Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings manages to differentiate itself from the other films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While there has been lots (and lots, and lots) of action in the MCU, it hasn’t really embraced a full-on kung fu style mayhem. (Well, unless one counts the Marvel Netflix shows like Daredevil and Iron Fist but those have a precariously shaky relationship with MCU canon.) Still, Shang-Chi also can’t help but throw in a few comic book blockbuster clichés by the finale. For MCU nerds, this nicely expands on a villainous group, the Ten Rings, that was introduced all the way back in the first MCU movie, Iron Man. Also, this has the most kicking in a MCU movie ever. So that’s a plus.
Shaun (Simu Liu) is living a shiftless life as a parking attendant with his buddy, Katy (Awkwafina). This changes dramatically when one day on a bus ride a guy with a sword for an arm, Razor Fist (Florian Munteanu), and a bunch of goons attack Shaun. It turns out that Shaun is really Shang-Chi, having been trained since childhood to be an assassin for his father, Wenwu aka The Mandarin (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung), leader of the deadly terrorist organization, the Ten Rings. Bringing along his chipper buddy, Shang-Chi tracks down his long-lost sister, Xialing (Meng’er Zhang). But their father is waiting for them, saying he needs their help. He believes their mother is in the magical, hidden, and dragon infested land of Ta Lo, but the land’s leader, Ying (Michelle Yeoh) says they are guarding something much more nefarious.
There’s a bit of Godfather to this in between all the kung fu fighting and CGI monsters. Shang is trying to live a non-criminal life while the patriarch of the family leads a clan of killers, all for the betterment of his children. Liu as Shang-Chi is at his best when him and Katy are being snarky. He’s good at the action scenes as this has more close quarters combat and not as much CGI high flying masked heroes and robots MCU movies usually do. It gives the movie a physicality that is missing from some MCU installments. Well, physicality to a point, because the third act climax has some big CGI monsters fighting other big CGI monsters which is very different from the physical fighting. The first action scene involves Razor Fist, glowering impressively, literally cutting a damn bus in half to get at Shang-Chi and there’s a lot of cool long takes of them brawling like something out of Oldboy or The Raid. Still, the fact that the movie eventually devolves into big CGI monster fighting at the end isn’t wrong for a comic book movie, it just feels a bit standard. Even though a big monster fight has been done before and better in Marvel movies, the emotional core of Shang-Chi vs. his father makes it work.
The emotional pathos between father and son works well here. The good son being tempted by the evil father to come and rule beside him is kind like of cramming in Luke vs. Darth Vader from Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi in about 50 minutes. Probably the best scene that sets this up is a brief flashback that shows kid Shang witnessing his father wreck a bunch of bad folks with his ten rings gauntlet. Leung doesn’t play Xialing as overtly evil, which makes the nasty things he does more jarring, and his misguided quest to find his wife is genuinely empathetic. The Ten Rings were used as a front in Iron Man 3 as actor Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley) portrayed a fake Mandarin. Kingsley returns here and his Trevor is totally hilarious, having spent years as Wenwu’s personal jester and he’s gone even crazier. Trevor has befriended a weird looking creature he named Morris and the dynamic between Trevor and the headless fluffy thing is amusing.
Yeoh as the leader of the magical land says serious stuff effectively and that’s kinda it. Zhang as Shang-Chi’s sister is a standard stoic badass who has apparently led a much more interesting life battling in dark web streamed superpowered fight clubs. When her and Shang-Chi first meet they immediately get into a brawl which is the 2nd MCU movie in a row after Black Widow where long lost siblings immediately fight. In the fight club another MCU character, the Sorcerer Wong (Benedict Wong) is fighting the Abomination, a character not seen since 2008’s Incredible Hulk. The movie doesn’t layer in tons of MCU continuity, stuff like the world devastating effects of Infinity War are glossed over, but the little bits of MCU lore are great, especially the mid-credits stinger.
The movie looks spectacular with lots of fast action, like a fight on the outside of a building that jumps between different levels as people precariously dangle off the side. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is one of the better Marvel origin stories as this doesn’t involve an overconfident punk who learns responsibility. This is more about a guy who slowly falls back into the world he was born into and realizes that he can use his powers for good. Shang-Chi will make an interesting addition to the larger MCU roster now that his origin story is complete.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Starring: Simu Liu, Awkwafina and Tony Chiu-Wai Leung