Shang-Chi, both the character and the movie are at odds with the past. As a character, Shang-Chi reckons with the villainous ways of his father. At the same time, as a film, it attempts to undo mistakes previously committed by the early films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Shang-Chi is a Marvel movie for now, for anyone who recognises the questionable stereotypes the franchise has previously, at times had at its core. It deserves to be mentioned that Shang-Chi is the MCU’s first film with an Asian Lead, with Simu Liu taking on the titular role.
With Shakespearean themes of family and stunning Wuxia style visuals, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a brilliant return to form for the MCU and a perfect case study on turning lesser-known comics into big-screen hits.
In director Destin Daniel Cretton’s hands, the kind of superhero origin story we have seen dozens of times before takes on a freshness similar to the likes of Black Panther. Aside from a handful of good movies, Marvel’s solo offerings have tended to be a little lukewarm, often being indistinguishable from one another. Shang-Chi, although it sticks to a familiar formula, feels vastly different in its style and texture.
We must keep plot details to an absolute minimum for obvious reasons, especially since the film’s trailers have done a great job keeping key developments a secret. For example, none of the third act has been spoiled at all, which perfectly aligns with the film’s internal logic.
As well as including a classic epic finale showdown, Shang-Chi’s action is a mixture of intense close-combat and flowing, ‘Crouching Tiger’ inspired fights. The film has been dedicated to its stunt coordinator, the late Brad Allan. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the action is truly the best the MCU has ever offered. In particular, a couple of scenes during the first act really stand out as being genuinely mesmerising. Everything flows beautifully, is non-reliant on CGI and quick-cutting and wouldn’t look out of place in a Zhang Yimou epic.
There’s more than just action to Shang-Chi, and it’s the films emotional core that really hits. Essentially it’s a film about family and legacy and the complicated relationship between a grieving father and his two children, who take entirely different paths in life due to the abandonment they both suffered at his hands.
The great Tony Leung, as Wenwu, is the film’s real MVP; its secret weapon and up there as one of the best antagonists Marvel Studios has created alongside the likes of Thanos and Erik Killmonger. Considered often to have a “villain problem”, Marvel movies can sometimes fail their villains by writing them as nothing more than evil clones of the film’s hero. Wenwu’s arc in this film, I would say, is even more resonant than Shang-Chi’s.
Being driven by love rather than hate gives an antagonist a journey that’s easy to empathise with, and although Wenwu’s actions are often reprehensible, you can understand his motivations. That Leung was persuaded to join the project and given a sizeable role is really a masterstroke. One scene in particular where he sits across the table from his children and talks to them about what he does for a living is genuinely brilliant, capturing the strained relationship he has with them.
After the death of their mother, Shang-Chi fled to the USA and assumed a new identity, Shaun. His sister, Xialing started her own fight club in Macau. As adults, the two are reunited when they learn that their father is planning a quest to locate and infiltrate Ta Lo, an ancient mythical land that their mother used to tell them Stories about as children.
As an action star and dramatic actor, Simu Liu is as natural as can be. He has charisma, a solid physical presence and has the potential to carry his role across multiple projects. I sometimes found myself excited to see him in future movies interacting with some of the MCU’s other big stars. Liu switches effortlessly from intimate emotional scenes with both his father and best friend Kay (Awkwafina) to high action set pieces, commanding a strong presence across both.
Awkwafina’s wise-cracking Katy offers plenty of comedic moments. She’d be described as a sidekick in a traditional superhero movie, but she’s given much more to do here and handles the role incredibly well. Other stand-out performances come from Michelle Yeo as Jiang Nan, both serene and deadly in equal measure. There are also some nice not-so-secret cameos from previous MCU characters that do just enough to tie the film to its more expansive universe.
Speaking of the wider universe, a mid-credits scene cements Shang-Chi’s place within the MCU, an essential and exciting part of the film, I’ll not say anymore but just make sure you stick around until the very end. ‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ feels incredibly culturally important but at the same time does well to keep things lighthearted. It has an abundance of Chinese mythology, which feels close in tone to something like Thor. It’s a highly entertaining movie that I honestly struggle to find fault with, both establishing a new hero and setting it on an exciting future path. This isn’t just top-tier Marvel; it’s a top-tier big-screen blockbuster. Go and see it on the most giant screen available to you, and then see it again.
‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ is out now, exclusively in cinemas.