“I was lucky to be involved in the early Spider-Man and X-Men films before the first Iron Man movie. And I do think still the biggest risk – which seems outrageous to say now – was casting Robert Downey, Jr,” recalls Feige. “It was both the biggest risk and the most important thing in the founding of the MCU. Without Robert, we wouldn’t be sitting here today.
“Everybody knew Robert was an amazing actor, but he wasn’t an action star. But Jon Favreau really had a vision for that movie and for Robert in that role, and the success of that decision, I think, empowered us to take further risks.”
STACK can’t argue with Feige’s logic, further demonstrated by his choice to appoint Destin Daniel Cretton (Just Mercy, The Glass Castle) to direct this kung-fu action comedy with no real proven track record in the special effects arena.
A former childcare worker at a group home for at-risk teenagers, Cretton fully understands the dysfunctional family dynamic, believing himself well equipped to address the lingering childhood pain experienced by Shang-Chi and his sister, Xialing – portrayed by newcomer Meng’er Zhang.
“That job affected my entire life, my world view, so that I feel like the stories I am drawn to are a combination of humour and optimism, without shying away from the very real darkness and pain that we all experience as humans. I think this movie really encapsulates a lot of the things that I really believe in,” he tells STACK.
Reprising his droll turn as Trevor the actor, Kingsley joins in the chat, “There are motives that are life enhancing, without being patronising, because they do introduce, in a beautiful way, memory, ancestry, loss – and families torn apart and reunited and reconfigured. This is all from Destin and Kevin and the writer’s heart. And if your motives are pure as a storyteller, the angels will come to assist you with that story.
“To tell a story is to heal,” continues Kingsley. “And I think that this story is so rich, that it will ultimately be healing because it’s not propaganda. It’s just a really beautiful story. Trevor, of course, is a Shakespearean actor who finds himself transported into a completely exotic environment, but he survives. I have done 17 out of Shakespeare’s whole canon of plays so I’m sort of a Shakespearean actor but, as soon as I arrived on set, the fact that my colleagues were from a different culture was immaterial and irrelevant. We are actors together. We live on empathy and transformation. This is our currency,” he expounds.
If Kingsley is living in his own Shakespearean world, Shang-Chi is ultimately a movie about family and friendship – with lots of jaw-dropping kung-fu action sequences peppered with humour and hilarity, featuring the ever-reliable Michelle Yeoh and Tony Leung.
While Liu and Zhang and the ensemble cast bring the high octane moves, then Awkwafina provides the laughs, ensuring this is not just an action flick.
Her biggest stunts involve a bus and several cars, as well as bringing on her Katniss and training in archery. “I actually went to a race track and learned how to drift which was really fun, but probably not practical in any scenario like in traffic,” she deadpans. “But learning how to shoot a bow and arrow was pretty cool.”
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings opens in select Australian cinemas September 2, with VIC/NSW/ACT scheduled to follow on September 16.