On one level, the ending of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is what you’d expect from a Marvel movie. The heroes fight a horde of CG creatures to save the world — but it isn’t quite that straighforward, as some elements of the climax are open to interpretation.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is in theaters today, Sep. 3 (and reportedly streaming on Disney Plus in October). “From opening battle to inevitable post-credits scene,” CNET’s review says, “Shang-Chi comes with Marvel strengths and weaknesses while also feeling like something winningly new.”
Drawing on Chinese myths and philosophy, the ending sees Shang-Chi choose a path that allows him to take on both the soul-sucking creatures and his own father. During the final fight, his choices and their consequences are presented visually, as not everything is explicitly explained in dialog or referenced earlier in the film. That makes the ending either intriguingly philosophical or annoyingly vague, giving you scope to come up with your own conclusions about how things turned out… or chuck popcorn at the screen.
Let’s see how that ending could be interpreted. Spoilers, obviously!
Heading into the finale of the movie, Shang-Chi and Xialing have arrived at the mystical hidden village of Ta-Lo, where they’re greeted by Michelle Yeoh as their auntie Ying Nan. She fills in the backstory of the village, introduced in Thor comics in 1980 as a pocket dimension filled with mythical animals like the Dijiang (the faceless winged creature that actor Trevor Slattery dubs Morris), and what appear to be lion-like Xiezhi.
Their father Wenwu soon spoils the family reunion, however, using his water map to bring an army of Ten Rings assassins to the long-hidden idyll. Having sent Shang-Chi to an apparent watery grave, Wenwu seeks out what he thinks is the voice of his late wife. Punching the scary-looking gate releases a bunch of flying CG critters, which is the first sign maybe it isn’t his beloved Jiang Li whispering to him after all.
The first casualty of the flying beasties is Death Dealer, the silent assassin in Kabuki-esque makeup. That’s pretty disappointing, because the character never really lived up to his badass looks. But there’s no time to worry about it as the soul-sucking nasties are followed by a much bigger boss beastie, the Dweller-in-Darkness. Debuting in the comics in 1974 as an opponent of Marvel heroes including Thor and Dr. Strange, it was a Lovecraftian entity feeding on fear. In the film, every kill makes the Dweller stronger, although for some reason it only takes an arrow to the throat to disable the fearsome creature. Nice shot Katy!
Thankfully, Shang-Chi doesn’t drown, because a dragon appears to help him out. Shang-Chi’s mom occasionally mentioned the village’s magic is connected to a dragon and it turns out this isn’t a metaphor: the dragon is real, lives in the lake and happily flies around with Shang-Chi on its back. It isn’t really clear if Shang-Chi is controlling the dragon or just hanging on for dear life, but their partnership seems to be a symbol of Shang-Chi’s new-found connection to nature.
When he’s not flying dragons, the conflict in Shang-Chi’s soul is symbolised on screen by the different fighting styles the character’s use. Shang-Chi was trained as a brutal killer by his father Wenwu, whose bludgeoning fighting style symbolises an ego-driven lust for power. It’s notable that Wenwu tries to open the gate by violently punching it, for example.
But upon arriving in Ta-Lo, both Wenwu and Shang-Chi are introduced to a gentler, more defensive style by the women they meet, a style that seems closer to dancing. These elegant movements can harness the wind, connecting with the elements and generally being more in harmony with nature. The contrast is seen in Wenwu’s bludgeoning closed fist versus Jiang Li’s elegant open hand.
The tension between closed fist and open hand is a key part of tai chi and other martial arts, seen in the hold fist salute when you place your open palm over your fist as a greeting. In the film, there’s a lovely moment where Ying Nan gently opens Shang-Chi’s hand. This is deft piece of visual storytelling that doesn’t need to be over-explained in dialog.
So although it isn’t explicitly stated, it seems that in their first meeting Jiang Li’s elegant style countered Wenwu’s brutality because her connection to the balance of nature was more powerful than his avarice for conquest.
That’s the lesson Shang-Chi takes into the finale. Facing his father, Shang-Chi must choose between the brutality his father taught him or the more gentle and natural path represented by his mother. By adopting his mother’s elegant style, even refusing to fight, he’s able to thwart his father’s attack just as his mother did.
At that point, Shang-Chi is also able to take control of the vaunted rings that his father used to seize power through the ages. Again, it isn’t explicitly explained why this is possible. It isn’t even particularly clear what choice or change Shang-Chi has made that allows him to take control of the rings. The MCU has already drawn on mythology to present weapons which respond to the character of the bearer, like Thor’s hammer, although the rings have done Wenwu’s bidding for millennia so clearly aren’t as good a judge of character as Mjolnir. It may be a believing-in-yourself thing like Luke Skywalker opening himself to the Force in Star Wars. But the theme of the film is conflicting identity, so it would make sense that Shang-Chi’s power is rooted in his newfound acceptance of his Chinese roots, his connection to tradition and nature, and a rejection of his father’s brutality.
So it seems the rings respond to Shang-Chi’s newfound natural and harmonious energy rather than to Wenwu’s brute force control. It’s likely that ties into the origin of the rings somehow, a story that the Avengers are keen to unravel in the mid-credits scene.
Unfortunately for Shang-Chi, his father’s essence is finally gobbled up by the Dweller-in-Darkness. But once Shang-Chi is in harmony with the rings and the dragon powers of the village, he’s able to ultimately defeat the soul-devouring creature.
When the village is safe, all that remains is to release water lanterns in tribute to the dead. Shang-Chi and Katy return to San Francisco, but their adventures are set to continue: Dr Strange’s mystical buddy Wong pops through a portal and whisks them off to study the ten rings, leading to the mid-credits scene involving Captain Marvel and Bruce Banner. That’s followed by a post-credits scene suggesting that even though Shang-Chi has the actual ten rings, Xialing has plans for the ninja army of the same name… Click here to dive into the Shang-Chi post-credits scenes in more detail.
Movies coming in 2021 and 2022 from Netflix, Marvel, HBO and more
See all photos