A young man must come to terms with his dark and mystical past in order to forge his future in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, a vibrant new adaptation of the comic book that pays homage to Kung Fu wuxia cinema while introducing a new kind of superhero to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
That superhero is Shang-Chi, and he’s portrayed by Simu Liu (Kim’s Convenience) in a breakthrough performance that nicely captures the yin and yang of the character’s complex backstory; Shang-Chi is the product of opposing forces who must learn to properly balance his inner conflict in order to find his true self.
In the Marvel comics, Shang-Chi was originally developed as the son of supervillain Fu Manchu before Marvel lost the rights to that character; here, his dad is the immortal Xu Wenwu. Tony Leung brings some instant gravitas to the film as Wenwu, and gets us to empathize with the character despite being a traditional villain; thanks largely to Leung’s performance, he’s one of the few villains that the MCU gets right.
Shang-Chi’s mother Jiang Li (Fala Chen), meanwhile, represents his other side: a former guardian of the mystical forest land of Ta Lo, she tries to cultivate Shang-Chi’s heart while dad raises him to be an emotionless assassin.
When mom is killed and dad tasks a teenage Shang-Chi with tracking down her killer, he instead flees to San Francisco; we pick up with him years later, working as a valet with friend Katy (Awkwafina). When dad’s villainous crew tracks him down, however, he realizes he must travel to Macau to save his sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), and stop whatever plans his father has in store.
Shang-Li and the Legend of the Ten Rings gets off to a rollicking start with a fight scene on a San Francisco bus that’s better than any such sequence previously seen in a Marvel movie. The action is written from a granular level that involves all the specific aspects of the bus, wonderfully choreographed and edited, and backed with a toe-tapping, pulse-pounding lightly-electronic score.
Unfortunately, that’s also the last great extended fight in Shang-Chi: subsequent scenes in Macau and at dad’s secret lair take place under the dark of night, and the climactic battle in Ta Lo is a overblown CGI spectacle that threatens to swallow up the entire film.
Until the finale, Shang-Chi is surprisingly light on the action; the family’s complex backstory leads to a lengthy midsection full of exposition. But it still works: because these characters are well-developed, we care about them and their relationships. The struggle between Shang-Chi and his father, and particularly his inner struggle with his father’s influence, is especially well-detailed.
Ultimately, however, the strong character work gets lost during the spectacular climax. On the surface, that climax delivers a culmination of all the little character beats: Shang-Chi and Xialing finally working together, Shang-Chi confronting his father and himself, even Katy learning to focus her efforts and contribute to the greater good.
But these are fleeting moments within twenty minutes of mind-numbing action that are never given the proper amount of time or space to breathe. As Shang-Chi finally masters his own sense of self and confronts his father, there are also two hitherto unmentioned dragon-monsters fighting for the fate of the world and (successfully) challenging our lead for screen time.
Climatic overload is not a Shang-Chi problem but a problem in every MCU movie, and last led to overblown spectacle in what should have been a smaller-scale espionage story in Black Widow. Shang-Chi, at least, embraces the fantastic origins of wuxia heroes, and at least the fantastic creatures and other elements used to create the world of Ta Lo feel organic.
There’s a version of this movie that skips twenty minutes of mindless action and gets straight to Shang-Chi and Katy recapping the events for their skeptical friends in San Francisco, and that’s the movie I’d like to see. But too much spectacle is a good problem for a movie to have, and otherwise this latest Marvel feature is one of the studio’s fresher (and better) efforts.
A true one-off and a fitting introduction to the Marvel character and his backstory, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings has little connection to previous MCU outings, though Doctor Strange’s Benedict Wong appears in a couple scenes, and a couple of the usual suspects also show up in a mid-credits sequence. A post-credits scene, meanwhile, isn’t really worth the wait.
But Shang-Chi also throws in a couple great cameos from MCU characters long forgotten; one is given a featured role and ends up being one of the best surprises in the movie, while the other is such a deep cut that even Marvel diehards might not recognize him at first glance.