With Further Ado #162: I Miss My Old Pals From Shang Chi

Is it ever permissible to review a movie before you see it? And if so, can I give it four stars ahead of time?

I have yet to see Disney/Marvel’s latest superhero movie, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings . But given the track record of Kevin Feige and his teams, I’m sure I’ll enjoy it.  It’s looks to be both fun and important.

And you know what? A mostly Asian cast is a good start to rectifying wrongs of the past.  This movie blew past all early estimates and scooped up in nearly $100 million at the U.S. box office over the Labor Day weekend. Its now one of the top-grossing movies of the year. Not too shabby, right?

My one worry is that this movie doesn’t seem to be about my old pal Shang Chi and his friends, lovers and antagonists. I am glad that this character is now given Cinematic Validations, but back in the 70s, Marvel’s Master of Kung Fu was one badass title. It quickly became a favorite and a must-read.  Like Conan the Barbarian, MoKF (as we called it back then) existed in its own corner of the inter-connected Marvel Universe, mostly independent of the usual cross-over nonsense. And it had a tone all its own.

Shang Chi was the protagonist, but he also served as our entry point to the ongoing spy stories. Shang would often refer to his adventures as “games of death and deceit”.  It was a sprawling engaging tapestry: a James Bond world with nefarious villains, creative henchmen (ala Goldfinger’s Oddjob) and over-the-top plots.  The love interest was the beautiful – but deadly – Leiko Wu and Shang’s comrades in arms were Brits like Black Jack Tarr and other spies – pulled from the pulps or created as offspring of famous fictional characters.

In this old comic series, Shang Chi was the wayward son of master villain Fu Manchu, a pulp villain.  As a kid, my local library, the legendary Seymour Library, had several Fu Manchu adventures in the mystery section. When I found them I thought I had discovered treasure. I loved reading them.

Each story was filled to the brim with an overwhelming sense of urgency. “We’ve got to get going right now to save the world!” seemed to be the mission statement. The heroes of these old stories, greatly aged for the modern age, were also part of the supporting cast of the Master of Kung Fu comic. There was something special about reading of their adventures as young men while thrilling to the new/current exploits of MoKF each month.

Unfortunately, these old stories were full of racist nonsense.  Fu Manchu, the villain, embodied all the paranoia and fears of the so-called Yellow Peril.  Still, as a kind of a prototype Dr. Doom, Fu Manchu often acted with a sort of evil honor and dignity. His evil daughter, Fah Lo See, was alluring and evil and the father-daughter relationship often took unexpected twists and turns. Comic fans would see this play out years later via the Batman villain, Ra’s Al Ghul and his alluring daughter, Talia.

Back in the day, I’d bring home my stack of weekly comics. I put MoKF on the bottom as I wanted to read it last and savor it. My ever-supportive Dad would always wander over, like a hungry man at a buffet table, and ask which comics I got that week.  His two must-reads were DC’s Jonah Hex and Marvel’s Master of Kung Fu.

With this new movie debut, it’s a wonderful thing that the Asian community has a hero that looks like them. Long overdue. I will let you in on a secret, though, we all identified with Shang Chi. I’m a white Italian-American and Shang was my guy.

He was the ultimate outsider in his adventures, always reluctant to fight, despite his superior skill level.  His thoughts and observations of the world, often spun out with a  Fleetwood Mac-like lyrical quality, often mirrored what I was feeling, although I would never have been so artful to put it quite the way Shang Chi did.

The ups and downs with his girlfriend, Leiko, along with all the twists, turns and betrayals of adolescent relationships seemed to echo what I was going through in high school.

Although the supporting cast looks to be largely absent in the movie, that’s ok. The comic was the comic. In fact, so much of the enjoyment of MoKF wasn’t the characters, but the writing by Doug Moench and so much spectacular artwork by favorites like Paul Gulacy, Mike Zeck and Gene Day.  Back then, these creators were hitting it outta the ballpark on that cheap newsprint every month.

I ‘stopped by’ the Geekview tavern recently to chat with some old friends about this fantastic series. You can listen to it all here.  It was a ball to reminisce about an old friend like Shang Chi.

*** The next wonky, over-the-top series that Doug Moench wrote was called Aztec Ace. It was a wild series with an Aztec lead and a Greek-American female lead. In fact, I think that Bridget Kronopolis is one of my all-time favorite comic characters.  I never thought that we’d see Shang Chi on the big screen, so who knows? Maybe there’s a possibility for more Azetc Ace.