Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
WHERE TO WATCH:
WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
Shaun (Simu Liu) is a twenty-something Chinese immigrant who is mostly perfectly happy with his unassuming life, working as a valet and hanging out with his best friend, Katie (Akwafina). When a group of deadly assassins suddenly attack Shaun on a crowded bus, though, and after making short work of the assassins, Katie quickly learns that there's a lot more to her old friend than she could have ever imagined. Shaun is actually Shangi-Chi, Master of Kung Fu, the runaway son of an ancient crime lord who wanted him to follow in his footsteps, but with his past coming back to haunt him, Katie and Shangi-Chi head back to China to confront his father... and his true destiny.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
This is it. This is the big one. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is where we were to find out if the Marvel Cinematic Universe still has legs after the climactic Infinity Saga two-parter and the simultaneous losses of Tony Stark, Natasha Romanov and Steve Rogers.
Phase IV has, admittedly, already been under way for some time now, but it has mostly been in the form of tie-in TV series, Wandavision, Loki, and The Falcon and The Winter Soldier (all presumably will be available on Disney+ when it launches in this country next year), and two films that have either been about capping off the events of Avengers: Endgame (Spider-Man: Far From Home) looking backwards in MCU history to finally give Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow her due.
Shangi-Chi is really the beginning of the next phase in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and, as such, carries the weight of some pretty massive expectations. It's odd then that Marvel Studios would turn to such an untested and relatively obscure character for so tricky a task.
Shang-Chi is certainly not a completely unknown entity in Marvel's comic book line, and he has even had some ongoing titles and mini-series of his own in the decades since writer Steve Engelhart and artist Jim Starlin created him in 1973 as Marvel's answer to the Kung Fu craze that was sweeping pop culture at the time. But centring such a pivotal MCU film on a barely-known-to-the-general-public Bruce Lee knockoff is certainly an audacious and unexpected choice.
Indeed, despite always being more of a DC fan, I have always gone into each MCU film, having read at least some of the comics featuring that film's head-liner - usually completely independently of the film - but I've never actually read a single Shang-Chi comic book in my life. Certainly not as the main character. And I've even read some Eternals!
This is, though, hardly the first time that Marvel have defiantly bucked expectations. From creating a cinematic universe (itself basically unheard of at the time) when their biggest characters – Spider-Man, The X-Men, the Fantastic Four - were unavailable due to licensing issues to employing a couple of sitcom directors to helm their biggest films to, well, everything about Guardians of the Galaxy, Kevin Feige and Marvel Studios have never lived down to what people expect of a giant corporate juggernaut.
We keep waiting for Marvel Studios to fail when they go for these off-kilter decisions, but they keep on defying expectations. They didn't fail when they centred a film around a talking raccoon and a (barely) talking tree, they didn't fail when they gave the third Thor film to a quirky New Zealander maverick to do with as he pleased, and they don't fail here either. Not even close.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is top-drawer Marvel, easily ranking among their very best origin movies to date, and gives fans plenty of reasons to be hopeful for what comes next.
The masterful trick played here by director Destin Daniel Cretton (Just Mercy) and co-writers, Andrew Lanham (Just Mercy, again) and Dave Callaham (The Expendables and about 15 films from the past couple of years alone), is that they managed to create a Marvel film that feels both warmly familiar but also fresh, surprising and relatively original at the same time. There's still plenty in the way of what the MCU is known for – PG-13 superhero action, fun world-building, easy-to-root-for heroes, loads of humour – and the film certainly ties narratively into the greater MCU with callbacks, cameos and Easter eggs aplenty, but it's something of a departure too.
Much can be made of how Shang-Chi is the first MCU movie to feature a predominantly Chinese and Chinese-American cast, but more than just a nod at diversity and a fairly obvious way to rake in the bucks at the lucrative Chinese box office, it gives the film a unique flavour that immediately sets it apart from every other Marvel movie to date. Aesthetically, it's a wonder to behold, drawing more from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon than the more familiar Western tropes of most Marvel movies, and the (admittedly cod-) Eastern mythological trappings give a different spin to Marvel's trademark CG-heavy action finales.
Like Ang Lee's classic, it also does something different from most Marvel movies by mixing beautifully choreographed martial arts action with a whimsical, almost lyrical sense of fantasy. Marvel has had plenty of fun action scenes in their films, but few have felt quite as well-thought out and intricate as what's on display here. Yes, the snappy modern editing still gives the fight scenes a frenetic energy, but shots are held for longer than most modern American action films, allowing for a greater demonstration of impressive stunt work and fight choreography.
A particularly great touch is the way that the film expresses the general approaches of the two opposing sides of Shang-Chi – both the film and the character himself – by having the fighting style of the one side as very kinetic, hyper-aggressive and masculine and the other as much more flowing, fluid and feminine. To say more would get into spoiler territory, but it's this attention to detail that gives the action in the film far more depth than we're used to in these sorts of films – even when the more grounded martial art set pieces give way to spectacular fantasy sequences.
As is forever the case, though, the most important strength of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is less about its plot and more about its characters and the killer cast they've brought in to bring these characters to life.
Simu Liu is immensely charismatic and immediately likeable as the titular hero, Akwafina is typically wonderful as Shang-Chi's extroverted, game-for-anything partner-in-crime (and yes, much of the film's humour does inevitably come from her... and a surprisingly very welcome cameo), and there are some really fun supporting roles too – not least an always appreciated late-game appearance by Michelle Yeoh.
What really sets this apart for a Marvel movie, though, is that the villain – and I'm going to say as little about him as possible for spoiler purposes – is actually a well-rounded character that never comes close to being an anti-hero but is a villain that nonetheless remains entirely sympathetic with understandable character motivations and an underlying humanity. Played by Hong Kong acting legend Tony Leung, he quickly joins Loki and Thanos as one of the MCU's very best bad guys.
Not that there aren't some really nice surprises in the film's story that plays out as an intimate family drama, an epic adventure and a promising tease for what is to come – both end credit scenes are a must – but this is a film that thrives on its attention to detail and on its big-hearted humanity. It has some flaws – mostly in the way it deals with the tons of exposition it has to get out of the way - but I could hardly think of a better way to kick off the next evolution in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
WATCH THE TRAILER HERE: