Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

I don’t know all the comic book characters in the Marvel comics, because I stopped reading comics in 1969. I have nothing against them, I just developed other interests. Fans of the comics however will be burdened by their expectations with the introduction of each new character in a big screen adaptation of the comic. I both benefit and suffer because of my detachment. I benefit by not having preconceived notions about how a character should be played, what stories to be told and I don’t have the artwork from the comics haunting my brain and forcing unfavorable comparisons. I suffer because I miss out on the anticipation of a new character. I don’t have a ready data base of knowledge to draw upon when trying to figure out who is who in a new film. So which of these two sides do I prefer? It’s simple, I like my ignorance because it fuels my joy of discovery. This week, I got to discover a Comic Book hero that I suspect I will enjoy for a long time. This movie surprised me in all the good ways a movie should.

Moving into Phase Four of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe was going to be a challenge for me. Most of the characters I was long familiar with were being retired from active film service. I knew that new storylines and characters were coming, I just was not sure how I would respond to them. When Doctor Strange showed up in the MCU, I did not think I would care much for that type of story. It did not take long for me to take to it with enthusiasm. I felt the same way going into this film. I thought it might be OK, and I would live with being a little underwhelmed. It is so great to say I went the other way. This was a blast, the character has great potential, and the world building in this was not so convoluted that I rejected it out of hand. When taken on it’s own out of context, it is pretty darn great. 

There are comic fans who grow weary of origin stories, but I am not one of those. I enjoy discovering the background of a superhero, learning about their human weaknesses as well as their strengths. If you create a rich environment and colorful characters to go with the hero, so much the better. Shang Chi starts in the past, travels to different dimensions, operates in familiar contemporary environments and then takes us back to those magical dimensions that we started off with. This film also manages to accomplish something a lot of comic book movies fail at, creating an interesting climax for the final battle of the movie. We were given enough information to know that we should dread something that is coming, but it was not belabored and when it arrives, there are still surprises for us and some tension as a result. 

I’m not sure I would love a whole comedy show by Awkwafina, but I have been given enough of her in movies the last few years that I appreciate the dose level she is providing at the moment. Whenever she is on screen, expect a little injection of fun. When she gets some opportunity to act she has been solid (The Farewell), and in this movie, she gets to be more than the comic relief. There are a bunch of wonderful actors that I am not familiar with because they appear primarily in television shows or in Asian language films. Tony Chiu-Wai Leung as the powerful and evil Xu Wenwu was appropriately conflicted, he is more tunnel visioned than bad in this story. Simu Liu was great as the lead, he is not simply an iron fisted warrior, but presented as a complete character with a sense of humor and a young man’s foolishness. Michelle Yeoh, provides an elegant touch with aging beauty and wisdom to go with her character’s stern demeanor and family traditions. 

Because there are some connections to earlier MCU films, it would be a spoiler to reveal too many appearances by other actors. I will say that the presence of one character in particular helps redeem his storyline in an earlier film, and makes this one the sort of fun movie we have expected from Marvel since the first “Iron Man”. So even though the earlier MCU films have played out their plots, there are still strings to be tugged on, and doing so has lead not to the unraveling of an intricate piece of knitting, but rather it reveals some hidden gems that we will get to explore more. It’s great when a movie is so much more than you expected, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is one of those. 

Raya and the Last Dragon

In the last few weeks, I have revisited a number of animated films that I remember having a solid emotional connection to. “Ratatouille” works like the devil and it has an emotional wallop to it at the end. Pixar has thrived on the “Toy Story” films and manages to get us with them almost every time. “Moana” and “Tangled” worked for me very well. “Frozen” was a moderate success from my perspective whereas it’s sequel is a disaster .  “Raya and the Last Dragon” is perfectly fine in a number of ways and I can heartily recommend it to animation fans, but I must acknowledge a reservation. I felt more detached from the film than I should have. 


This is an original story, with a production design that pays homage to a culture that is under represented in American animated movies. Let me start by complementing the artistry of the backgrounds and the inventiveness of the landscapes and nations that are presented in the story. The people who populate each segment of the lost nation of Kumandra, look distinct enough for us to identify but also they look as if they can share a culture as well. We don’t really get to spend much time in a couple of the segment nations that are labeled by the part of the dragon topography we see on the maps in the story. Fang, Heart, Spine, Tail and Talon each end up with a piece of critical gemstone that can be used to resist a mysterious plague that turns the living residents into stone. The mythology feels genuine for the cultures that the story is based on, even if they are invented. 


Raya takes her place as a Disney Princess, and she is closer to Mulan than Elsa. This is a warrior who moves from being a little girl at the start of the film, to a woman on a crusade for the majority of the story. There is a turning point near the end of the film which feels completely appropriate given the set up of the story, so it should resonate well but for some reason it doesn’t quite hit for me, and I can’t really explain why. The character arc is right, the plot points lead us to this conclusion, and we have had a variety of character to relate to so we should feel invested. I just did not and that is a disappointment for me in spite of all the excellent work that the film makers did, apparently most of it from home under the pandemic rules. 

One of the major characters in the story is the Last Dragon of the title, Sisu, voiced by Awkwafina. Her take on the voice and characterization reminded me of Phyllis Diller and the animation style, while certainly in keeping with the production design, made this character feel a little too cartoon like. I enjoyed her attitude but in the context of the story it feels like some comic relief being imposed on the proceedings. There is also a baby character that seems designed for humor and heart but who also undermines some of the tone of the film. The character of Tong as the sole survivor of his nations populace was actually fun and tragic in the right proportions. Namaari is an antagonist that is also well thought out and the nickname she is given at one point is one that I will be adopting for my oldest daughter, Allison, get ready to be referred to as Princess Undercut. 

This movie has everything going for it, and if I’d not seen every Disney/Pixar/Dreamworks/Fox film in the last thirty years, it probably would have worked for me a little better. Those of you with kids can safely assume they will be fine with this because it will probably feel fresh to them. 

The Farewell

Here is another opportunity to visit with a different culture and see how it contrasts to the one you likely fit in. An immigrant Chinese Family returns to China to see an ill grandmother, but the extent of the illness is to be kept from the woman because of family expectations. When the granddaughter and her parents express their doubts about this choice, they explain to her Uncle, that it would not even be possible to keep this information from the woman, in the U.S. it would be illegal.  That’s a pretty stark contrast in values and there are other places where the differences come up as well.

Billi, the character played by star Awkafina, is devoted to her grandmother, speaking to her on the phone on a regular basis, even though it has been years since they have been together. Her parents are willing to go along with the charade, both out of duty but also because they too believe it is a wise thing to do. Billi is invited to not travel to the makeshift wedding of her cousin that has been established as the subterfuge to justify all the family members arriving simultaneously. Her parents do not believe she can be trusted to withhold her grief from Grandma [Nai Nai]. This is certainly true as the story goes on, because Billi cannot retrain herself from going to China and she is not a good enough actor to hide the fact that something is wrong. Awkafina on the other hand seems to be a good enough actress to show us all of those things about Billi, sometimes in narrative but usually in demonstration. Her bowed head and slumped shoulders are a giveaway that she is beaten down by life but especially by this moment in her life.

This story may pose an additional issue that is unrelated to a specific culture but is connected to all of us and our health. Ask yourself, “How important is my attitude toward the management of a heath crisis?” A doctor telling you that you only have so long to live, might actually be accelerating your decay by taking whatever wind out of your sails you may have had. Depression has got to contribute to the decline in quality of life and the foreknowledge of your diagnosis is certainly going to be depressing. There may in fact be people out there who are pursuing a different type of youth in Asia [That’s a pun folks, not a misunderstanding of the word].

The story is ultimately a heart warming experience with a family in a period of crisis. In the long run, it is a family that does have each others best interests at heart so the conflicts are minor rather than melodramatic. Nai Nai is a hoot, she says the right thing at the right time and her loving attitude toward everyone is something we could all hope for. The one thing that will stand out for most people is that eating is a critical part of these relationships, and as we see food being prepared, served, argued about and consumed, you will certainly wonder where you can get some of the dishes that are featured.

On a side note: This film is primarily in Mandarin with English subtitles. There are many sections in English but at least two thirds are in non-english formats. There were three large groups of families who came to see the movie which is great, but the one family that sat next to us proved a bit of a problem. The seven or eight year old boy was clearly not interested and apparently not capable of reading effectively. His mother narrated all of the film that was not in English and it was incredibly distracting despite the fact she was not particularly loud. So we are hearing the words in one language, reading them in another, and hearing them again in the second language. It was an annoying echo that undermined the experience substantially, and when the mother had to explain some things to the child, it was even more problematic. This was a bad choice for them and it was a worse one for us.