A solid entry to the beginning of a new era for Marvel
Premise: Shang-Chi, the master of unarmed weaponry based Kung Fu, is forced to confront his past after being drawn into the Ten Rings organization.
For the first time in since 2008, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is in uncharted waters. Not in terms of its world-building strategy (that seems to be as air-tight as it always has been) but in terms of the familiarity that the world at large will have with one of its titular characters. Now that most of its original stars have moved on (Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson), it feels almost like Marvel has been forced to start from scratch and pull from further down its bench to introduce more obscure characters to its world. I would bet that only the most die-hard Marvel Comics fan would have any familiarity with the arc of Shang-Chi before Disney’s announcement of the film. This gives Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings a certain air of mystery that ultimately helps it; besides the obligations of setting up an origin story, Marvel is unburdened from fan expectations to connect the film to the other character’s we’ve grown to be attached to.
As much as Shang-Chi breaks from the origin story formula, it must submit to the Marvel machine in several respects and that, along with an unfulfilled potential for its titular character, is where it stumbles the most. Marvel has never fully done a kung-fu film, and director Destin Daniel Cretton makes every fight sequence engaging with death-defying stunts and exciting choreography. At their core, most superhero films are about deep-seeded daddy issues, and Shang-Chi is no exception. In fact, the central conflict comes down to Shang-Chi’s (Simu Liu) struggle against his place amongst his family, and against his father Wenwu (Tony Leung), who harnesses the power of the ten rings to lead a shadow army and gain eternal life. A lot of familiar beats of the hero’s journey are hit upon throughout the film, but Cretton still makes the proceedings enjoyable.
Shang-Chi is a twentysomething valet in San Francisco, spending his free time drinking and singing karaoke with his longtime friend Katy (Awkwafina). Eventually, mysterious bad guys – including one with a machete for an arm – come for him and he’s thrust back into reuniting with his sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) in China. A sizeable amount of screen time is dedicated to Shang-Chi’s backstory and his complicated relationship with his father, as he was raised to follow him and eventually rejected him. These flashback scenes are effective and dramatic, but take away from Shang-Chi and Xialing’s current mental states. Liu makes for a great addition to the MCU’s roster, with his baby face, imposing physicality, and impressive fighting skills. One could imagine Jackie Chan or Jet Li in the role if the film took place 30 years ago. But Cretton and Marvel have landed a solid villain and a dynamic performance from Tony Leung, the legendary Hong Kong actor, who grounds his ambitions in grief and regret. Leung handily elevates what could have been a one-note role and makes Wenwu one of the MCU’s best villains. I’ll always give a nod to a villain whose goals are lesser than global domination, and Wenwu’s motivations are strictly personal, as he grieves the passing of his wife (Fala Chen).
The special effects, which have inexplicably been a bit of an Achilles Heel for the MCU, are minimal and look great on the big screen; that the film’s finale devolves into a boilerplate CGI-fest is disappointing, but certainly not surprising. Cretton’s fight sequences feel like a solid mash-up between Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Hero and the smash-em-up styles of the MCU at-large. At least it feels like a majority of the film was shot on location, as opposed to a sound stage in Atlanta. And, while Awkwafina brings some great comic relief energy, it’s hard to justify her inclusion in the film past the opening scenes. Beyond Awkwafina’s contributions, Cretton and Dave Callaham, who wrote the screenplay together, have made one of the funniest MCU films as well, including a delightful cameo which I wouldn’t dare spoil here.
Much like Black Widow, the MCU’s previous 2021 entry, Shang-Chi presents plenty of elements to like, elements that should win over the most skeptical superhero fans. Cretton rightfully puts his focus not only on largely practical fight sequences but on very human, universal themes like guilt, regret, and family trauma. As with most MCU films, we’ll have to wait and see what stories Marvel has to tell with Shang-Chi, both individually and as a way to fit into the universe they’ve created. But, even if it doesn’t stray from certain pre-ordained formulas, Shang-Chi is an effective, visually stunning entry to the beginning of a new era for the most profitable franchise in Hollywood history.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings premieres only in theaters on September 3.
About the Writer: Ben Sears is a life-long Indianapolis resident, husband, and father of two boys, as well as a contributing writer on ObsessiveViewer.com and a recurring co-host on The Obsessive Viewer Podcast, and a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. Aside from watching movies and television, Ben enjoys photography and running marathons, but never at the same time. That would be difficult.