The arrival of a new Marvel movie guarantees three things. Some people will automatically love it, others will automatically hate it, and Walt Disney Pictures will laugh all the way to the bank. For the rest of us, though, it’s an opportunity to see where it lands in a franchise built almost exclusively on the backs of pretty okay films. There are outliers at both ends of the spectrum, from Iron Man 2 (2010) to Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), but the vast majority of movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe exist as a muddled jumble of harmless action comedies that are just entertaining enough. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but it’s the reason entries that try just that much harder find it easier to stand out from the pack. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings tries harder, with its action sequences and with its Asian representation both on and off the screen. And it succeeds.
The twenty-fifth installment of the MCU follows Shaun (Simu Liu), a thirty-something living in San Francisco who works as a valet during the day and parties at night. His best friend, Katy (Awkwafina), is along for the ride, and while they have no bigger plans for their lives, that’s okay by them. Their slacker lifestyle takes a hit one day, however, when Shaun is attacked on a bus by well-trained fighters and a dude named Razor Fist (Florian Munteanu), whose right hand is an interchangeable deadly weapon. One wicked brawl later, and Shaun reveals to his best friend that his name is actually Shang-Chi, he was trained to be a master assassin by his crime-lord father, Wenwu (Tony Leung), and he ran away from home as a teenager. Oh, and he has a sister who might be in danger, sending Shang-Chi and Katy off to Macau on a grand adventure.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is every bit a Marvel movie, from the expected narrative beats to a third act smothered by CG effects, but it’s also better and more engaging than many of its predecessors. The reasons are varied, but they come down to the talents on both sides of the camera doing strong work on the action front — rarely an MCU high point — while also showing audiences characters, mythologies, and worlds they haven’t seen before. It’s technically the second entry in Marvel’s Phase Four (after this year’s Black Widow), but expect it to kick open the universe for what’s to come.
The character of Shang-Chi is one built around martial arts and an inkling of the mystical, and while both come into play here it’s the former that arrives with the most memorable fanfare. He’s meant to be an extremely talented fighter, and as a character without a mask to hide behind, the performer ideally needed to be at the very least a convincing one. Liu delivers, and while there’s all manner of digital assists, it’s clear that the actor’s background in stunts and a serious training regimen are equally deserving of credit.
Of course, the contribution of Brad Allan (Who Am I?, The World’s End) can’t be understated here, as his work as action director/stunt coordinator helps shape and choreograph action sequences that burst with energy and creative life. (His fight with Jackie Chan in 1999’s Gorgeous is an all-timer.) Finally, director Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12) and the film’s three editors wisely minimize the cuts during the fights to allow for maximum impact. Their collective work brings two of the movie’s fight sequences, the one on the bus and one on a wooden scaffolding several stories up, towards the top of the MCU’s action accomplishments.
The script, by Cretton, Dave Callaham, and Andrew Lanham, charts a familiar enough origin story and journey of self-discovery, but there’s fun and heart in the details. This being an MCU film, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is unavoidably tied to titles both behind us and ahead of us, with the former coming courtesy of direct connections to Iron Man 3 (2013) and Doctor Strange (2016) in the form of character cameos and relative plot threads. The elements that are fresh to the film find their own weight, though, against the history of the franchise.
Parental issues are no stranger to superhero movies — they’re arguably a prerequisite — but they’ve never quite been handled with the nuance and emotion granted the relationship between Shang-Chi and his father. The key difference here is that the film allows Leung time to develop Wenwu into a more fleshed-out villain that we’re used to. Glimpses into the past reveal a centuries-old, power-hungry man brought down to earth by something as enticingly simple as love. His first meeting with Jiang Li (Fala Chen), eventual mother to Shang-Chi and Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), is a fight that takes on the form of dance. It’s a thing of beauty, and Leung sells the hell out of his love for her — as you’d absolutely expect from the legendary star of Hard Boiled (1992), Chungking Express (1994), In the Mood for Love (2000), and many others. The MCU has featured plenty of big villains, but few if any have the weight of Tony Leung.
Less successful are the flashbacks focused on Shang-Chi’s younger self. They accomplish their goal of setting up his past life and relationships, but the film returns unnecessarily to that same well a few times too often. The scenes stop adding anything new to the mix and instead grow redundant in their effect. The film’s third act stays mostly in the present but suffers as well due to Marvel’s fascination with big, animated finales. The closest MCU comparison here is Iron Man 3, another film filled with character, wit, and thrills that finds its highs neutered somewhat by a bunch of animated whiz-bang shenanigans in the sky.
Performances are strong throughout — again, Tony freaking Leung is here — with Liu proving a charismatic lead and more than capable of carrying the character forward. You buy easily into his physicality, but his humanity, history, and sense of humor are every bit as important to the character. Awkwafina is, well, Awkwafina, for both better and worse. She delivers laughs and finds the heart in a character just as lost as Shang-Chi, but a few scenes allow her shtick to go on a beat or two too many. Newcomer Zhang is something of a standout as Shang-Chi’s sister and a character who’s every bit as physically talented and emotionally damaged.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings runs maybe a bit overlong — those flashbacks! — but it’s rarely less than an entertaining and at times affecting entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Its Asian lead and predominantly Asian cast are overdue not just for Marvel but for big action blockbusters out of Hollywood in general, and rather than feel like a slapdash gimmick it’s clear that the themes and mythologies have been crafted with relative care. Bill Pope‘s cinematography and Joel P. West‘s score help pull it all together for a rousing tale of identity and redemption that should leave Marvel stans, action fans, and moviegoers more than satisfied.
Related Topics: Marvel Cinematic Universe