Review: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe kicks off in earnest with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. While Black Widow was the first film in this phase, it was set in the past, a postlude to the prior phases and a send-off to one of the original Avengers. Destin Daniel Cretton‘s film is set firmly in the now, and it seeks to launch a new era of storytelling.
With 24 films of story to build on, Marvel strikes a delicate balance with each new entry. They must attempt to tell self-contained original stories while also using the history they stand on to please long-term fans and build out future stories and ideas. Marvel movies have often been accused of feeling too perfunctory, too stylistically similar, and too much like mere building blocks.
Shang-Chi has many of those elements of a Marvel film. There are quippy one-liners, CGI-extravaganza action scenes, and seeds of both the past of Marvel and sprouts of new life moving forward. The main villain of this film is The Mandarin, a character that was also the main villain of Iron Man 3 (sort of), while also getting an entirely original and fleshed-out take from renowned Hong Kong actor Tony Leung. Long-term viewers do indeed get what they want with plenty of references to The Mandarin’s prior depiction. Cretton blends past and present with a chef’s hand, though at times he lets too much fat into the sauce.
It is fitting that the main theme of the film is Shang-Chi wr estling with his past and trying to carve out a new identity. Cretton introduces us to the character of the Mandarin with a legend of his past before cutting to the modern-day Shang-Chi chilling, stuck in place, in San Francisco. His past is revealed over the course of the film in flashback as more and more layers are unveiled.
Since audiences are overly familiar with the superhero origin film by now, Shang-Chi cleverly dances around those tropes through the gradual manner in which it reveals its story. This approach blends thematically into the film. Shang-Chi wrestles with the past of his father being a supervillain and murderer and trying to ignore the sins of that history. Like Black Widow, Shang-Chi‘s themes sometimes feel shallowly developed, but it’s nice to watch the threads cross and come together. Lead actor Simu Liu is more than up to the challenge of portraying a character with charisma, masculine vulnerability, and conflict.
And while much of this is baked in the Marvel mold, Shang-Chi does add new flavors. There is a sustained focus on Asian culture and the legacies of family. This is not a wuxia film by any means, but the film does pay homage to that cinematic tradition in several ways. Shang-Chi has the most dynamic hand-to-hand fight choreography in a Marvel movie since 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier. While wuxia-like scenes are sadly limited, it is fun to see a Marvel film with action sequences that are dynamic and different and unlike what has appeared in the MCU before. We even get small doses of kaiju near the end.
The cast is fairly strong. Leung brings a complexity to the Mandarin that lifts him into the upper echelon of Marvel villains. Awkwafina plays her usual jester character that may or may not work for you. Fans of the MCU will find plenty of cameos and Easter eggs along the way that truly make this feel like a wide, living universe.
There is a lot of soul and a few moments where strong emotions are evoked, but one wishes that the arcs were a little deeper, the pacing didn’t feel so haphazard, and the CGIpalooza were scaled back a bit. For a big-budget superhero film, the effects look shockingly cheap at times. Any celebration of what this film does well must be tempered with a recognition that it is a more shallow dish than it seems in spite of powerful individual ingredients.