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The Art of Heroic Villainy: Xu Wenwu (Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings)

In my Black Widow review, I argued:

The villains, sadly, are far less compelling and memorable, existing only as shallow, generic obstacles almost entirely devoid of motivation or characterization. Still, they serve their purpose within the overarching structure of the script, which is (for the most part) sturdy enough to overcome such minor blemishes.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, on the other hand, swerves towards the opposite extreme, making its primary antagonist its most interesting and nuanced character. The film even begins by delving into his origin, rather than the hero’s, establishing Tony Leung’s Xu Wenwu (known in the comics as “The Mandarin”—an appellation that the cinematic version abhors) as an ancient warlord granted supernatural abilities and immortality by the eponymous mystical (or possibly extraterrestrial) weapons. As the extended flashback progresses into modern times, however, Wenwu—now the leader of a vast, globe-spanning criminal organization—finds that conquest and bloodshed no longer satisfy him. He wants something more… though he is incapable of articulating precisely what.

He discovers the answer in an enchanted forest, in the midst of battle against Ying Li, the guardian of a border between dimensions. Her graceful style of combat easily thwarts his brute force tactics; gradually, through balletic choreography and lingering slow-motion glances that would make Wong Kar-wai proud, fighting seamlessly transitions into wordless flirting, and the two warriors fall madly in love.

Surprisingly, there is no ulterior motive behind Wenwu’s courtship of Ying Li; he genuinely adores her, and willingly abandons his empire and forsakes the power of the Ten Rings in order to raise a family with her. Later scenes depict their wedded bliss in detail, further developing Wenwu’s delicious complexity. While Thanos is certainly a compelling villain, it’s impossible to imagine him playing Dance Dance Revolution with his hypothetical wife and children; in Wenwu’s case, though, such an unconventional (indeed, borderline absurd) image is an organic and integral component of his personality.

Even in the movie’s “present day,” when Ying Li’s tragic death has motivated Wenwu to revert to his wicked and cruel persona in order to discourage subsequent assassination attempts, he never indulges in any generic “bad guy” behaviors. When he confronts Shang-Chi for the first time in a decade, for example, he doesn’t mock or belittle him for falling short of his potential; instead, he warmly embraces his estranged son and sincerely invites him back home. When he treats Shang-Chi and his companions to dinner, the sequence lacks the sinister subtext that pervades the lavish banquets often shared by Bond and his foes; it’s simply a quiet, intimate (albeit extremely awkward) family meal.

His most illuminating and impactful moment occurs immediately after he reveals his plan to invade his wife’s homeland, under the mistaken belief that her soul has been imprisoned there as punishment for their forbidden marriage. When Shang-Chi asks what he intends to do if the locals oppose him, he casually replies, “I’ll burn their village to the ground.” His words are devoid of malice; it isn’t a threat, but a blunt statement of fact. He doesn’t sneer or scowl, doesn’t posture or growl; he speaks with the same relaxed, nonchalant tone as a husband promising to buy milk and eggs on the way home from work.

This sympathetic backstory, rich inner-life, and subtle menace (elevated by Tony Leung’s effortlessly charismatic performance) make Xu Wenwu the very best MCU villain to date—and as an unabashed and unapologetic fan of The Vulture, Zemo, and Alexander Pierce, I don’t make that claim lightly.

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