"Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings" Review
For nearly ten years after its inception, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was dominated by the adventures of white men. Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow had to fight to get her own film this year, while her male co-stars got entire trilogies. Black Panther reinvigorated the franchise with its celebration of African culture in 2018, proving that the Marvel brand didn’t have to be so beige. Captain Marvel became the first MCU film to be fronted by a woman. Now, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings marks the first Asian-led film. Not only does the film feature the first Asian protagonist, it also features a predominantly Asian cast and crew, which, thankfully, give this franchise a much needed change in perspective.
The Ten Rings have been around for nearly a thousand years, gifting their wearer, Wenwu, immortality so that he may rule with unmatched strength. After centuries of building an empire out of blood, Wenwu was turned away from a life of violence by Ying Li, a guardian of the mystical land of Ta Lo. When heartbreak struck shortly after, Wenwu picked up the rings once again, causing him to go down a dark path, and his son, Shang-Chi, to run away to the United States. Now after ten years, the son must come home to confront his father and become who he was truly meant to be.
Similar to what Ryan Coogler was able to do with Black Panther, co-writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton brings out the best of this new world as he is able to handle the mountains of establishing exposition. His use of flashbacks may be a bit liberal, especially as the film reaches its climax, but they’re used meaningfully to build upon a story focused on character and culture.
Without a leading acting credit to his name, Simu Liu takes the titular role by storm as he navigates this typical hero’s journey with charm and composure. Mixing a bit of T’Challa with Tony Stark, Shang-Chi is a hero battling with his past and future. Liu and Cretton strike a great balance as Liu hands himself over to Cretton's material in the somber moments, and Cretton lets Liu’s comedic instincts light up the room.
Veteran Tony Leung brings the same melancholic energy to Wenwu as he did in his roles with Wong Kar-wai, particularly his work in In the Mood for Love. Leung layers this villain and distances him from the average world dominator. He carries a stillness about him that inspires fear and compassion, two things that have made some of the greatest villains.
The overall narrative within a Marvel film is evenly composed of the plot and the action. Thankfully, Cretton blends both those halves together as he imbues the set pieces with the qualities of the wuxia genre, taking after such films as Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (also starring Michelle Yeoh) and Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers. The action often tells as much of the story as the dialogue, particularly in the gracefully dazzling opening sequence. But there’s also room for brutality as the first act ends with a tower-scaffolding brawl where Shang-Chi’s emotions turn him into a raw killer. Not since Captain America: The Winter Soldier has the action been so impactful on a technical and emotional level.
When allowed to be its own film, Shang-Chi is quite the spectacle. But when it gets forcefully molded into a Marvel film, the results are less than stellar. Even after all his work with the story and action, Cretton can’t break free from the third-act visual effects extravaganza that holds this franchise like an iron vice. It’s a shame as the smaller familial moments do more for the mind and soul than the forgettable litany of explosions that encompass the final thirty minutes. Being that this is the 25th film in the franchise, I’ve come to expect that level of disappointment.
Thanks to its multi-talented cast and crew, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is one of the better origin stories within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The action may (rightfully) be the selling point, but the heart of the film lies within its characters, telling a familiar story on an impressive scale.