Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Marvel hasn’t quite been able to recapture the buzz they got from their initial onslaught of Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, et al. ever since they capped off the whole Infinity Saga in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame. Their movies haven’t really felt like events on that same level after that. Part of that is due to the pandemic, which screwed up their release schedule something fierce (they have only released three movies and four Disney+ shows post-Endgame). Part is due to the lack of a clear narrative direction. They seem to be in the process of trying to move some supporting characters to the forefront and introduce new heroes while their established ones are either retired or taking a break. Their newest debut is Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. It likely won’t get people as excited as their first group of MCU stars did but, on its own, it is a pretty enjoyable experience.
Shang-Chi (two hours, plus mid/post-credits scenes) sets itself apart a bit from the rest of the Marvel catalog by being more fantasy/adventure than pure Superhero extravaganza. What that means is the formula is basically the same, yet it is applied to something that feels slightly different. This is still an origin story, with humor, world-building, big action set-pieces, lots of clunky exposition, references to previous stories and setup for future ones. Here, the characters are charming, making the action and plot more interesting than it otherwise would have been. The tone is certainly familiar, but the world is new. This isn’t top-shelf Marvel; their formula has gotten to the point where even the good stuff is more diverting than awe-inspiring as spectacle. Still, it is a fun entry.
Shang-Chi, now going by Shaun, lives in San Francisco, working as a valet and partying with his friend Katy. After revealing his incredible fighting skills during an attack by his father’s minions, Shaun and Katy go to Macau to reconnect with his sister and deal with his gang boss father.
The fun comes from the movement in the fight scenes, (which feel more graceful and a little less brutal), the creation of a fantasy world featuring magical creatures (I hope to see more of this in the inevitable sequels) and the chemistry between the two leads. It helps that the title character’s journey feels personal (in the vein of Black Panther, though not nearly as effective).
Despite there being a lot of action, the screenplay does take a little time to establish its characters and give the actors the chance to play them. Tony Leung, as Shang-Chi’s father, gets to show complex emotions. He gets more depth than a lot of MCU villains are allowed and gives a good performance. I would actually be interested in a Disney+ series about how he got to where he is in this movie. At the very least, he suggests an intriguing story.
Most importantly, the movie gives audiences another really likable combo of hero and sidekick. Simu Liu is charismatic and easy to root for as Shang-Chi. I credit Simu Liu with that, not so much Shang-Chi. The character himself feels like a product of the formula, rather than an awesome new hero. He is just kind of there in comparison to some of the cool stuff going on around him. However, Liu is absolutely capable of making him interesting in the moment; whether that moment is dramatic, comedic or action-packed.
Awkwafina , who has already proven to be great comic relief is very funny as Katy. She grounds things by acting as the audience surrogate and provides a bunch of good punchlines. She also gets her own character arc, a rare thing for non-superheroes in these movies (and women in general). Liu and Akwafina’s early scenes together play like a buddy comedy. Sadly, the story gets too busy for that later, though it does pop back up occasionally.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings does feel like it is a jumping-off point of sorts for whatever Marvel is doing next. Thankfully, it comes off mostly as its own master, as opposed to an advertisement for past/future Marvel properties. It contains several of the common MCU issues (overlong, a focus on world-building over character, a protagonist who is the least engaging person onscreen, etc.), yet it delivers what this mega-franchise is supposed to: an entertaining popcorn movie.
3½ out of 5
Cast: Simu Liu as Shaun
Awkwafina as Katy
Tony Leung as Xu Wenwu
Meng’er Zhang as Zialing
Michelle Yeoh as Ying Nan
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton
Screenplay by Dave Callaham, Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham