It’s not hyperbole to say that Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings is a movie that I’ve waited nearly my entire life to see. I fell in love with the pulpy, walk-the-Earth character as a kid and anticipated his MCU debut long before any official announcements were made. I’ve followed the development of the film closely and joyfully as Marvel Studios followed through on their promise to make this film a vehicle for an Asian cast, crew, and creatives. And what Marvel Studios created is something not only truly unlike they have ever put on a big screen, but also arguably their best effort at recreating a character, his supporting characters, and the world which they inhabit. The result is an origin film that rivals (and connects with) 2008’s Iron Man, introduces one of the MCU’s most well-developed antagonists, and sets up a future that promises greater things for the film’s core cast.
As advertised, the film introduces us to a brand new Marvel hero in Shang-Chi and addresses the origins of the Ten Rings organization which has inhabited the Marvel Cinematic Universe from its inception. The film’s prologue tells the story of the organization, the man who founded it, and the ten rings of power that have helped the organization secretly shape the history of the MCU. While we get plenty of backstory on the organization, the nature of the rings themselves remains nebulous even as the film concludes, though they remain integral to the film, almost a character unto themselves. Even as the MCU charges into the future, it continues to satisfyingly establish events set in its past. We’ve seen it done more frequently of late and it serves the purpose of informing fans that Shang-Chi has spent a decade of his young life trying to hide from his father, his family, and his fate. Director Destin Daniel Cretton should be lauded for the way he cleverly uses the prologue and the early moments of the first act to set the audience up for their expectations to be subverted.
Structurally, the film deftly meshes three disparate acts into an incredibly imaginative and fertile plot that never feels drawn out despite the film’s 2+ hour runtime. The first act feels like a martial arts short paying homage to legends like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. The second part plays out as an ever-evolving family tragedy on the level of Shakespeare’s King Lear before the film’s final act delivers an amazing fantasy story worthy of the Marvel comic book title’s rich history. Together, they tell the story of how love can both create or destroy, how power can both corrupt or enable and how, when the family is involved, there might not be such a thing as a point of no return. The film is beautifully written in service of these things and directed to emphasize them. The creatives behind the film deserve accolades for working together to deliver a film that manages to invoke empathy, sympathy, and apathy in the audience. When you’re watching this film, expect to experience a wide range of emotions.
If there’s anything that keeps the film from ascending into the absolute upper echelon of the 25 Marvel Cinematic Universe films it is, unfortunately, that the title character is, at best, the second most interesting character in the film. The great news is that this is in no way the fault of star Simu Liu, who is positioned to become one of the faces of the MCU over the next 5 years. Liu takes full ownership of Shang-Chi, a character who has a lot to do in this film and for whom there are clearly incredibly large-scale plans moving forward. Liu absolutely nails what he’s given here: he is equal parts charismatic, emotional, and an action star. He’s probably Marvel’s most instantly loveable hero since Chadwick Boseman‘s T’Challa. Also noteworthy is Liu‘s incredible chemistry with Awkwafina, who plays Shang-Chi’s attached-at-the-hip bestie, Katy. Marvel Studios targeted Awkwafina for the role early and her MCU original character – who experiences all the film’s big twists and turns right along with the audience – gets her own time to shine. She and Liu will continue to be paired together in the future and that’s something that’s going to be fun to see develop as they meet some of the universe’s established characters.
In reality, however, this film could have been titled Wenwu and The Legend of The Ten Rings because Hong Kong legend Tony Leung owns every second of screen time. Without getting spoilery, he is technically the film’s protagonist and his character arc is befitting of that title. Cretton creatively uses flashbacks to alter the audience’s perception of Wenwu (and indeed of more than one character) much to the advancement of not only the plot of the film but to the overall strength of the story. His use of non-linear storytelling elevates the cast and the film in an incredibly crafty way that can make one hope that he’s negotiated a long-term deal with the studio. His investment into these characters and this world bodes incredibly well for the future of the franchise(s) this origin film may spawn.
The greatest payoff of this investment is Leung‘s Wenwu: an entirely original character derived from Marvel Studios’ alchemical task of combining classic and stereotypically offensive characters, the Mandarin and Fu Manchu, into a brand new and beautifully complex character. The trailers intentionally tell a very specific story about Wenwu, that story is a lie. Leung‘s Wenwu is the furthest thing from a boring, one-note villain. In fact, he arguably has the film’s greatest and most fulfilling character arc. One struggles to find a comparable one-off villain in the rich history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
While the trailers prepared us for that martial arts action and father-son showdown, they did leave a couple of surprises for the audience. The most pleasant surprise of the film was the performance of Meng’er Zhang as Shang-Chi’s estranged sister, Xialing. Kept in the background by her father’s old ways, Xialing decided to carve her own path without her father and brother. Zhang played Xialing with confidence and an edge that made her ascension in the film feel both earned and deserved. As the film’s central plot resolves, Xialing finds herself positioned to be a key player in the MCU’s near future, perhaps even on the same level as her long-lost brother.
The film is also surprised with its hard lean into fantasy. Promotional material and merchandise indicated that the film would feature the Great Protector and some other mythological beasts, though there was no real indication of how large a role those fantastical elements would play in the film. Shang-Chi and Xialing’s mother, Jiang Li, brought to life gracefully and beautifully by Fala Chen, serves to introduce fans to the other-dimensional realm of Ta-Lo where the film’s resolution plays out. Ta-Lo showcases a number of mythological beasts, including Morris, a cute faceless critter who aids our heroes and serves to help Shang-Chi connect to his secret and sacred inheritance. The final act features action, unlike anything the MCU has ever put to film against a beautiful backdrop of plates from across Asia.
The big showdown, which features breathtaking action and heartbreaking consequences, feels like an anime of Donghua feature brought to life. The creative team took some big swings during the final battle and should be applauded for being brave enough to make something so divergent from what Marvel fans are used to seeing.
A common complaint of mine is that Marvel Studios origin stories have often spent too much time setting up the future of their titular characters at the expense of telling the story at hand. Much like the aforementioned Iron Man, Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings saves the setup for the mid and post-credit scenes, devoting almost the entirety of its run time to the development of the characters and the curation of the plot.
The dedication to the story and its characters, the exploration of genres and pathways previously unexplored in the 13-year history of the MCU, and the fulfillment of a promise to make films that represent the world we inhabit give Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings a firm foundation for success, even as the global box office climate continues to be volatile. For me, the true measure of success for an MCU film is its rewatchability, and this film promises to be one that fans will want to revisit over the years; the action shots and loveable characters make that all but a certainty. As the MCU grows and evolves, fans can only hope to have wonderful first entries such as this be a part of it.