Marvel Studios takes one more bold step into film creation during the most unpredictable circumstances for the movie industry, a global pandemic. Their long-in-the-works Black Widow came out earlier this summer and likely suffered for obvious reasons given that the majority of the population feels unsafe in a crowded theater. It was a shame too, as many diehard Marvel Cinematic Universe fans had been clamoring for a solo feature for the character popularized by Scarlett Johansson for many years. Things are what they are for this moment in time though; there’s really no escaping the difficulties of trying to entertain or be entertained in the time of a deadly airborne virus. And here we are now inching towards another, very long-in-the-works entry in this growing shared universe, the studio’s first ever big-budget superhero film led by an actor of Asian descent and featuring a predominantly Asian cast, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
The Chadwick Boseman-led Black Panther inarguably came at a time when the need to deliver on the promise of equal representation for black actors was long, long overdue. Combined with two knockout performances by Boseman and Michael B. Jordan and the incredible vision of director Ryan Coogler, massive success was inevitable. It stands to logic that the equally overdue positioning of a story featuring Asian actors would be equally successful. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings comes at a delicate and precarious time in history, for all the aforementioned reasons and more (depending on how far into geo-political extrapolation you dare to expand back into) and Marvel is known for spending enough for most small country’s GDP to make their movies, so naturally tons is on the line here. Does the “House of Ideas” have another world-changing hit on their hands as they re-chart their course after the conclusion of the Infinity Saga? The answer may come in a bit shorter than that, but it also may depend on how the majority of filmgoers feel about everything this film tries hard to accomplish even if it lacks the knockout power of the stories Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War, Iron Man and Black Panther did in rendering their little corner of the MCU. Action alone wasn’t enough to enrapture millions, neither was the expensive CGI. There, each film both had the power of a great story and a character-defining performance by one or more of the cast.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ strengths are in its action sequences. Star Simu Liu as Shang-Chi and first-time actress Meng-er Zhang (playing Shang-Chi’s long lost sister Xialing) both look amazing in all of their fight sequences, and the first half of the movie doubles down on the impressive planning and staging without becoming an overwrought mess to the self-indulgence that sometimes would happen in The Matrix movies. There’s one battle in the first part of the story between Fala Chen’s character Jian Li and Shang-Chi’s father Wenwu (who ultimately is the long hinted at Marvel villain The Mandarin) that is gorgeous in its care and artistry. Some of the bigger action set pieces near the film’s finale don’t live up to the grace and care in these sequence in the first half, but ultimately the care in staging them by fight choreographer Andy Cheng and others really shows.
Similarly, much of the story’s themes, symbolism and fantastical creatures play as solid attempts to cement this story in authentic facets of Chinese culture and mythology. That care shows in both the richness of the settings down to the design of just about everything shown that isn’t a part of a standard North America city. It’s evident in the effort that all of the cast put into their performances as well as director Destin Daniel Cretton’s (The Glass Castle) careful unspooling of the movie that appropriately representing the culture and the people was at the forefront of the decision making here. It’s not hard to imagine any young boy or girl of Asian descent not seeing themselves in these heroes the same way white children have been able to in Spider-Man for decades now. That’s a good thing to be sure, and a worthy goal for any company and team of creatives with literally billions of dollars on the line.
On the other hand though, some things about Shang-Chi just don’t connect with the power and fluidity that one has come to expect from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Actor Tony Leung does a great job rendering Shang-Chi’s father Wenwu, the massively morally bankrupt leader of the Ten Rings, but the story does almost nothing to connect him to the actions of Raza and the terrorist Ten Rings faction in the very first MCU movie, Iron Man. Those events are inarguably the catalyst for this giant behemoth franchise of stories, but there’s nary a whisper as to why someone as powerful as Wenwu would have needed a fee from Obediah Stane to have Tony Stark assassinated. It wouldn’t matter if this character was some new invention, but Marvel has gone far out of their way to tell us this Wenwu is the same Mandarin mentioned all the way since Iron Man 2 that has been hiding in the shadows all along, but its connections to everything else feel perfunctory at best. In addition, the actual ten rings that Wenwu wields are never really explained except to show powerful they are. There’s a tiny hint at the film’s conclusion, but nothing that really explains their entrance into this continuity.
There’s also numerous (admittedly small) things that play as contrivances more than clever plot structure, with characters either magically have the right skill for a challenge, or knowing something that just feels impossible for them to know. It’s fun to see Benedict Wong’s Wong (from Doctor Strange) fighting Tim Roth’s Abomination (from The Incredible Hulk) but it’s never really explained why they particularly are where they are in this story and in the Abomination’s case, where he has been all this time.
The story also hinges on the friendship (and teased possible romance) between Shang-Chi and his best friend Katy (played by rising comic star Awkafina), who end up on this epic hero’s journey together. Awkafina is no doubt in this role because of her supreme comedy timing, but the story only gives her a handful of chances to pull off witty one liners. Liu on the other hand nails the power, look and strength of Shang-Chi, but might be more in alignment with Superman actor Henry Cavill as not pulling off the emotional weight of the acting and complex family scenes as well as he legit kicks butt (and face). Neither gives a bad performance by any means, but it’s hard not to compare Liu’s moment here with Chadwick Boseman’s in Black Panther and to remember how perfectly Boseman depicted all of the facets of T’Challa. So much of that film’s success hinged on the fact that Boseman felt almost unnervingly like the total package. Tony Leung and Michelle Yeoh (who appears as an important character in the film’s final act) both do a great job in their respective parts undeniably, but whether this large-scale family drama was the right entry point for Shang-Chi into this large world of heroes is an open question. There is a fun character from the MCU’s past that shows up and steals nearly every scene they’re present for with amazing comedic timing, but we’ll save you the spoilers and say you’ll know it when you see it happen (being the main connection outside of Wong/The Abomination).
All in all, it’s a perfectly solid movie and another successful addition to Marvel Studios’ stable of characters. It does not jump off the page as a glowing success, but there’s enough here to make this a worthy viewing for anyone with even a casual interest in superhero cinema. In particular, the final showdown in the film’s last twenty minutes is a glorious bit of bombastic chaos, but you’ll just have to take the plunge and see for yourself, much like Shang-Chi does in this story of coming to terms with one’s own past and what really might have happened.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a fun and action-packed entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While lacking the comprehensive perfection many of its giant successes exhibited, it still does a great job rendering this story with care and authenticity. It may not succeed at the level some of Marvel Studios’ films have, but it’s still very much worth seeing.