Unencumbered by franchise and existing characters and plot lines, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a creatively satisfying story: a martial arts action epic, with a beating, emotional core and nuanced characters
Starring Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Meng’er Zhang, Fala Chen, Florian Munteanu, Benedict Wong, with Michelle Yeoh and Tony Leung
With 25 cinematic instalments and a growing televisual offering, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s internal continuity is becoming increasingly intimidating and alienating by the month. With the first 22 feeding into what’s known as the ”Infinity Saga”, with characters who bounce from movie to movie with wanton abandon, and a multitude of Easter Egg references to appeal to die-hard fans, the MCU runs the risk of excluding casual voters, as well as counting themselves out of awards and accolades because of its over-reliance on its own universe to be able to provide entertainment. Recent Disney+ offering The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is testament to that fact: a show that becomes so bogged down into tying it into the established makeup of the MCU that it somehow forgot to be entertaining. Indeed, with lots of the movies within the MCU serving to introduce characters or to set up chess pieces for future conflict, there’s always the danger that these films will fail to stand independently of these ties.
Fortunately, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which introduces a host of new characters and concepts to the MCU feels highly fresh and distinct from its predecessors. It’s refreshing to see Marvel take creative leaps and branch out. Just like WandaVision, Shang-Chi uses writers and directors who are new to creating for Marvel and this really shows a commitment to diversifying and expanding the language of the Marvel Universe. In fact, several of the upcoming Phase 4 projects, such as Eternals and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness feature writers and directors who are new to the MCU. If this is indicative of the future creative direction of the franchise, then one could easily imagine Phase 4 being revered in years to come in much the same way that Disney Animation’s Renaissance Period is widely regarded as producing some of their best, most creative and engaging tales. Having said that, the fact that it took Marvel 25 films to finally have a non-white protagonist is legitimately appalling. However, to have a major Asian-led blockbuster distributed by Marvel, though a long time coming, is undeniably massive for representation.
Furthering the idea of a bright new age of creativity in the wake of The Infinity Saga, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, much like Black Widow before it has a much less convoluted and more streamlined plot line. The plot itself leans more into characterisation and being emotionally impactful instead of upon CGI-heavy, world destroying action sequences. The story holds massive emotional weight and Shang-Chi’s growth and evolution into embracing all sides of himself, reconciling both the benevolent, positive influence of his mother along with his abhorrence at the cruel, violent ruthlessness of his father that still forms a part of who he is.
Shangi-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings follows Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), who is forced to confront his own, buried past when the Ten Rings organisation, led by his father, Wenwu (Tony Leung) come after him. This implodes Shang-Chi’s normal life in San Francisco under the name ”Shaun” and, dragging affable best friend Katy (Awkwafina) with him, comes face to face with the family he ran from and the grief they are all still reeling from.
Throughout the film, the themes of grief are explored, and how loss can both be devastating and destructive, but also how that can be informed through the way you honour that memory and one’s heritage. Shang-Chi displaces his own love and respect for his mother over the community that she comes from and swore to protect, but also comes to realise the influence of his father. Similarly, Katy, a second-generation immigrant to America, discovers and becomes more attuned to Chinese culture throughout the film.
Director Destin Daniel Cretton, who wrote the film alongside David Callaham and Andrew Lanham, invests heavily in creating gripping, well-rounded characters. Critically, our central duo of Shang-Chi and Katy feel relatable and realistic. Watching two twenty-somethings run around with little idea of what they want to do with their lives, flitting from bar to bar and perfecting drunk karaoke is mainly used as comic relief, but also speaks to the feeling of overwhelmed listlessness that pervades the millennial existence as they grow up into a world where there are so many opportunities and yet everything feels thoroughly out of reach. There are very few scenes which do not directly follow these characters’ journeys, which makes the audience feel as if they are going on an adventure with Shang-Chi and Katy themselves, uncovering plot lines along with them – an unseen third companion on the journey.
Awkwafina once again demonstrates that she is more than just comic relief, being able to portray a woman with considerable depth, as she juggles her own identity and desires, as well as her loyalty to Shang-Chi, and the new world she has found herself in. Even though Katy breathes much fun into the film, her close friendship with Shang-Chi is also one of the most affecting parts of the film too.
The cast in general is brilliant. Shang-Chi’s sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) is as equally developed as Shang-Chi himself, with her own take on the trauma from the loss of their mother, as well as the vile treatment at the hands of her father. Michelle Yeoh makes a big impact as a wise, matriarch figure from the mystical land of Ta Lo, and Tony Leung sets Wenwu apart from other Marvel villains by making him a sympathetic and well rounded figure, defined by grief and longing as much as by his thirst for power.
Finally, there’s Simu Liu who is simply captivating. He’s a true action hero, but in addition to his impressive martial arts skills really captures Shang-Chi’s journey into discovering his own identity. He starts the film as a man with a fake life in San Francisco, running away, but ends the movie as a character who has fully embraced their past and place within the world. There’s a sense of fear within the rings as to whether they could corrupt him in the same way as his father, removing a sense of personhood that Shang-Chi views vital and gained from his mother, but as he becomes more sure of himself and who he is, the element of fear seems replaced by a quiet assurance. It’s a masterstroke of writing, direction and performance for this character arc to be realised so neatly and coherently within this instalment.
One way in which Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings stands out from the standard Marvel fare is its dynamic fight sequences, which utilise stunningly choreographed martial arts and highly creative, varied filming techniques, which serve to make these visually engaging and nail-bitingly tense. It’s wholly stylistically different to fight choreography that has featured in the MCU to date, and does not run the risk of progressively higher stakes, with these sequences feeling grounded and impactful, relying more upon the cat and mouse between the opponents, as opposed to pushing each other off buildings and under vehicles and somehow still miraculously surviving.
Even though the final climactic battle does become a bit CGI-heavy and features many moments of potential Universe-destroying calamity, there are enough emotionally satisfying and affecting character beats contained within which serve to make this worthwhile and impactful.
Potentially, the only main drawback to Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings are the flashbacks, which are a little heavy-handed and detract quite substantially from the forward momentum of the film. Perhaps these elements could have been better placed during the film in a way that this could have maximised tension instead of dominating large chunks of the narrative with dense, exposition-laden sequences.
Ultimately, if this is a sign of what the MCU will be looking forward (which, judging by the number of new heroes being introduced to the franchise within Phase 4, allowing film makers to be more creative and unencumbered by previous material), it looks as if the MCU is finally realising that its enduring success and appeal comes not from its special effects or set pieces, but instead within the strength of its characterisation and core relationships, which heavily define Phase 4’s two instalments to date.
Shang-Chi and the Legends of the Ten Rings was released in cinemas on September 3rd