September 4, 2021

Review: “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is a Mystical MCU Adventure

Just as light has darkness, yin has yang, Cheech has Chong, Quentin Tarantino has Samuel L. Jackson, Marvel movies have…clichés.

This isn’t, by any stretch, a bad thing. Movies sustain these clichés for one simple reason: because they work, and success is often borne from their use. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Marvel’s latest (and rather unconventional) film, is also an origin story for its titular hero, which further seems to limit its capacity for novel ideas.

Nearly every Marvel Cinematic Universe origin story, from Ant-Man to Black Panther and everywhere in between, has orbited the theme of family, mostly dysfunctional ones. As I mentioned, it’s a formula that works, but it’s gotten somewhat tiring over the years.

However, Shang-Chi manages to differentiate itself from the by-the-numbers origin stories by being a vastly different Marvel film from any we’ve seen before — no, not because of its story structure, that’s still very MCU — but because it has a predominantly Asian cast, and incorporates Chinese mythology, beliefs and ideas in a subtle and respectful way (even having a lot of its dialogue spoken in Mandarin, with subtitles for those who don’t speak it). In this way, it’s branching off into uncharted MCU territory, and it turns Shang-Chi into a movie that feels very separate from the MCU as a whole. This only makes me more excited for what it brings to the table, and the prospects it introduces for the future of this universe. A world with Norse gods, alien armies and fantastical technology was exciting enough, but Shang-Chi introduces more game-changing variables that have the potential to change the Marvel Cinematic Universe for good.

On the other hand, it’s a straightforward Marvel action film, with plenty of crowd-pleasing moments coupled with humor and intimate moments to allow us to know the characters on a deeper level. Simu Liu, who openly campaigned for the role of Shang-Chi on Twitter in 2018, stars as the son of the immortal warlord Wenwu (Tony Leung), the leader of the infamous organization known as the Ten Rings (named after the powerful weapons wielded by Wenwu).

Shang-Chi, known as Shaun in America, goes with his childhood friend Katy (Awkwafina, playing a somewhat restrained version of her typecast character) on a journey to China which ends in a rather disastrous family reunion.

Wenwu (Tony Leung) and Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) battle with the Ten Rings.

Despite feeling disconnected from the larger MCU, Shang-Chi certainly doesn’t skimp on paying off set-up going back as far as 2008’s Iron Man, in which the Ten Rings first appeared. Not only does Shang-Chi bring the organization into a clearer light by giving it a face and identity, but it also gives us closure to Ben Kingsley’s role in Iron Man 3 —he portrayed Trevor Slattery, a cretinous actor who was duped into playing the Mandarin, a commercialized and public version of Wenwu, by a terrorist. Kingsley reappears in Shang-Chi in a minor but memorable role — and he’s certainly not the only returning Marvel cast member.

Shang-Chi is a decent Marvel movie, and an even better action movie — as MCU origin stories go, it’s one of the better ones. Here’s hoping we get more big-budget blockbusters in this same vein. As Simu Liu said himself: “We are not an experiment. We are the underdog; the underestimated. We are the ceiling-breakers. We are the celebration of culture and joy that will persevere.” After the year we’ve had, a lighthearted, game-changing blockbuster like Shang-Chi is exactly what we need. [Grade: A-]

Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Writers: Destin Daniel Cretton and David Callaham
Starring: Simu Liu, Tony Leung, Awkwafina, Michelle Yeoh, Ben Kingsley
Rated: PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and language
Available: Disney+
Fun Fact: Despite his evident talent, this is the first lead role by Simu Liu in a feature film.

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