This review is about the recent Shang Chi comic series by Gene Luen Yang, Dike Ruan and Philip Tan (and it’s free if you’ve got Amazon Prime or Comixology Unlimited or a special relationship with the perv at your local comic book store- no links for him, though). I’m not terribly familiar with Shang Chi. He’s been hanging around in the background in some Avengers books I’ve read, or standing around in Heroes for Hire, often in the worst costume of the bunch. I really don’t blame him. He’s kind of like Luke Cage in that regard, both 70s debuts chasing movie trends (blaxsploitation for Luke, martial arts movies for Shang Chi), both not quite prominent enough to have long-running books and dozens of costumes from which to evolve their own iconic style. The solution that stuck for Luke was just putting him in street clothes and losing his tiara; Shang never even had one of those to ditch.
First things first, they got Asian people to work on this! It’s a positive development; while there are exceptions, in general you’re going to get a more authentic and nuanced story about a certain group of people from somebody intimately familiar with them; it’s essentially ‘write what you know’ applied to hiring decisions.
Case in point, the team leans into the martial arts roots of the story, but find a good balance between building a fantastical superhero world, martial arts action and intrigue, and building in just enough slice of life to make Shang Chi feel like a person in his own right.
The story itself is… just okay. Shang Chi’s sister (adoptive, I think) became head of the House of Hammers to impress their adoptive father. And failed, because he was a dick. So after his death, she kills the head of the House of Staffs to try to become the Supreme Commander of their five houses. The problem is, even from the grave daddy is withholding, and chooses Shang Chi as the new Supreme Commander, a title (and even a life) he doesn’t want. Hammer dispatches assassins to kill Shang Chi, but he’s saved by the heads of the other houses, who quest with him to find the tomb of their uncle, their adoptive father’s brother, to gain insight on how to handle their sister.
Everything up to this point feels pretty good, enough action but also enough character work to make it more endearing than just your average martial arts pastiche- which is smart, because what separates Marvel from its competition is its superior character work. You’d absolutely get a donut with Tony Stark, just to talk. You’d only ironically hang out with Batfleck, to hear him rant for a half an hour about how the waitress deserves to be branded for bringing him coffee that was only warm and not hot.
Unfortunately, the ending is where Shang Chi stumbles. The resolution is a bit too metaphysical, with not quite enough kung fu fighting for my taste, and it feels like a rushed ending. It seems to imply there’s more coming, so maybe we should be reading this story in the sense of an episode of the old He-Man show, where Skeletor slinking off at the end of the episode isn’t meant to give a weak climax, but to imply that the story is ongoing. But I’m not grading this on a curve. It should have a satisfying conclusion, because nothing makes me less likely to pick up the next volume (or issue, if you’re into floppies) than the previous volume underwhelming; an audience will usually forgive a slower beginning or a sagging middle, but the end is where you want to hit them hardest. It’s the difference between a team leaving it all on the field, and it being clear they’re holding back their best stuff for the playoffs. It might make for sound strategy, but as an audience member it’s suboptimal. But I also don’t want to hold this to an unrealistic standard, either; it was a Shang Chi book that until the last chapter was fun and fast-paced, and even that last chapter was all right, it was just missing that feeling of completion, that this story was over, even if Shang Chi’s would continue.
Regardless, I’d suggest reading this book in place of viewing the movie. That’s because, seriously, I don’t want tragedy to befall you just to see a movie. I’m stoked for Shang Chi, too, and would love to have had a chance to have an Asian Black Panther on our hands… but the cost is too high right now (maybe by the sequel we’ll have this pandemic thing worked out and it can break out*). No one should risk their or anyone else’s life for a superhero movie. Read a comic instead- this one, as a show of support if you want, or literally anything else. We can all stream it together when it’s available for that.
*Also, the sequel should involve cloning, and be set exclusively within the confines of Wisconsin, and called Shang Cheese**.
**Personally, I think it’s brave to make jokes even dads roll their eyes at.