Having spent thirteen years building up faith and goodwill in audiences around the world, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has more freedom than any other franchise in Hollywood to take big swings. While that’s true to a certain extent with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, a bold and often inventive new entry into canon, the martial arts fantasy blockbuster all too regularly and frustratingly falls into formula.
A prologue illuminates us on who the titular organization really are; not the terrorists who captured Tony Stark in Iron Man, and certainly not the front put on by Aldrich Killian and Trevor Slattery in the threequel. Tony Leung’s Wenwu has been amassing power and wealth for a thousand years, all powered by the sort of vaguely-explained and incredibly powerful MacGuffin the MCU loves so much.
Wenwu meets his match when he goes seeking for the greatest power of all at the mystical village of Ta Lo, where he’s defeated and then falls in love with guardian Ying Li. He decides to hang up the Ten Rings and becomes a happy family man, but when Ying Li is murdered by rivals that could have easily been stopped had he kept his shiny trinkets on, he alienates his family and dives headfirst into trying to find any way possible of bringing her back, which informs the entire narrative.
Prepare yourself for flashbacks and voiceovers going in, because Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings has a ton of it. While it’s completely necessary in order to lay the foundations of the story and explain a mythology that’s brand new to everyone except avid comic book readers, sometimes it slows the pace of the movie to a crawl, but it’s often punctuated by an exciting action sequences, so it’s a forgivable sin.
We meet our intrepid hero as a valet going by the name of Sean, who ran away from his destiny and built a life for himself. Of course, dear old dad has been monitoring Shang-Chi this whole time, and dispatches his goons to bring the prodigal son home. Daddy issues are par for the course with Marvel Studios, and while Simu Liu’s title character is merely following in the footsteps of Iron Man, Thor, Star-Lord and others by having trouble living up to what’s expected of him, Liu and Leung are good enough in their respective roles to make you care all over again.
Liu has ‘movie star’ written all over him from the second he appears onscreen; he’s got the looks, charm, charisma, comic timing and martial arts abilities in spades, but it always feels as though there’s something missing from his performance. He’s incredibly likeable and fun to spend time with, but he doesn’t acquit himself anywhere near as well in the emotional stakes as he does when it comes to kicking ass.
It’s never a good sign when the main figure of the film is overshadowed by the villain, but Leung is brilliant as Wenwu. The whole Mandarin thing is brushed off in a single line of dialogue, but you’re utterly convinced by the strength of his work that this man would do anything and everything possible to overcome the grief that’s blighted his entire existence. It’s not really fair to compare the two when Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is Liu’s first major leading role and Leung is one of modern cinema’s finest actors, but the latter finds the complexities and depth to his arc that the former doesn’t always manage to hit, even if something as subtle as a raised eyebrow or shift in gaze.
That being said, Liu takes like a duck to water when it comes to the set pieces, which boast some of the most inventive choreography the MCU has ever seen. The opening two-thirds of Shang-Chi contain a succession of thrilling battles, chases and escapes all visually and stylistically different from each other, and that’s where the film shines brightest. Destin Daniel Cretton will surprise a lot of people with his fluid camerawork, sense of geography and avoidance of the usual quick-cutting that plagues the action genre at large, and he’s ably assisted by a cast and crew of accomplished and hugely talented individuals that make the action never anything less than edge-of-the-seat stuff.
In fact, all of the major players acquit themselves well; Meng’er Zhang’s Xu Xialing has exactly the same childhood traumas as her brother but from a different angle, adding a welcome new dimension to the dysfunctional dynamic. Awkwafina does what she does best, so your mileage will vary depending on how receptive you are to her shtick, and Michelle Yeoh brings plenty of gravitas in the sort of exposition-heavy mentor role that’s become her Hollywood bread and butter.
If you boil Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings down to its essence, then it’s a film about a family split apart by a single tragedy that set everyone on a different path, with redemption not guaranteed. That might sound like heavy stuff, but we’re also talking about a movie where Awkwafina, Ben Kingsley and a CGI animal sidekick that doesn’t have a face drive an electric car through a magic forest, so there are definitely some wild tonal shifts.
Unfortunately, the third act of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is the weakest by far, and this is where several of the MCU’s recurring problems come into play. What should have been an intense and thematically rich face off between stubborn father and vengeful son ends up ticking off all the boxes that must be on a checklist somewhere that Kevin Feige hands out to his filmmakers.
The bad guy wants to open a gate and/or portal, which leads to a desperate last stand that pits the main cast members against an army of CGI creatures in a big battle. Black Widow fell into a similar trap very recently where the focus on spectacle overshadowed everything that had happened up to that point, simply because the climactic showdown is seemingly obligated be massive in scope and scale. It didn’t need to be, and it’s the MCU by numbers.
Everything before that is more than stellar, though, and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings sets some big things in motion for the future. In a movie or two Liu will have grown into the role much better, kicking the latest chapter of the post-Infinity Saga era off with a bang.