Two years ago when Kevin Feige announced at San Diego Comic-Con that an obscure Marvel hero named Shang-Chi, portrayed by newcomer Simu Liu, was about to get his own film I was excited but skeptical.
With Phase Four becoming a chance for Marvel Studios to finally tell more and more diverse stories the notion of an Asian superhero getting their own movie was thrilling but it felt like the franchise was piggybacking off of Black Panther‘s success.
Not to mention the fact that when I did research on the character he was known as a stereotypical Kung Fu Master instead of just being a cool superhero with special powers.
Even when the first teaser for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings dropped I was pleased with the look of the movie but I ultimately didn’t think it would be that great. Fast forward a few months later and suddenly the critic and fan reactions for the film are pouring in describing a film with some of the best action scenes in the MCU as well as being an incredibly fun movie.
In fact, the overwhelmingly positive word-of-mouth continued to stream in through the air waves and the film shattered all expectations, making nearly $100 million during the four-day Labor Day weekend, silencing all the naysayers in the process.
Now, after its fourth week of success at the box-office (becoming only the third Marvel movie to stay #1 at the box-office for four straight weeks alongside Black Panther and Guardians of the Galaxy) Shang-Chi has only broken more ground, becoming the highest-grossing movie at the domestic box office. And while all of this success for the incredibly deserving latest addition to the MCU sounds great on the surface there are a lot of variables to the film’s box-office triumphs(?)
Denis Villeneuve recently commented that MCU films are “cut and paste of one another” and even though I tried not to be, I got a little triggered. I understood what he meant and that he’s mostly correct but as an MCU fan I felt I had to defend a franchise that I loved so much.
What turned into a simple observational rant with my sister transformed into an epiphany as we realized the secret sauce for Star Wars and Marvel’s greatest third acts. And of course, I’m here to share that epiphany with you. Enjoy!
(This is a longread.)
For some, the MCU’s final acts can be a little stale. For years we have come to expect a story that finds a way to challenge the heroes in the film before reaching a climactic CGI-heavy battle that range from awesome and unforgettable to kind-of-underwhelming.
And while most of the time the third acts are my favorite portion of the film I understand some fans’ exasperation for this somewhat tiring formula. So why do some Marvel films stand out against others? Well, to understand the power of a third act let’s look at the Star Wars movies.
Star Wars: A New Hope followed the classic storytelling template of the Hero’s Journey with a young man going on a wild adventure to save a princess and becoming a hero by the conclusion of that story.
He became a hero, however, thanks to a climactic showdown that featured a giant weapon that had to be destroyed: the Death Star. It was a riveting story and when he managed to blow it up it’s one of the greatest moments in the franchise.
Since then, nearly every Star Wars movie has featured a weapon of some kind needing to be destroyed. Talk about repetitive!
Return of the Jedi, the first somewhat-disappointing Star Wars movie, featured an unfinished second Death Star that was the primary focus of the film. And of course, in repetitive fashion, the Rebel Alliance had to destroy it or the galaxy would be in turmoil.
The only thing that saved that third act from being the ultimate snooze fest was the riveting confrontation between Luke Skywalker, his father Darth Vader, and Palpatine. It was that personal touch that made the movie special and memorable.
You see, Luke fighting to save his father gave emotional gravitas to an ending that could’ve been kind of boring but his showdown with Palpatine was anything but boring because there was that personal connection.
That storyline with Vader and Luke honestly saved the movie because everything else was kind of so-so. Think about the rest of the films that feature massive third acts resulting in some sort of weapon needing to be destroyed.
The Phantom Menace, Trade Federation ship needs to be destroyed to save Naboo. The Force Awakens, the StarKiller Base (Death Star 3.0) needs to be destroyed. The Rise of Skywalker, a satellite needs to be destroyed to stop the Final Order from taking over the galaxy.
And even though Attack of the Clones doesn’t exactly have a weapon that needs destroying, its climactic battle held no personal connection to the characters. The same can be said with Solo: A Star Wars Story. The movie’s climax is boring because we don’t really care about Qi’ra’s story with Dryden, Han’s relationship with Beckett, or even Han’s connection with Qi’ra. So the end just kind of…happens.
You see the trend with these movies? The lack of the personal touch in these movies’ third acts make for somewhat a boring movie. And even though The Force Awakens is a great film it’s a copycat of A New Hope‘s entire structure.
Now let’s look at the best Star Wars movies and their incredible third acts.
Revenge of the Sith didn’t conclude with a massive space battle for the fate of the galaxy. It concluded with a very personal showdown between Anakin and Obi-Wan on Mustafar and across the galaxy we had the ultimate duel between the galaxy’s greatest Force-users, Yoda and Palpatine.
We feel so many feelings throughout the film’s final minutes because the trilogy has established a profound connection between these characters that when we see this lightsaber-duel conclusion it feels like it means something.
Padme dies, her children are born and separated, Yoda goes into exile, and the galaxy has actually been taken over by the Empire. It’s a somber ending but it is a fitting conclusion to the Prequel Trilogy.
Rogue One does have a very loooong climactic finale but the personal connection comes with Jyn’s determination to see her father’s plan realized. Plus, not only are the stakes very high but all of the characters die. It’s shocking, it’s emotional to watch, and it’s one of the more memorable endings in the franchise.
The Last Jedi is a mixture of both worlds. On one hand, it suffers terribly from the need-to-destroy-the-weapon storyline as Finn and Rose are assigned on a boring mission to find a way to disable the Dreadnaught’s hyperspace tracker. On the other hand, the film concludes with another personal showdown between Kylo and Snoke, then Rey and Kylo, and then finally Kylo and Luke. The film’s final twenty minutes are utterly fascinating and if the rest of the movie had found a way to exclude that ridiculous casino-detour and Poe’s annoying shenanigans, the movie would’ve been so much better.
The Empire Strikes Back is the perfect Star Wars movie because it takes the personal touch to a whole other level. The film’s biggest battle comes in the film’s first forty minutes on Hoth. After that, the story establishes the connections between the characters–Han and Leia’s burgeoning romance, Luke and Yoda’s master-and-apprentice dynamic–so that when the film’s third act arrives you’re so invested in these characters’ stories the movie becomes even more riveting.
Han gets frozen in carbonite which is a heartbreaking development for Leia. Luke faces Vader in an epic lightsaber duel that concludes with Skywalker losing his hand and a bombshell announcement, Vader is Luke’s father.
You can’t get more personal than that.
So yes, we have now established that a great third act must have a personal touch. Now let’s look at the MCU stories that actually follow this approach.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, and Endgame, just to name a few.
And what do all of these movies have in common? Their third acts are permeated with that personal touch.
Through all of the classic climactic explosions in The Winter Soldier, there’s a deeper emotional storyline as Captain America tries to save his friend, Bucky. Groot dies in Guardians of the Galaxy. Iron Man goes to town on Captain America and Bucky in Civil War because of their connection to the death of his parents. Black Panther‘s final act features a climactic showdown between cousins T’Challa and Killmonger. And Infinity War and Endgame‘s final acts features Thanos who, having already killed off some of favorite characters, raises the stakes to astronomical levels as we see The Avengers take him on, lose, then fight him again and win, only to lose Iron Man and Black Widow permanently in the process.
Now, let’s look at the MCU stories in Phase 4 so far.
WandaVision concludes with a bit of a boring CGI-showdown but it still manages to retain that personal connection to Wanda and her story of grief, making the series as a whole fit together rather nicely in that department.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier‘s finale is very lackluster because:
1: There’s no real personal connection between the heroes and the villains.
2: Karli’s motivations are murky and hard-to-understand so the stakes don’t seem very high. Hence, the reason why the finale is so boring.
Now, Loki gets it. Instead of having a massive showdown like I think we all expected it takes the very personal route with the introduction of He Who Remains, the man that destroyed Sylvie’s life. He tries to give Loki and Sylvie his job but she has no time for it, resulting in a fight/romantic moment between Loki and Sylvie that was anything but expected. Even the final moments with Ravonna and Mobius contain that emotional connection that makes their scenes interesting.
Black Widow‘s final act is slightly muddied by the CGI-explosion fest but it’s a very personal conclusion for Natasha Romanoff as she is forced to face off with Taskmaster, the man who destroyed her life General Dreykov, her fellow Black Widows, and she has to save her sister Yelena. It’s a powerful conclusion to her story in that film and a great origin story for Yelena at the same time.
And even Shang-Chi, through the CGI-heavy dragon showdown, found a way to make the entire climactic third act personal with Shang-Chi’s connection to Wenwu and his realization of who he is by embracing the light and dark within himself. And guess what? Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is one of the highest-rated superhero movies of all time.
So that’s it. That’s the secret sauce. If Marvel Studios and Lucasfilm can realize that their movies are best when their third acts are imbued with a personal touch there will always be a chance of getting a great movie.
I thank you for reading and I hope you have a great day.
This isn’t going to be a long, profound post about Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Ring‘s important impact on the AAPI community. It’s merely an observation piece, albeit a brief one, that had me seething last night.
In fact, it made me so angry I decided to write this post. And this is why.
In King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, a movie with an expected predominantly White cast there is an Asian character named George. In a sequence where Arthur and his buddies are telling a very convoluted story to a ranked soldier they mention George in a very derogatory fashion, calling him “Kung Fu George.”
My sister and I gasped. Mind you, this is a movie that came out just four years ago and yet the writers elected to treat its only Asian character in a demeaning way. So what he ended up becoming one of the Knights of the Round Table. They still slipped in an unnecessary form of racism.
Fast forward to now and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is dominating the box-office and is the highest-rated superhero movie among audiences on Rotten Tomatoes with a 98% score. A movie with a predominantly Asian cast and a story that never shrinks from highlighting the vibrant and fascinating cultures of the AAPI community.
I’ve read so many posts about why Shang-Chi is so important. And when you think about films like 2017’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword or 2016’s The Great Wall–a movie starring Matt Damon that portrayed him as the savior of China–you realize that yes, we have a long way to go in terms of inclusivity but it’s nice knowing that Shang-Chi and all of the accompanying characters in that film exist to wash away the stereotypes.
I thank you for reading and I hope you have a lovely day.
A couple of days ago I wrote the first part of this 3-part series where I look deep within and determine which mega-franchise I love better, Marvel or Star Wars.
In Part 1, I detailed the critic and audience reaction to each Star Wars film as well as my personal preference for each movie and the emotional rollercoaster that has been Star Wars for most of my life. As a Star Wars fan, it’s unfortunate to say that I’ve experienced more pain and depressing heartache with this franchise than unbridled joy and yet it is those bright spots–the lightsaber duels, the profound lessons that have actually helped me in my real life, the heroes and villains, and that incredible music–that keeps me invested in these stories.
Just look at my journey while watching The Bad Batch. Each week was a detailed account of my growing anger/disappointment with the series until by the end, I had given up caring about writing a weekly review for the show. And yet! I watched the whole thing. All sixteen episodes.
So yes, Star Wars may drive me batty sometimes but I am one of the most loyal fans that there is.
Now, Marvel Studios’ journey has been an entirely different ride altogether. It’s only been in the game for thirteen years but it has dominated a little over half of my life. I literally came of age with this franchise and these stories. My relationship with the Marvel Cinematic Universe is on a whole other level and I’m about to share my feelings of this franchise in great detail.
Well, I watched Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings again today and honestly, I can definitively say this is the best MCU origin story by a mile and one of the top ten MCU films.
Like I said in my last post, Shang-Chi isn’t a perfect movie. In the humor department some of the jokes feel a bit cheesy or poorly placed in between the awesome action scenes but that’s the only element of the film that takes some points away from the film. The rest of the movie is absolutely fantastic!
Considering that the movie has been out for a week I’m going to head into spoiler territory so I implore you to STOP READING NOWif you haven’t seen it already. Okay, here goes my review.
It’s been a while since I’ve updated my Marvel villains roster but a lot has come out since then and after Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings I felt it was the perfect time to revisit this list. (Btw, I will be including some What If…? villains into this story as well because there are a couple that really stood out to me.) Okay, here we go.
Malekith is still the worst MCU villain; the Dark Elf jibberish he speaks is ridiculous, and the entire design of the character is just not cool.
29. Karli Morgenthau
I wanted to like this character and while the writers tried to paint Karli in an empathetic light she and her scrappy band of Flag Smashers ultimately became some of my least favorite villains.
She brought nothing to this show and when she died I felt nothing.
28. Director Hayward
I think Director Hayward is undoubtedly the fandom’s most-hated villain and it’s easy to understand why. He is just so unbelievably dislikable and after seeing him manipulate the story about Wanda I disliked him even more!
Part of the reason why I don’t watch Ant-Man and the Wasp anymore is because I don’t like Ghost. But when she does return in the future I’ll be happy to see her.
26. Ivan Vanko/Whiplash
“I want my bird” is the only thing that makes this character half-memorable.
25. Ronan the Accuser
While Guardians of the Galaxy will always be one of my favorite Marvel films Ronan is just…corny. And he’s even worse in Captain Marvel.