Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is notable for several reasons.
It is the first Marvel film with a leading Asian superhero and a primarily Asian cast. After several delays, the film was Marvel’s first pandemic-era theatrical exclusive, opening with impressive numbers. (Disney CEO Bob Chapek described the film’s release strategy as an experiment, an unfortunate depiction given its cultural significance). While it hews closely to the Marvel template, Shang-Chi boasts impressive action sequences and a welcome burst of color.
Shang-Chi’s most significant takeaway, however, is Tony Leung, who gives a stunning performance worthy of awards season attention.
From the first second he’s on screen as the centuries-old mystical kingpin Xu Wenwu, Leung exerts a presence unlike any that’s graced a Marvel film before. He exudes a quiet, elegant, and intimidating authority that consumes everything around him. He retains, rather commands, your attention. Wenwu has lived lifetimes, and through Leung’s physicality and, most critically, his eyes, you can feel that reality intensely. Leung communicates a rich and dark inner life so compelling that you ignore how long it takes to introduce Shang-Chi, the actual main character. You want to immerse yourself in Wenwu: his thoughts and reasonings, how love transformed and eventually corrupted him, and how his inability to process his loss would inform his role as the film’s primary antagonist (the other is a draconian soul-sucking demon, but the less said about that, the better).
Leung’s performance is so powerful that it overshadows Shang-Chi’s good guys. His eyes convey so much – love, tenderness, disappointment, simmering rage, exhaustion, passion – that you spend more time wanting to understand what’s behind them, rather than relating to Shang-Chi’s trauma-informed lethargy and fear. Simu Liu is pleasant and likable enough, especially with Awkwafina’s Katy, but he withers under Leung’s complex gaze. Liu can’t match Leung’s overwhelming aura. It’s not just him: Michelle Yeoh is the only actor who meets his serene intensity head-on, and her part is a cameo in the film’s grand design. (I’m pretty sure the turkey dog creature that accompanies Ben Kingsley has more screen time).
The possibility of Wenwu’s survival beyond Shang-Chi’s third act was always nil, no matter how fascinating he proved to be (see Michael B. Jordan in Black Panther). However, during the film’s final CGI nightmare of a fight, I imagined scenarios where he could survive to continue antagonizing or begrudgingly supporting his superhero offspring. I even wondered if casting Leung was a mistake given his star power or if he should’ve been Shang-Chi himself (the latter seems nonsensical, but an older superhero would be refreshingly new for Marvel). It’s a testament to Leung’s seasoned talent and screen presence that it’s worth entertaining such thought experiments.
It also spurred another thought experiment: could Tony Leung receive a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination?
It’s easy to respond with a resounding “absolutely not.” Marvel is not an awards season darling, only occasionally popping up in technical categories like Best Visual Effects (it has received nine nominations and zero wins in that category). Black Panther was Marvel’s real Oscars breakthrough, earning seven nominations, including a first-ever Best Picture nod, and winning three (it lost Best Picture to Green Book). Marvel has yet to crack the acting categories, despite its expansive slate of movie stars (several are Oscar nominees and winners themselves). It’s the one thing that DC can claim over them, with Joaquin Phoenix and Heath Ledger winning Oscars for playing the villainous Joker in their respective Batman films.
Ironically, DC proves that Marvel can breakthrough in the top-line categories. You can also look to two other genre mega-franchises for reference: Ian McKellen received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, and Alec Guinness landed in the same category in 1977 for the original Star Wars. Their nominations, while unsuccessful, serve as a template for Leung’s campaign. Leung is regarded as one of the most successful Asian actors in history, with an internationally recognized filmography that includes In The Mood for Love (for which he won Best Actor in Cannes), the Oscar-nominated Hero, and Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution. He is long overdue for recognition; his Hollywood debut in a verified blockbuster with a standout performance gives the Academy the perfect opportunity. The Academy’s growing international constituency and focus also work in Leung’s favor. They are likely familiar with his work and would love the chance to reward a successful Hollywood crossover, as beloved Korean actress Youn Yuh-Jung was this past year for Minari.
The ingredients are there for Tony Leung’s first Oscar nomination: an excellent performance, a compelling narrative, and box office success (less critical, but it still counts). The Best Supporting Actor race is also unsettled, with no clear standout at the moment (although Belfast’s Jamie Dornan is running a charm offensive that launched at the film’s L.A. premiere, where he sang “Everlasting Love”). Marvel and Disney have never mounted a significant awards campaign for an actor, even though some made cases for Michael B. Jordan in Black Panther and even Robert Downey Jr in Avengers: Endgame.
It would be a huge wasted opportunity if Marvel didn’t at least try to campaign on Leung’s behalf. Now is a near-perfect time to launch it, with Shang-Chi arriving on Disney+ and audiences (including Academy voters) either discovering it for the first time or enjoying it again. Consider the film’s cultural significance, Leung’s high standing amongst critics and industry insiders, and the glowing profiles already done on him, and the campaign launches itself.
Of course, there are hurdles to overcome related to Marvel’s standing with Academy voters, and there is no guarantee that a campaign run would succeed. However, when you have a performer of Leung’s caliber in your ranks, it is worth the effort. Tony Leung deserves the effort.
[Featured image: Tony Leung in GQ’s September 2021 issue (courtesy: GQ)]