Welcome to Movie DNA, a column that recognizes the direct and indirect cinematic roots of both new and classic movies. Learn some film history, become a more well-rounded viewer, and enjoy like-minded works of the past. This entry highlights a number of movies to watch if you like Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
Not all movie lovers enjoy the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but the Marvel Cinematic Universe can make cinephiles out of its fans. An exciting thing about Marvel Studios aiming for diversity in its representation is how it opens up the mainstream to wider variety of cultural influences. Black Panther entertains the masses with its superhero blockbuster spectacle. But it can also be a gateway for audiences to discover parts of Black film history, including African cinema and the aesthetic Afrofuturism.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings similarly encourages viewers to seek out the myriad corners of Hong Kong cinema that came before. And not just of the kung-fu or even martial arts variety. Through its homage and its casting and its promotional endeavors, as well some as its less-evident elements, the twenty-fifth entry in the MCU honors its roots. The movie knows where it comes from and hopefully directs us to learn of its ancestors so that we may seek out those older films.
Of course, you’re welcome to ignore the MCU and just become a cinephile without the middle man. Either way, I’ve compiled a list of great movies either acknowledged by the makers of Shang-Chi or simply recalled by me and other critics as being similar. If you are interested in Marvel movies, watching these older essentials will make you appreciate the latest more. Or, if you watch them all first, you’ll better appreciate Shang-Chi as you’re watching it.
Here are the movies you need to watch if you like Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings:
Battling Butler (1926)
In an interview with Fandango, director Destin Daniel Cretton acknowledges Buster Keaton as major influence on Shang-Chi. That’s not surprising given a lot of today’s action filmmakers reference Keaton, especially those involved with martial arts thanks to Jackie Chan’s constant tributes to his hero. Recognizing that the film’s late stunt coordinator and second-unit director Brad Allan was a fan of the silent comedian while setting up a clip of the scaffold fight scene, Cretton says:
“One of Brad Allan’s heroes is Buster Keaton. You’ll see a lot of Buster Keaton-like storytelling throughout this sequence, a lot of physical comedy, a lot of setups and payoffs.”
Physical comedy is definitely in Shang-Chi’s genes, but Keaton wasn’t exactly known for fight scenes, let alone martial arts. The closest movie I can think to recommend for fans of fight choreography is Battling Butler, in which Keaton winds up having to enter a boxing ring despite his lack of training. It’s hilarious and artful and, in my opinion, more entertaining than Charlie Chaplin’s balletic boxing sequences in his 1931 film City Lights (though you should definitely watch City Lights, too, maybe with your kids as double feature with Battling Butler).
If you’re unfamiliar with Keaton’s work and are inspired by Shang-Chi to become more acquainted, some other essential introductory films include 1926’s The General (you’ll love all the stuff on the train if you enjoy the runaway bus bit and the scaffold sequence). There’s also Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), and Sherlock Jr. (1924). You should also check out The Cameraman (1928) for a quick stunt with a scaffold, keeping it relevant to the Marvel movie and this scene in particular.
Eventually, when you’re a completist, you’ll enjoy his lengthy cameo in San Diego, I Love You (1944) as a bus driver. He’s no Awkwafina in the role, but it’s always nice to see his face onscreen.
Battling Butler is streaming on Kanopy.
Enter the Dragon (1973)
While this movie and its star, Bruce Lee, don’t have direct links to the Shang-Chi movie, I do want to acknowledge their connection through the original The Hands of Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu. The character Shang-Chi was created in the early 1970s inspired by the TV series Kung Fu and the martial arts craze associated with Bruce Lee following the successful posthumous release of his vehicle Enter the Dragon.
Just as filmmakers attempted to mimic and exploit his look and fighting style, so did Marvel’s artists use him and his fight scenes as their models for the Shang-Chi comic book character and action panels. Bruce Lee was also literally drawn into the Shang-Chi-associated ’70s comic The Deadly Hands of Kung Fu. Decades later, Marvel icon Stan Lee had an interest in Shang-Chi becoming a movie or TV series and wanted Bruce Lee’s son, Brandon Lee, to star.
Enter the Dragon is streaming on Tubi.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978)
For those of you who weren’t introduced to this movie by the Wu-Tang Clan or to its star, Gordon Liu, by Quentin Tarantino, now’s your chance to let Shang-Chi make the introduction. Or its director, anyway. In an interview with CNN, Cretton states, “The references are endless, going back to movies like The 36th Chamber of Shaolin.” It’s understandable that this would be included in the production’s viewing homework since it’s considered one of the best kung fu movies of all time.
But it wound up having a direct influence on Shang-Chi. In an interview with The Direct, producer Jonathan Schwartz talks about how they needed a new design for the Ten Rings since the comics version was finger rings and made people think too much of the Infinity Stones. Schwartz explains:
“One day we were watching a movie in the writer’s room, me, Destin, and Dave, called ‘The 36th Chamber of Shaolin,’ which starts with a kung fu training montage, using many weapons, one of which had these Hung Gar Iron Rings, which are a traditional Kung Fu weapon…Destin looked at those rings and said, ‘We should just do that for the Rings.’ And he was one-hundred percent right, and it was unique and so cool, it just felt like sort of the right thing to snap the movie into focus.”
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is streaming on Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.
The Young Master (1980)
You can’t have a martial arts movie and mention Buster Keaton as an influence without going through Jackie Chan. Well, you could. There’s no rule you can’t forge your own path. But the Jackie Chan connection to Keaton is so well-known that you should at least recognize his work. Plus, it’s brilliant. Anyway, Cretton does recognize Chan while also reminding that Allan was part of the Jackie Chan Stunt Team, originating with his first collaboration with Chan on Mr. Nice Guy (1997).
Cretton’s acknowledgment in the Fandango interview of Chan’s influence is simply “every Jackie Chan movie ever made.” Somewhere, an IMDb user found specific citations and listed the following on the Shang-Chi page as “main inspirations”: Project A (1983), Police Story (1985), Armour of God (1986), Police Story 2 (1988), Operation Condor (1991), Crime Story (1993), The Legend of Drunken Master (1994), and Rumble in the Bronx (1995), which gets nod in the bus sequence.
There are bits of many of those movies that we see translated to the Marvel machine in Shang-Chi. But our own Rob Hunter, who is admittedly much more knowledgeable about Asian action movies and especially martial arts movies than me, recommends going back just a bit earlier than all of them for Chan’s sophomore directorial effort, The Young Master. Sure, always start with the early stuff when getting to know any filmmaker, right?
I confess that it’s not one I’ve seen (yet). Rob points out that The Young Master is similarly about a hero initially on a quest to find his sibling. That leads him to a big bad. Whom he defeats by becoming seemingly super-powered by drinking water from an opium pipe. Fun fact: the reason Jackie Chan wound up in Hollywood after this making Battle Creek Brawl (1981) and The Cannonball Run (1981) was for Chan’s protection after he was kidnapped by Triad gangsters during its production.
Obviously, you’ll want to go through the entirety of Jackie Chan’s career. Including Supercop (1992), which co-stars Shang-Chi actress Michelle Yeoh. And even some of his later Hollywood stuff, which includes most of his collaborations with Brad Allan. Personally, I’m a sucker for Shanghai Noon (2000) and even Shanghai Knights (2003) more than the Rush Hour (1998), all of which involve Allan. See a similar scaffold fight sequence in Rush Hour 2 (2001), by the way. Oh, and definitely take a look at Gorgeous (1999), which also stars Shang-Chi villain Tony Leung.
The Young Master is streaming on The Criterion Channel.
Tai-Chi Master (1993)
Cretton notes in the Fandango interview, “There’s a big inspiration from Jet Li’s Tai-Chi Master.” Also known as Twin Warriors in the US, the film follows the classic narrative of two siblings or sibling-like friends who grow up together but eventually separate and take extremely divergent paths in life. Usually, one turns to law enforcement while the other turns to crime. Here, the two (Jet Li and Chin Siu Ho), initially goof-offs, join a rebel group and the governor’s army, respectively. Shang-Chi‘s Michelle Yeoh also co-stars in Tai-Chi Master.
The Joy Luck Club (1993)
I don’t want every movie involving Asian actors on this list to be about martial arts. I already spotlighted Wayne Wang’s The Joy Luck Club on the Movie DNA for Crazy Rich Asians (2018), but there aren’t a whole lot of Hollywood productions with predominantly Asian casts. And speaking of the cast, The Joy Luck Club star Tsai Chin appears in Shang-Chi as Awkwafina’s waipo — or grandmother. (She also previously appeared in the MCU on an episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) But the main reason to recommend The Joy Luck Club again is for its focus on Chinese-American families, particularly those with the dynamic of Chinese-born women and their American-born daughters and granddaughters.
The Joy Luck Club is streaming on Roku and Hoopla.
When it comes to movies with fight scenes on a bus, Shang-Chi might have audiences recalling a very recent example in the Bob Odenkirk vehicle Nobody (2021). But when you think of buses in action movies, Speed is the one that should come to mind. There aren’t any brawls on the public transport here, but like Awkwafina’s moment of heroic driving in Shang-Chi, Speed features Sandra Bullock commanding a bus through obstacle after obstacle without the ability to brake. Only Bullock’s character’s situation is nearly feature-length. She’s tasked with driving a bus continually at a pace above sixty miles per hour, or it will explode.
In an interview with ET Online, after being asked about the scene’s comparison to Speed, Awkwafina says:
“If it was only as badass as Sandra Bullock’s ‘Speed’ performance. And it’s funny that you even said it was my bus sequence because I was doing such the least in that sequence. In terms of like, I was just driving. It was such a complicated and intense sequence to shoot — I think it took like four weeks — and I remember just looking in the rearview mirror and being like, ‘They’re doing insane things behind me on a moving bus.’ And all I’m doing is, well, driving. But it was still cool.”
Speed is streaming on HBO Max.
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