Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is the newest film in the ever-expanding portfolio of Marvel studios. The character first appeared in the 1970s in Marvel Comics, a response to the popularity of the films of Bruce Lee. Marvel had originally tried to get the rights to the Kung Fu television series, but failed. Instead, they bought the rights to Fu Manchu and Shang-Chi was a previously unknown son of the evil genius. His origin in the comics remains similar to his movie origins: the son of a villain is asked to assassinate one of his father’s rivals and when he realizes his father’s true nature, he opposes him virulently.
The screenplay for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings offers lessons for screenwriters and Script Magazine asked me to dive into some of them.
Knowing the Genre and Source Material
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a lesson in understanding the genre and tropes that one expects watching a movie of this nature. It’s a mash-up that carefully blends two genres together, paying off both in ways the audiences of either respective genre will expect and understand.
On the surface, Shang-Chi hits all the major beats of a superhero origin. It shows us where his powers come from, take us through his childhood, establish his first, most dire villain, and then walks him through that growth required to come into his own as a hero and save the world. It’s standard stuff. What makes Shang-Chi exceptional here, is how much it winds through mystical martial arts film beats as well, taking as much inspiration from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as it does a Spider-Man or Batman movie. It offers all the same story beats and mystical Chinese fantasy a fan of those films would expect.
For screenwriters, it’s important to know what sort of movie you’re writing. What genre tropes and expectations will a knowledgeable member of the audience expect? How can you deviate from that in a way that seems fresh but still honors the importance of the tropes?
The only way to be a great screenwriter is to study films and to double down on studying the films like the ones you want to write. It was apparent the screenwriters had a deep love and understanding of both genres most heavily present in Shang-Chi and that’s a good thing.
Bad Habits in Dialogue
For as much study the screenwriters put into the genres of the film, it relied on some bad habits in the dialogue that really took the wind out of the sails of some scenes.
These moments happen early on in the film and you can recognize them because they’re primarily aimed at the audience for the purposes of exposition and feel out of place once you know how to spot them.
Make sure characters are talking to each other, never to the audience.
Katy (Awkwafina) has a line early on to Shaun (Simu Liu) that is approximately, “We’ve known each other for 10 years, man!”
The characters know how long they’ve known each other. The only reason for her character to say this is to give us that information, and that’s one of the marks of bad dialogue.
I know it’s a tempting short hand, but think about how well that first scene between Indy and Marion in Raiders of the Lost Ark would have felt if they came in saying things like, “Indiana Jones, we’ve known each other for 10 years!”
It would have removed all of the drama from the scene.
Likewise, these bits of dialogue in Shang-Chi actually dull the comedy and action happening around them. They ring false and don’t actually improve the narrative. The exposition isn’t that important.
In the film, the characters are too often talking to us, the audience, rather than each other. Do your best to avoid that in your own writing.
Setups and payoffs
Shang-Chi utilized two wonderful sets of setups and payoffs that are worth looking at.
The first is a framing device that doesn’t appear to be a framing device at first. Early in the film, Shaun and Katy meet up with friends over dinner, talking about the absurd adventures with their past. At first, it seems like a simple moment designed to show us what their day-to-day lives are like and how grown up they’re not.
The second set up feels more like a cameo the first time we see it. In the fight club, Wong (Benedict Wong) from the Dr. Strange franchise appears, fighting the Abomination from the Incredible Hulk franchises. With this film being a Marvel movie, building on more than 20 films of back story and interconnected characters, it seems like this might be nothing more than a cameo for Wong and an easter egg for The Abomination.
As the film moves through its climax and we see that Shane and Katy have become heroes, we wonder what returning back to their old life will be like. That’s when we return to a scene with the same setup as the framing device. The two of them are talking to their friends about their adventure in disbelief. The scene in the first place was utilitarian, but bringing it back this second time makes it both vital and clever, tying the beginning to the end and showing how much growth the characters have gone through.
But then, when a portal opens up and Wong steps through, we have a second payoff in this scene. Wong represents the broader Marvel universe with his cameo, and his portal to Dr. Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum is literally an entry point for Shang-Chi to enter the greater Marvel universe, joining the ranks of the Avengers and other associated heroes. As Obi-Wan Kenobi would say, Shang-Chi takes his first step into a larger world.
As you work to tell your stories, find ways to connect the beginning to the end, both in terms of visual locations and places to show character growth. Look for things that seem inconsequential in the beginning that can grow in meaning over time.
Sometimes, these setups and payoffs don’t seem apparent in your first draft, but will pop out on subsequent drafts of your screenplay. Always keep an eye out for them and always work to revise these things in.
The last thing to look at would be the parallel non-linear storytelling going on in this film. It’s been a common trope of superhero movies since, at least, David Goyer’s Batman Begins, to show us the status quo of a hero and then flashback to the formative parts of the hero’s childhood and training.
Shang-Chi plays into this story structure and, whether it’s successful or not, the script really tries to hold back the scenes of emotional background until they’re going to have the most emotional resonance, rather than front-loading all the information into the story. This enables the narrative intrigue to be maintained for the audience and to allow them to digest the expository information in a more rationed fashion.
This is something we’ve looked at at length with Casablanca. You don’t want to give the audience any information they don’t need, and when you give it to them, you want to make sure they absolutely need it. Shang-Chi bounces back and forth between the timelines, building up mystery in one, then revealing exposition in the other. Sometimes, both timelines are able to do both at the same time.
As you’re looking to write your screenplay, find ways to put yourself in the audience’s chair. Find out what questions they will be asking and make sure they’re questions that invest them in the narrative rather than throw them out of it. In Shang-Chi, we wonder why Shane has a job no more glamorous than parking cars and he suddenly has the martial ability to destroy a group of assassins on a bus. These questions pull us through the narrative and make us wonder why and make us want more. When we finally get the answer in the previous timeline, enough new questions are raised to keep us wondering until the next set of answers arrive. What happened to Shang-Chi’s mother? Why did he stay in America and leave his sister behind? Is this mystical land his mother came from real? Will they be able to stop the end of the world? Will Shang-Chi be able to defeat his father? And so on.
The film also leaves us with more questions than it answers, paving the way for a sequel that can help sate our curiosities. Where did the Ten Rings really come from? How will the spirits unleashed in the film play against the tapestry of upcoming Marvel films? How will Shang-Chi stand up alongside heroes like Captain Marvel and the Incredible Hulk?
Overall, Shang-Chi works as a screenplay, despite a few missteps that force-feed information to the audience and some awkward sequences. It could be seen as a little overlong, too, but the screenwriters created an open canvas of classic Chinese fantasy that allowed the filmmakers to fill it with such wondrous visuals and delicious action sequences that the spectacle makes its bloat easier to forgive.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is currently in cinemas everywhere.