Coming in hot, following a series of films and TV shows in no real position to replicate the kind of cinematic high afforded by Avengers: Endgame, here is Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. It’s not as though I was worried about whether or not the billion-dollar enterprise that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe could continue delivering satisfying multiplex entertainment, but this 25th entry was refreshing. Not only does Shang-Chi serve as a breakthrough as far as being Marvel’s first studio film led by Asian people and those of Asian heritage, but it’s also fittingly the best standalone MCU film since Black Panther.
That reaction could be critical, as Shang-Chi may not be doing a lot with its story to push outside the bounds of what to expect from an MCU origin tale, but director Destin Daniel Cretton respects what this film represents just by existing. Yes, the ongoing pandemic may hold the film back from being a zeitgeist-capturing phenomenon like Ryan Coogler’s Oscar-winning feature, but while general audiences will find plenty of entertainment value in this martial arts-heavy superhero film, there is a significant audience that could see more in it.
This would not be unlike the black audiences with Black Panther. In addition to general audiences, the notion of a large group of people seeing themselves on screen without feeling pandered to means having an extra sense of wonder. For Asians worldwide, watching this level of mainstream film playing in their favor is the right kind of momentum needed to help reach a level of consistency for representing any group.
As far as fitting within the bounds of specific genres, is Shang-Chi comparable to the classic wuxia films audiences around the globe have enjoyed? Not quite, but the fact that pushing forward with representation has led to an adaptation of another lesser-known superhero means getting a mainstream Hollywood movie that incorporates that sort of wirework. It also arrives with other forms of martial arts, let alone a focus on Asian characters who actually speak the language and inform the film’s direction through culture. Shang-Chi is a huge win in many ways.
Speaking more to representation, getting away from similar versions of the same thing is generally quite welcome. Showing audiences something they haven’t seen before, especially when it comes to the current most popular blockbuster genre in the world, can play to an advantage that’s generally deemed as a surprise. For Shang-Chi, a film that’s hiding a lot of the good stuff from its marketing, there’s not a lot being done that moves away from the standard hero’s journey, yet Simu Liu makes for a great hero who brings warmth, humanity, and an apparent playfulness to the film.
Following a prologue that calls to mind any number of martial arts films choreographed by Yeun Woo-ping, we are introduced to Shang-Chi (Liu). He goes by “Shaun” and lives as a valet in San Francisco with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina, bringing a significant amount of humor and chemistry). Just as the two find themselves questioning their station in life, the world shifts. Shang-Chi reveals his talent as a fighter, and after a fantastic fight sequence set on a bus, he and Katy are off to Macau to reunite with Xialing (Meng’er Zhang, new to film and quite capable), Shang-chi’s estranged sister.
Their father, Wenwu (the great Tony Leung), known in some circles as The Mandarin, pushes along this story. He sets things in motion through his desires to see his children add to his legacy, in addition to having something on them that he wants. Given the character’s comic book history, it’s neat to see how Marvel found filmmakers who could break a proper story to do more with a notable villain, beyond reflect certain stereotypes accepted back when the character was created.
The idea that Marvel could lure Leung into the part is even more impressive. Make no mistake, I was happy to see the journey of Shang-Chi and the various fights and story beats arrive to show us why he and his crew matter, but Leung is an outstanding actor who breathes more life into the film than what’s given to him. Whether bantering in casual wear or effectively dishing out platitudes as well as fight movies, the guy adds plenty.
Describing more of the story would just be delving into the specifics people should either be surprised by or are already well aware of (Marvel has a way of making many people pay plenty of attention to all the little things). With that in mind, I’ll just note that Wenwu leads the nefarious organization known as the Ten Rings (a presence in the MCU since Iron Man), which is named after a set of powerful rings he wields as weapons that make him unstoppable. More importantly – the rings are cool.
Here’s the thing – for all the work done to make Shang-Chi an accessible motion picture that finds a way to respectfully utilize a predominantly Asian cast to deliver something that should be and is special, it’s also a very cool movie. The action is some of the best the MCU has had to offer, complete with elaborate fight sequences that call to mind films like Hero as much as they do movies like Police Story. Cretton, cinematographer Bill Pope, and the stunt team manage to put a lot in-camera, with a ton of special effects that mostly do what’s possible to not detract from what’s on display.
Yes, one can pick apart aspects of Shang-Chi, just like any other Marvel film, but it only goes so far. While I was impressed by how the story took its time to reveal itself (lots of flashbacks are scattered throughout), it’s not hard to realize there’s a lot of exposition being dumped on the audience for the sake of world-building. It doesn’t help that the world of Shang-Chi is not quite as inspired as Wakanda, for example, but there’s plenty of personality on par with that film and many of the best MCU entries. It’s the little touches, such as English not being a language that’s forced on the characters when it’s not always needed. Even the bigger plot beats feel like a subversion at times.
For all the films with Asian characters that seem to be hellbent on showing audiences they are all about honoring family, here’s a film that understands how important it can be to push back when needed. As a result, the characters feel more informed as well. Liu may be playing the straight man character, but I believe in his motivations. The work of the others, which also includes Michelle Yeoh, Fala Chen, and a few surprising appearances, is as good as one expects from yet another MCU film with an overqualified cast. I’ll also note that Creed II‘s Florian Munteanu plays a character named Razor Fist and the dude really likes his name.
Perhaps most importantly for me is how energized I was by what Shang-Chi delivered. After feeling fairly ho-hum about Black Widow and the various TV shows (though Loki was consistent enough and What If…? shows lots of promise), there’s a lot of cinematic forward momentum here that landed in the right ways to make me excited about the future of the MCU again. Cretton showed me something as far as a director with indie roots finding ways to appease the Marvel machine while still making a film feel distinctly of his design. It’s something nice to recognize by the time the film arrives at its standard overlong action climax depending on largely special effects. Of course, when boiling it down to what really matters, Tony Leung goes a long way, and fighting with magic wrist rings doesn’t stop being fun. Marvel has harnessed the spark needed for Shang-Chi to deliver and live up to the legend.