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‘Shang-Chi’: How Tony Leung’s Performance Makes Wenwu One of the MCU’s Best Villains

Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings has finally made its theatrical debut, with a record shattering box office debut and rave reviews. Directed by Daniel Destin Cretton, the 25th instalment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the first film in Phase 4 of the franchise to feature a new hero and origin story. Origin stories have always been essential to the MCU, as they are the basis of Phase 1 and scattered throughout Phases 2 and 3. Most, if not, all MCU origin stories have followed the same formula as the then groundbreaking Iron Man in 2008, albeit to varying degrees of success. While Shang-Chi follows most of those formulaic steps, there is one aspect which elevates the film above the others. That is the character of Wenwu, portrayed by legendary actor Tony Leung. Leung’s performance is so genuine and heartfelt it takes what could have been another classic one-note MCU villain and turns it into one of the most sympathetic characters of the MCU. All of this, of course, hinges on the performance of the legendary actor, and he doesn’t disappoint.

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The character he is portaying, Wenwu, otherwise known as Mandarin in other comic book media, didn’t have a lot to go on. The character of the Mandarin was mired in racist stereotypes and overall didn’t age too well in modern comic book retellings. Tony Leung and screenwriters Cretton and David Callaham amend that, for the most part. With some slight set-up in the form of Iron Man 3 and an older Marvel one shot, Tony Leung is given an incredible monologue halfway through the film. He talks of ancestry, tradition, and respecting your culture and what came before, while also poking fun in meta dialogue about the westernization of his background in the form of the fake Mandarin. All this to acknowledge the shaky comic book history of the character he is portraying AND cleaning up MCU canon? Only Leung could take this exposition dump given to him and put real emotion and heart behind it.

Leung does this multiple times throughout the film. His character has the most history with the integral plot points of the film, thus he is given a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of explaining the story. Exposition in an MCU film is nothing new, and most of the time it comes off as forced and slows the story to a halt. In Shang-Chi, however, Leung takes these moments of explanation and uses them as a connection to his characters desires. This is also credit to the screenwriters once again, as most of the exposition is connected to the family of Wenwu, that being his wife Ying Li and his son Shang-Chi. Wenwu’s desires and need to discover Ta Lo are because of a need to find his wife and make his family whole again. His delivery of the lines has viewers sympathetic and even almost rooting for his cause. Wenwu comes not from a place of malice but of altruistic intentions.

Because of this, any exposition that is a part of Leung’s perfomance comes from a place of intense passion and desire to be with his family again. Tony Leung is an incredible actor, with standout perfomances in films like Ashes of Time and Internal Affairs, he is an actor who truly knows how to dig into the emotions and motivations of the characters he portrays. Even in scenes in which Leung has no dialogue, he still says more with his physical performance than what most MCU antagonists do in their whole films.

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Image Via Disney

This is evident in flashback scenes in which Leung has no words but expresses himself and his mood with how he carries himself and the expressions he chooses to use, with the camera in full focus on him. Following his wife’s death, Wenwu sits contemplative at his desk before forcibly opening the box he kept his ten rings in, symbolic of returning to his dark past as a killer and a conqueror. From his posture to his movement, Tony Leung’s physical acting is just as moving as his speaking scenes. Even his performance with the ten rings which were added in post-production works extremely well. The creative new re-design for the iconic weapons suits Leung and the character of Wenwu well, and he uses them with frightening precision, again another aspect to his physical performance.

The most important aspect of Tony Leung and his performance as Wenwu is without a doubt his chemistry with the lead of the film, Simu Liu as Shang-Chi. Their father/son dynamic is the most interesting relationship of the film, and that is thanks to the two actors chemistry. Leung and Liu have all of the most emotional scenes of the film, and the conflict and their relationship is what lies at the heart of the film. While Wenwu believes his path of destruction will lead to the completion of his family, Shang-Chi knows it will only destroy what is left of it.

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Image Via Disney

Whenever Liu shares the screen with Leung, there’s an entirely different air about the charismatic lead. Leung’s dialogue with Liu elevates the tension in almost every scene they are in together, and that is more evident than ever in their final confrontation, in which buried feelings and resentment come boiling over. Leung truly breaks the mould of generic villain and brings out an equally powerful performance from Liu. It leads to a beautiful conclusion, in which Leung’s Wenwu meets his demise not kicking and screaming, but with a calm peace and its another example of an incredible performance that Leung delivers in the film without any dialogue. His expression in his final moments is all that is required of the actor.

These last moments define Leung’s performance in the film, and show that the MCU is beginning to learn its lesson from the mediocre villains of its past. In getting a powerhouse actor like Tony Leung, Cretton and crew are able to elevate muddled exposition and convoluted story into an intimate family drama that feels like it has real stakes, both personal and large scale. Tony Leung truly makes Wenwu one of the best antagonists that the MCU has to offer.

KEEP READING: ‘Shang-Chi’ to Hit Disney+ in November

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