After not having a Marvel movie since 2019, here we are in 2021 with the second in just as many months and a handful of Disney+ shows that function as extended feature films. Under normal circumstances that’s so much content it would be tough for anything new to stand out. But not for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which does for Asian actors and characters what Black Panther did for Black actors, which is give them agency in a Marvel story that culturally is unlike anything seen in the MCU. As directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, the film has incredibly beautiful, mystical elements and a mix of martial arts styles influenced by the wuxia of Crouching Tiger and the dangerously acrobatic style of Jackie Chan. There’s a lot to love here, even if a few wild misfire decisions prevent it from being truly great.
The legacy of Shang-Chi is similar to that of Black Panther in that it doesn’t just begin with a single catalyzing event, but a familial heritage spanning years. Or in the case of Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), a thousand years. That’s how long his father Wenwu (the amazing Hong Kong actor Tony Leung) claims to have been alive, thanks to the powerful bracelets known as “The Ten Rings” which grant him immortality and an array of super powers. Wenwu used these abilities to form a criminal organization that has been toppling governments and amassing power ever since, but Shang-Chi wanted none of that. So he escaped to America where he has been living a joyous, carefree lifestyle parking cars alongside his equally slacker-ish friend Katy (Awkwafina).
But all of that changes when agents of his father, including the crazy-looking Razor Fist (Florian Munteanu) attack him on a moving bus. It’s then that Shang can no longer hide who he is, and displays ridiculous kung fu skills to save everyone and survive. Believing that his little sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) is also under threat, he travels to Hong Kong to find her, only to learn that she’s more than capable of taking care of herself and is bitter over his leaving her behind years earlier.
There’s a lot more going on in Shang-Chi and that’s a good thing. Internal family dynamics are always at the forefront, as Shang wants nothing to do with his family’s criminal life, while Wenwu has designs of his own, namely finding a way to bring back his dead wife by attacking the mystical land of Tal-Lo. The film doesn’t fully get moving until they reach Tal-Lo, where it becomes unlike any Marvel movie we’ve seen before.
While it’s easy to lump Wenwu in as a villain, it doesn’t really fit for him. He comes across more as a broken father racked by grief over the death of his love and fracturing of his family. That kind of tragedy can drive any person to do some crazy shit, and throw in the power of the Ten Rings and that gets amplified. Shang must ultimately confront his father; stand up to a man who has never been told “no” in his life, and fight for what he believes in. This kind of story hasn’t really been done in the MCU and it’s refreshing.
Furthermore, the land of Tal-Lo is just incredible, full of dragons and all sorts of magical creatures. It’s like something out of Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon and works to make this feel completely disconnected from the MCU, which is a good thing. While there’s a great deal of the Marvel formula at work here, the aesthetics are different and certainly the combat is. Cretton, who has never really directed an action movie before, borrows from a couple of terrific influences, including Kung Fu Hustle director Stephen Chow (look close for a KFH poster in Shang’s room) and the wuxia of House of Flying Daggers filmmaker Zhang Yimou. The combination seems like it should clash, but Shang-Chi comes across as many different movies so it works. And while there are plenty of powers on display, most of the fighting boils down to traditional weaponry such as bows, meteor hammers, and of course, swords. Shang-Chi is one of the best looking Marvel movies and we haven’t seen hand-to-hand fighting this good since the Captain America sequels.
So much about the film works that some of the decision-making is just head-scratching. Without giving too much away, a character from a previous Marvel film reemerged and drags Shang-Chi down into the dirt. This problematic figure was probably best left mentioned but never seen, and yet moments after his name is said he pops up in a comic relief role, no less. The style of humor the character brings simply does not work for the type of story being told, and serves as a reminder of a story best left forgotten. I just can’t fathom the process that went into greenlighting this one aspect of the script. Someone should have stood up and shot that shit down. Also, Awkawfina’s Katy is played for that same type of comedy early on and it feels forced. She becomes a far more interesting character when she begins to evolve into a hero in her own right, even if that change is too sudden.
Simu Liu wasn’t really on anybody’s radar for the role of Shang-Chi, and honestly, he’s still something of a blank slate. Shang is a little undefined at the beginning and hasn’t changed much by the conclusion. Liu is simply incredible at the physicality the role demands, and he has terrific chemistry with Awkwafina. It’s just hard not to get overshadowed when you’ve got the great Tony Leung opposite you on one side, and Michelle Yeoh, who plays Shang’s aunt Jiang An, on the other. They are dominating presences, two of the best actors in the world. Anybody would pale in their shadow.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a wondrous blend of martial arts classics with the Marvel brand, and it will always be jaw-dropping to behold on that level, regardless of the things that went wrong. There’s a lot of room for Shang-Chi the character to grow, and for Simu Liu to grow into the role. As closer ties to the wider MCU are teased (Do you really need to be told to stay through the credits?), it’s hard not to be excited over the Master of Kung Fu’s future.