If you read my recent Candyman review, you know that I went into that movie with high hopes, and came away disappointed. This movie was the opposite experience: Up to this point, I had been experiencing Marvel fatigue.
Black Widow felt like a shrug. And while each of the Marvel TV shows on Disney+ had various high points, I can’t say I really liked any of them (Although What If..? might finally be doing the trick.)
All of this is to say, I went into Shang-Chi with low expectations, fully expecting to be served a perfectly palatable film that went down fine, but left no lasting impression.
Y’know, a Marvel movie.
I am happy to report that I was very pleasantly surprised.
Before you get too excited, let me also say: The movie was far from perfect. It had most of the flaws that we’ve come to associate with Marvel, and a few unique ones, which I’ll get to. However, it shook things up just enough that the seams that were showing in Black Widow got a nice, fresh coat of spackle, and the whole thing felt like the heady days of Phase 2 again.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (dir. Destin Daniel Cretton) is the story of Shaun (Simu Liu), and his best buddy Katy (Awkwafina), who are living their best lives as low-ambition schlubs in San Francisco. Their carefree lives are upended quite suddenly, when they are attacked by ninja assassins on a bus one morning.
It turns out, Shaun is actually Shang-Chi, a highly trained assassin in his own right, and the son of an ageless warlord (played by Tony Leung) who possesses ten mystical rings that make him one of the most powerful and dangerous people on Earth.
The end of their layabout days sends Shang-Chi and Katy on a globetrotting adventure in search of Shang-Chi’s sister, Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), opening their eyes to new worlds and new possibilities—both literal and within themselves.
First, the good: Simu Liu makes for a warm and charming central presence throughout the film, a nice continuation of the big-hearted, slightly naive Steve Rogers-tradition in the MCU. The real standouts, however, are Zhang, as Chi’s equally-badass and not-quite-so-moral sister, and Tony Leung.
Zhang’s Xialing is a fun wildcard throughout the film, and I’m looking forward to whatever chaotic impact she will bring to the MCU moving forward.
If you aren’t familiar with Tony Leung, do yourself a favor and set aside an evening for a double feature of In the Mood for Love and Hero, and you’ll see why he’s so popular. Here, he plays The Mandarin, in a slight retcon of the story told in Iron Man 3.
Red Letter Media can make fun of me all they want, but I was slightly disappointed by Iron Man’s decision to “deconstruct” the Mandarin character as it did. This movie shows exactly why.
The Mandarin’s traditional portrayal in comics is a Fu Manchu-stereotype that is inappropriate for a modern film, but Leung’s performance is exactly the sort of modern update that maintains a semblance of the character’s menace and mystique. (FWIW, I very much enjoyed the reimagining of the ten rings, themselves, too.) What a lost opportunity to see this version of the character facing off with Tony Stark.
Apart from the acting, the main star of the movie is the fight choreography. Heavily influenced in parts by the films of Jackie Chan—thanks in large part to the work of choreographer and Chan-collaborator Brad Allen, who tragically passed away before the movie’s premiere, and to whom the film is dedicated—the fights in Shang-Chi bring a sense of verve and gusto that’s been missing from some of the other, more generic and CGI-heavy fight-fests the MCU puts out. The audience I was with actually applauded after the first fight.
Now for the not-so-good: The film is overlong. It’s two hours and ten minutes, but it feels even longer. There are too many subplots, side characters, and flashbacks; we didn’t need all of it. And while it’s now standard to reference the endless endings to Return of the King, the final battle of Shang-Chi is the first time I’ve ever experienced a Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies-effect.
Awkwafina is Awkwafina, and her performance in the film is going to confirm all of your feelings about her, whether positive or negative. If you like her, you will continue to like her. If you don’t, the movie will do little to change your mind.
Last, there’s some dodgy CGI in the early going in the movie, and that concerned me, but once you reach the big action climax, you’ll see what they were saving all their money for. On the flip side, for as much love and attention to detail that went into the design for the “good guys,” I wish the same was paid for the bad.
Despite those critiques, what the movie really has going for it—what really sets it apart from other films of the MCU—is its unique perspective. This is a film with a very specific point of view, that being of the Asian diaspora in the United States. Much of the film is devoted to questions of legacy and ancestry, being a product of those who came before and knowing yourself within that context.
These questions drive Shang-Chi’s struggle, as much an internal and emotional one as a question of flying feet and fists and mystical rings. “Your mother knew who she was,” one character tells Shang-Chi, “Do you?”
In the end, there are a handful of valleys, but far more peaks in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. The very best parts, too, are the beginning and the end, so the movie leaves you on a high note. You’ll be smiling on your way home.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings gets 3.5 out of 5 stars.
It is available in theaters everywhere now.