*Spoilers below for "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings," now in theaters. Seriously, literally the first sentence below this alert is a huge spoiler. So you've been warned.*
"Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings" marked the first time in a while where I was actively upset a movie villain died.
When Hong Kong cinema legend Tony Leung's character got his soul gobbled up by a demonic dragon with weird Cthulhu tentacles on his back, the best part of the film was gone. Leung, a global superstar in his Hollywood debut, not only steals the show, but knocks the film on its head, straps it on his back and runs off with it.
As Wenwu, the 1,000-year-old criminal overlord who is the father of the titular hero, played by Simu Liu, and of his daughter Xu Xialing, played by Meng'er Zhang, Leung is absolutely magnetic. He slips seamlessly into being charming, furious, heartfelt, intimidating, gentle and even a little pathetic, but you can't take your eye off of him any time he's on screen. Whenever the camera wasn't focused on him, I wanted the film to cut back to him.
Not only does Leung bring his A-game, but he has the best written role in the film. In the screenplay by Dave Callaham, Andrew Lanham and director Destin Daniel Cretton, we get a clear sense of who Wenwu is and what he wants. His motivations run deeper than those of the largely one-dimensional antagonists the Marvel Cinematic Universe was somewhat infamous for in its first few years.
Heartbroken over the loss of his wife and Shang-Chi's mother, Ying Li (Fala Chen), who helped him reform for a time, Wenwu is tricked into thinking she isn't dead and is being held captive in Ta Lo, the dimension she hails from. So he's desperately trying to get back the woman who made him dare to think that he could change as a person, although he isn't aware that he is just being manipulated by the "Dweller-in-Darkness" (the aforementioned dragon Cthulhu), a demon that is trapped in Ta Lo, and she is actually dead.
Leung and the role dominate the proceedings so completely that you feel sorry for his co-stars, such as Liu and Awkawfina, portraying Shang-Chi's best friend, Katy. They're far from bad and I'm looking forward to seeing more of them. But the whole thing is swept up under them, to the film's detriment, although it is still a solid action picture. The rest of the movie simply doesn't reach the caliber of Leung and everything going on with Wenwu. Here, an MCU bad guy isn't simply a great element of a film; he upstages the entire undertaking. Again, that's a far cry from most of the early non-Loki villains, who fans often singled out as the weakest links of their respective installments.
Remarkably, Leung isn't actually on screen for a ton of the film's running time but he's in it a fair amount. It's a supporting but significant role, but he makes every single solitary second count. At one point, when Wenwu informs his estranged children of his intention to have them help him break Ying Li out of Ta Lo, he says it with a disarming smile, as if a part of him genuinely sees this as an opportunity for all of them to do this and be a family again.
Of course, you get a sense that this is a manipulation, but with a lingering possibility that Wenwu truly does want his son and daughter by his side. Either way, the rainbow of emotions in that smile makes that one close-up one of the images that have stuck with me the most — in a movie that includes images such as massive CGI dragons battling each other and the best fights the MCU has offered so far. The way Leung's face sours into a rage when they reject him is striking. In a flashback shown later in the film, he wastes a bunch of gangsters with frightening ease using his 10 arm rings that give him super strength and allow him to attack with electricity. His body conveys deadly efficiency with a stone-cold expression as he unleashes his power in front of Shang-Chi.
Moments later, he gets close to his son's face and speaks largely with the gentle but firm assurance of a parent speaking with a child. He nails the nuances of a role that could have veered into mustache-twirling villainy or pure melodrama in other hands. The emotion from Leung never feels less than genuine, even amid the aforementioned CGI creatures and physics-shattering stunts around him.
Wenwu's motivations are far more sympathetic than your average antagonist, although he is being manipulated into releasing a soul-sucking demonic force when he thinks it's his wife. Flashbacks through the film establish Wenwu's love for Ying Li despite his ruthless nature. In fact, the movie's opening is not at all what you would normally expect from a superhero origin story, as it's Ying Li telling a young Shang-Chi about how she met Wenwu.
Their fight is a standout scene and introduces the story's villain in a fun and even romantic light as their battle plays like a fluid dance as they make flirting eyes at each other the entire time (I actually wrote "Horniest ballet fight of all time?" in my notes as I watched the film). It's unlike how a four-quadrant blockbuster would usually introduce it's big bad, and it helps inform the rest of its actions — from his own sociopathic viewpoint, he thinks he is doing this for love.
That level of humanity and the dimension Leung breathes into the character differentiates Wenwu from a lot of action movie crooks. The performance and character is the best part of the film, where everything else ranges from fine to strong (outside of the intense fight scenes), so it feel like the exact opposite the MCU flicks for about the eight seven years, where a lot of the villains who weren't Loki were often bland and forgettable (though I would personally make arguments for Obadiah Stane in "Iron Man" and Justin Hammer in "Iron Man 2." Since 2016, Marvel's cadre of goons and lunatics have had considerably more work put in toward making them compelling, with more hits than misses. Some, such as Thanos and Killmonger, have become iconic while others are otherwise fan-favorite such as Zemo or The Vulture. Wenwu, through upstaging much of the movie around him, shows how far Marvel Studios has come in that regard.
Think I'm right? Think the rest of the film matched Leung's performance? Did I gush over Leung's acting too much? Let me know @KellyRocheleau on Twitter.
Staff writer Kelly Rocheleau can be reached at (315) 282-2243 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @KellyRocheleau.