Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings feels like the most authentic Marvel movie to date. Only because it uses its human talent to deliver a hefty family drama. Viewers are drawn deep into a superhero’s personal struggles – just as Stan Lee intended for other properties before. The result is one of Marvel’s deepest origin stories, steeped with Chinese identity. For added measure? Shang-Chi has some of the MCU’s most impressive fight scenes that are enough to tempt second viewers.
Marvel has a ton of baggage to take after Endgame. Concluding the Infinity Saga meant putting a number of iconic heroes like Iron Man, Captain America and the main Avengers team to rest. It’s no surprise that younger talent in the likes of Spider-Man and a new Captain America would tackle complex baddies. There wasn’t a better time to introduce Shang-Chi than after the dust had settled (every pun intended). Point being, Marvel is more than prepared to scale things back with an origin story. With over a decade and 24 films worth of experience, Shang-Chi is polished entertainment.
I say this with plenty of originality points. Shang-Chi takes viewers into a brand new world because it doesn’t rely on the bigger universe. Marvel’s characters have easily evolved into living roles across other heroes’ films. But Shang-Chi leaves this star power for other mainstream supers and Disney+ programs. The latest film greatly sticks to its own source material, dubbing Simu Liu as The Master of Kung Fu. Shang-Chi still gets riddled with some MCU references, particularly with a few cameos at the middle and two post credits scenes. But Marvel shows bigger restraint this time around, making each reference hit harder for fans making the theatre trip again.
This gives Marvel all the attention to build Shang-Chi’s own world. Post-snap, viewers are welcomed back into a familiar Earth. As hinted in Spider-Man: Far From Home, their world reflects ours as people rekindle normalcy. Shang (called Shaun early on) seems like a relatable Chinese American living in San Francisco. He’s happily working with best friend Katy (Awkwafina) as a car valet. Awkwafina is unsurprisingly Shang-Chi’s comic relief. But keeps a warm presence in the face of “really messed up” circumstances. It even helps that she’s asking just as many questions as we are across the film. Katy is no Avenger-helper. She’s the only person pulling Shang Chi back into reality before hilariously witnessing supernatural shenanigans. Oh, and to confuse you: Welcome to the Hotel California. You’ll thank me later.
Oh, where to start with our star Simu Liu. No, it’s not because we’re both raised with similar backgrounds in Mississauga.
Objectively, the Chinese Born Canadian is a fitting vessel for a hero of our time. He wears Shang-Chi with a millennial flair. Relatable, laid back and self aware enough to keep the guise of Shaun early on. As Shang-Chi, Simu Liu has a way of turning his concentration into seriousness. Fans of Liu might credit his breakout role in Kim’s Convenience or WongFu videos for practice. But it’s these portfolio items that made it hard to unsee Liu as Shang-Chi. Liu naturally conjures up Marvel’s magic. From channeling Jung’s chaotic sense of humor for Shang-Chi’s lighter moments with Katie. Then instantly confronting his self interests between a normal life and his estranged father. Simu Liu is put on a big test in identity – just as his character does across the journey. It’s a pleasure to see such a selfish conflict – calling back to Tony Stark’s own engrossing arc in Iron Man 2.
“From an underground fight ring to The Mandarin’s compound and a brand new realm, Shang-Chi doesn’t stray.”
But it takes just one impressively shot action scene to pull Shang back into an interesting life. As revealed in the trailer, Shang-Chi is actually the son of The Mandarin; leader of the fictional Ten Rings terrorist organization. Yes, the real Mandarin and not the bumbling decoy introduced in Iron Man 3. It’s a pretty wild connection. This sets Shang-Chi and Katie on a literal journey to uncover family roots. I absolutely loved the pacing of a mythical quest; over Marvel’s globe trotting set pieces to kick supervillain ass. Viewers are still carried by that emotional story, only because Shang-Chi is connected with each of its settings. From an underground fight ring to The Mandarin’s compound and a brand new realm, Shang-Chi doesn’t stray.
Marvel is at its best when they get personal. Viewers became immersed in 2018’s Black Panther, mainly since it left the MCU noise behind for two hours. The kingdom of Wakanda became a place for power struggles, family tension and tragedy. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings follows a similar path for better. In the process, Marvel tells a much more believable and human story over CGI mashups of your favourite heroes. Unfortunately, Shang-Chi does suffer from some underbaked subplots. The film includes a father-daughter dynamic that couldn’t take shape by the end. Xialing, played by Meng’er Zhang, is Shang-Chi’s sister who joins him on that journey. She shares the same flashbacks and exposition as her brother. But it’s wasted on a typical revenge plot viewers can predict. She does shed her no-nonsense demeanor to join in on Awkwafina’s brand of humor – with some wholesome chemistry. Otherwise, she definitely deserved a longer moment with her dear old dad.
Shang-Chi’s show stealer is actually the villain himself. Believe it or not, The Mandarin is the most developed supervillain across Marvel’s franchise. Legendary Hong Kong actor Tony Leung Chiu Wai plays an incredibly complex human being, fueled by centuries of violence. Behind all the assassins, black SUVs and murder, The Mandarin (Wenwu) wants to be a good dad. It’s enough to make viewers not see a villain in him. That’s because Shang-Chi’s real conflict is between father and son. In fact, viewers get to piece together flashbacks of Wenwu’s life as a loving dad. Marvel uses that human touch to an emotional degree at times, showing a fatherly image we’ve all seen at home. It’s a type of sympathy I haven’t felt in any Marvel villain until seeing the real Mandarin on-screen. Tony Leung’s role is unforgettable, sending bigger reminders to children with Chinese parents.
Of course, all of Shang-Chi’s movie elements are shaped by Chinese influences and mythology. Down to a natural blend of Mandarin and English dialogue. Director Destin Daniel Cretton and his team have made a unique installment to the MCU with another cultural lens. This is all viewed from the eyes of Shang-Chi as a Chinese American. Viewers get a soft gateway into our values. From granting children a bit of breathing space from tradition in order to grow. To treating estranged friends as family, even with barely a connection. Heck, Shang-Chi nailed the details for an awkward family meal – complete with asking guests about their Chinese names and eye-rolling siblings behind a bowl of rice. Marvel gently celebrates these details, even if the film plays on conventional elements including dragons and fighting an army of monks in a temple.
No sugarcoating. Shang-Chi contains Marvel’s best fight scenes ever shot. It’s a high bar to raise following many scenes rewatched in Daredevil, Civil War and definitely Iron Fist. The Master of Kung Fu lives up to his name, while nearly every fight was done by Simu Liu himself. Shang-Chi’s action stays fast and clean with this particular style. Kung Fu (pronounced: goong-fu) is studied with a kinetic mastery over one’s body. Shang-Chi’s action shows each fighter attempt to outsmart their opponents. This comes with some impressive techniques from Shang-Chi, Wenwu and the mysterious Death Dealer in each of their scenes. There’s a certain dance of death in Shang-Chi, without lasers, rockets or magic hammers. Shang-Chi even pays homage to Jackie Chan’s resourcefulness in the bus fight. Along with some serene nods to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon in a scene with that same star Michelle Yeoh. The pacing and close quarters tension even scratch an itch for fans of Ip Man.
Viewers will absolutely be impressed by the clear determination to counter, until a blow lands on opponents. Shang-Chi struggles to survive against groups of highly trained assassins, which kept my eyes darting in the Macau scene. There are plenty of shorter fights, with the camera avoiding jump cuts. Instead, Marvel introduces a technique to move the camera around the blocking and hitting. It’s cool to see some of Daredevil’s steady, one-shot camerawork make its way into Shang-Chi.
Regardless, longtime fans will still get to see plenty of CGI scrambled eggs. The trailer’s bus fight and a battlefield scene show typical Marvel magic. This CGI is easily the draining factor in a film with such believable combat. In several fights with Wenwu, the CGI ten rings added more dazzle to his moves. They’re not the biggest mythical weapons next to Loki’s staff. But the titular Ten Rings are creatively used to show off the graceful martial arts forms.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s 25th major film benefits from experience. Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a creative blend of family drama. This helped Marvel craft an adventure film that pulls viewers into a refreshing new world. Each of Shang Chi’s Chinese cast are given a proper time to shine. Through a no-nonsense adaptation of Marvel Comics’ best fighter and bringing his special background to life.
Warning: there are two post credits scenes. The first is worth your time. The other, not so much.