Shang-Chi: A Showcase of the Difference Between the Action and Martial Arts Genres

From a cinephile standpoint, it is pretty easy to regard the past decade’s deluge of Superhero movies as simply the latest trend in the Action Genre.  People who are not fond of this genre of movies will often complain of how sick they are of all of the superheroes.  However, those that are fond of the Action Genre have been able to recognize how the various Superhero movies have been hitting the various subgenres to Action.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) is nothing new in that regard.  However, at the same time, it brings something new to the table.  Until now, there was no Superhero movie that I would be comfortable describing as in the Martia Arts Genre.  Shang-Chi places itself firmly in that subgenre of Action.

Some people might struggle at seeing the distinction.  After all, if you were to describe the plot of your average Martial Arts movie, it is simply “good guy who is very good at fighting fights bad guys who are very good at fighting.”  That is a description that applies to the whole Action Genre.  

Others will assume that the characters and actors being Asian is what makes the difference.  It is true that Martial Arts as a genre heavily overrepresents Asians compared to most of the cinema industry.  After all, the genre got its start in the Hong Kong movie industry and only later spread from there.  Many people classify movies such as John Wick (2014) and Sherlock Holmes (2009) as Martial Arts films despite having little Asian involvement.

Instead, it is the choreography that makes the genre what it is.  Most Action films choreograph their fights with a primary emphasis on getting the audience’s heart pounding.  A move looking cool is given priority over anything else.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and can make for some very fun movies.  

However, the Martial Arts Genre does something different.  Special care is taken to showcase techniques that are pulled from real-world Martial Arts.  Even when clearly impossible things are done, they are done in a way that makes it obvious that the choreographer is taking real techniques and then extrapolating for unreal physical ability.  

For audience members who are unfamiliar with particular styles, this has the benefit of making the fight scenes seem more grounded than they otherwise would.  For audience members who have at least some passing familiarity with the styles used, this can be a fun bonus as they recognize moves.  It is similar to adding in dialogue in another language that only part of the audience understands but adds fun moments for those who catch it and some general realism for those who don’t.

Shang-Chi has that in spades.  Personally, I watched the movie while sitting next to several people who had studied Tai-Chi and they got very excited at scenes that had people fighting in that style.  In a few cases, they were able to name particular moves being showcased.  The movie didn’t showcase any styles I’ve personally trained in, but I certainly was able to name the style being used in a few scenes and in other scenes at least be able to recognize a deliberate style shift.

What’s more, is I was able to pick up specific references to past classics of the Martial Arts Genre.  There were several scenes that seemed direct homages to Jackie Chan’s style of choreography.  There were other scenes that seemed direct homages in a similar way to Chow Yun-fat.  Both men are well respected in the Martial Arts Genre and if these homages were not deliberate, then they are least show an understanding of the trend in movies that they were a part of.

Does the rest of the Superhero Genre need to follow in Shang-Chi’s footsteps?  No.  A part of the reason that this take on Action has been so enjoyable is the variety of Action styles that have been showcased.  I know that I’m still hoping for a decent Western from the MCU.  Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) got close to being a Western but wasn’t quite there.  There is still a lot of room for Superhero movies to expand and cover more styles.  I just hope that Shang-Chi isn’t the last to use the Martial Arts Genre.

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