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While the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been experimenting with new narrative styles and approaches this year with the release of their first four Disney+ original series, the approach to big screen stories is business as usual. The philosophy remains that their blockbusters are all huge events, and that translates to each new release having powerful and charismatic characters at the center of epic adventures with massive scope and scale.
Clearly it is an approach that has worked phenomenally over the last 13 years, and the vast majority of the movies succeed in wowing the audience with spectacle – but Destin Daniel Cretton’s Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings is a film with a different vibe. Rather than wowing with a visual effects-heavy third act, it’s a movie that instead feels like it would have been far better off with more restraint, particularly because it is tremendous how well it flows with just face-to-face character moments and hand-to-hand combat.
Simu Liu as the titular lead is a born star; Awkwafina as the main supporting player is a lovable, fun spark; and Tony Leung makes an emotional and multi-dimensioned antagonist – not to mention that the action on display is brilliant and unlike anything we’ve ever seen before in a Marvel Studios release. It’s just unfortunate that Shang-Chi forces its best assets to take a backseat in the third act, and undercuts them in favor of a big showdown between a massive CGI dragon and a standard world-threatening monster in a mystical parallel world.
Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings is an origin story, but it successfully forgoes a number of the unfortunate and standard tropes as we meet Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) fully formed – albeit hiding his true identity. Living in San Francisco under an anglicized name, he lives a pressure-free existence working as a valet with his best friend, Katy (Awkwafina), and has no ambition to do more with his life.
Unfortunately, his past comes back to haunt him in the form of trained mercenaries, led by the dangerous Razorfist (Florian Munteanu). The killers, on the hunt for a pendant Shang-Chi wears around his neck, accost him on a bus, and in defending himself and his fellow passengers the hero is forced to reveal to Katy that he has been hiding a big part of his life from her.
In actuality, Shang-Chi is the son of Wenwu (Tony Leung), a powerful and brutal crime lord who has lived for thousands of years thanks to a set of 10 magical bands that he wears around his forearms – which not only slow his aging, but function as spectacularly powerful weapons. Wenwu is convinced that that Shang-Chi’s deceased mother Jiang Li (Fala Chen) is still alive and trapped in another world, and will allow nothing to stop him in his pursuit to get her back. Questioning his father’s efforts, the eponymous protagonist understands that he has no choice but to face his demons, beginning with a reunion with his estranged sister Xialing (Meng'er Zhang).
Shang-Chi’s number one mission is introducing audiences to an awesome new Marvel hero, and in that effort it is a massive success.
One of the most important keys to success for Marvel Studios has been both finding the right times to introduce key heroes into the movie-going public, and also casting them with an ideal star. In those respects Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings is a winner. Anyone who has watched the Canadian sitcom Kim’s Convenience knows that Simu Liu has charm and charisma to spare, and none of his skill fades while he is awash in the world’s biggest spotlight. He fills the new Marvel character with an affable but strong energy; you wish that you could hang with him for a night of karaoke, and simultaneously feel confident that he’s a high-tier guy you want around when a supervillain shows up.
Simu Liu’s performance is more about personality than growth – as his character doesn’t have much of an arc to trace in Shang-Chi; it’s much more about the audience understanding the natural born hero he already is. In a bizarre yet weirdly effective move, it’s actually Katy who winds up progressing the most over course of the story, primarily because she starts in the same place emotionally as her best friend, but isn’t hiding revelations regarding a mystical upbringing that saw her raised to be a warrior. She is positioned as the audience surrogate, and Awkwafina delivers a tone that is mostly sweet and funny, but her character also experiences real evolution, and is the most changed individual by the end of the story.
The fight sequences in Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings are incredible, and built into excellent set pieces.
In addition to its fuzzy character work, the film has a narrative doesn’t always entirely click due to the delivery of a whole lot of exposition – but Shang-Chi also never feels labored or stilted, largely because of excellent pacing that is driven by phenomenal fight scenes. We’ve obviously seen some tremendous Marvel action on the big screen, with Joe and Anthony Russo’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier standing out as one of the franchise’s truly great successes, but this is a movie that goes well beyond what was accomplished in that blockbuster. Supervising Stunt Coordinator Brad Allen, who sadly passed away earlier this month, and Destin Daniel Cretton have created sequences that feel like magic, with combatants moving with unreal speed and making your heart do double pumps for every punch and kick.
More than just featuring fast hands and feet, Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings builds out every set piece to its maximum craziness, and the effects are remarkable. The aforementioned bus fight makes for a fun and thrilling appetizer in the first act of the film, and it’s amazing to see the hero do his thing while trapped in a moving tight space, swinging over seats and through/around hand rails, but that’s really just a small preview of what’s to come. The greatest accomplishment by the movie is a vertigo-inducing battle that plays out in the scaffolding on the side of a large Macau skyscraper, but also there are stunning wuxia-inspired sequences that are as gorgeous as they are impressive – including a flashback that shows the first meeting between Wenwu and Jiang Li.
The best parts of Shang-Chi Rings get overshadowed by traditional Marvel spectacle, and it dulls the impact.
Between the familial conflicts and the close, physical action, Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings operates best when it feels most intimate, and the material begs for a final showdown of that same nature. But, again, this is a Marvel movie, and as a debut solo film for a new hero it has a certain responsibility to prove that its protagonist can operate in the same world as Doctor Strange, Captain America, and Spider-Man. This means that instead of the blockbuster delivering a heated, personal battle between son and father, everything gets diluted with otherworldly fantasy, world-threatening stakes, and armies fighting CGI monsters.
It’s not badly done, as there are some thrilling moments and killer creature design, but the action doesn’t feel like a proper extension of everything that comes before it, and feels like scale for the sake of scale. You hope/expect that the most dazzling martial arts the movie has to offer will be found in the big climax, but instead audiences should instead adjust their expectations now, and know that the film shifts away from its kung fu roots in a big way in the final 45 minutes and becomes something far more stock.
Coming out of Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings, you’re immediately excited about an inevitable sequel that will have the hero featured in an adventure that fully capitalizes on his potential and isn’t weighted with introductory fare. In this way the latest chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is an unmitigated success – but viewed wholly independently it’s a good movie with a lot of greatness in it. In its approach and characters it presents something new, but it is also ultimately hampered by the house style.