“You are a product of all who came before you, the legacy of your family. “
(This review is mostly spoiler-free, but as always, if you want to go in completely blind, do not read this.)
The sixth (geez) MCU property this year, but easily one of the best MCU, nay, superhero films ever, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings roars past every possible expectation you could have had for it, rocketing miles above the bar for a good comic book film and firmly solidifying itself as one of the all-time greats when it comes to comic book and martial arts cinema.
I’ll get this out of the way quickly: Shang-Chi (pronounced SHONG-CHEE) is the closest possible thing to a standalone MCU film as can be, with like…five brief mentions of anything in the greater MCU (aside from the obligatory post-credit scene). Casual audience members and diehard MCU fanatics alike will have absolutely no problem enjoying Shang-Chi, and this makes it all the better. The absence of any set-up or sequel constraints allows for director Destin Daniel Cretton, along with writer Dave Callahan, to craft an exhilarating and brilliant adventure that successfully intertwines the very real conflicts and themes of being an Asian-American immigrant with a gripping and soaring whirlwind of a comic book story.
Shang-Chi begins a couple thousand years in the distant past, where a power-hungry warlord named Wenwu (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) discovers ten magical rings, and uses them to conquer hundreds of provinces in China. Flash-forward to the present day, and Wenwu’s amassed an international criminal empire named, simply enough, the Ten Rings. But the one thing he’s failed at in life is having a healthy family, and that’s where we find the titular Shang-Chi (Simu Liu): hiding from his gangster father and the Ten Rings in America, until Wenwu comes calling. On the surface, one could be forgiven for thinking Shang-Chi is a remake of Black Panther, just with Chinese people instead of African people. But it’s so much more than that. It’s a remarkably poignant tale about a father’s broken relationship with his children, wrapped in a classic Marvel story. It’s also a massive love letter to wuxia and Hong Kong cinema of old, but delivered in a way that will resonate with modern audiences.
Making his MCU debut (and debut as a leading actor) is Simu Liu as the eponymous Shang-Chi (or Shaun to his American friends), and he crushes it, fully committing to the role both emotionally and physically. Unlike traditional MCU heroes, Shang-Chi isn’t the type to quip or fire off jokes in the middle of a big battle. He’s a young man tortured by his history and his father’s shadow, but not so emotionally distant that it ever becomes a drag to watch him. He’s also struggling to find out what his path in life will be, whether it’s as the brutal assassin his father trained him to be, or something else entirely, and Liu brings a kind of emotional instability that shows his struggle whenever his Shang-Chi faces off against Wenwu. Aside from that, Liu is very clearly doing all the fighting himself instead of relying on camera trickery to mask a stuntman, something that makes the movie feel so much more authentic and different from the usual Hollywood action blockbuster.
Alongside Liu’s Shang-Chi is Awkwafina’s Katy, his best friend and an easy source of laughs throughout the film. Just like Shang, Katy struggles with parents who want her to “grow up” and get a more substantial job, something faced by countless, if not every, Asian-American with immigrant parents. Awkwafina and Liu have an easy chemistry that really helps to sell the friendship between “Shaun” and Katy, to the point where it would be realistic that Katy wouldn’t mind too much about “Shaun’s” secret life as the son of an international warlord. For those wondering if the film abides by the old trope of having Shang-Chi and Katy get together by the end, Katy isn’t that kind of female lead, as she gets plenty to do that doesn’t involve just being the love interest (a la many MCU movies).
However, Katy isn’t the only female lead in the film (another thing that numerous MCU films are guilty to doing), with Shang-Chi’s younger sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) helping to provide a necessary dichotomy to her brother’s relationship with their father, as well as giving the film yet another star. Zhang, who is making her screen debut with Shang-Chi, does exceedingly well in both Xialing’s demanding fight scenes (with awesome rope dart action) and the quieter moments where she reflects on the life she’s been forced to build in the absence of any care from her father. Just as in real life Chinese culture, sons are exponentially more valued than daughters, and while that bit of sexism’s been significantly toned down in recent years, the philosophy’s nevertheless left long-term effects on Chinese daughters of any age. In Xialing’s case, she’s gone down the inverse path of Shang. Where he was groomed from birth to be Wenwu’s deadliest killer and eventual successor/inheritor of the 10 magical rings (and the Ten Rings), Xialing was ignored, and when we meet her in the film, she’s carved out an extraordinarily lucrative life for herself in Macau. This polar opposite to Shang-Chi’s journey allows for a fiery dynamic between the siblings that both actors embody well.
As well-written and acted as the heroes of Shang-Chi are, the film’s incredible antagonist dwarfs them in every way, although never enough to fully steal the film away from its leading man. Tony Leung Chiu-wai, making his Hollywood debut in Shang-Chi after decades gracing Hong Kong cinema, is an effortlessly magnetic presence as Wenwu, the immortal conqueror and wielder of the 10 Rings. While comic fans will know Wenwu (an original name for the film) as The Mandarin, traditionally an Iron Man villain, the Mandarin is an extremely stereotypical and one-note character, and director Destin Daniel Cretton wisely makes the choice to change much of the character’s backstory and identity for the film. It’s already been mentioned, but the reason why these changes work so well is because of the emotional arc that Wenwu goes through over the course of Shang-Chi, and how at his core, Wenwu is just a father who’s failed his children. Without going into spoilers, Wenwu is one of the best antagonists (I hesitate to even label him as a villain) in the MCU, if not the best, and Leung, known for his legendary film resumé in China (like Hero, Infernal Affairs, Chungking Express, etc.), brings the same charismatic approach to the role. And if that wasn’t enough, Leung (who also played Ip Man in The Grandmaster) does all of his own fight scenes, again helping to give Shang-Chi major credibility when it comes to action.
Rounding out the cast are Ying Li (Fala Chen), Shang-Chi and Xialing’s mother, and Ying Nan (Michelle Yeoh), their aunt. Yeoh, who previously cameoed as Aleta Ogord in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, is given much more to work with here as one of the guardians of Ta Lo, the mystical realm that Wenwu plans to conquer. Although Ying Nan is primarily in the film to guide the two siblings and provide exposition, it’s still a thrill to see Yeoh play opposite Leung’s Wenwu, as both are legends of Hong Kong cinema. As for Fala Chen’s Ying Li, she only gets a few small scenes, but has a lasting impact, with perhaps the standout scene of the entire film. Her romance with Wenwu in the film’s opening moments is both believable and intoxicating, with both actors selling it completely.
Shang-Chi easily has the best action and hand-to-hand combat in the entire MCU, and I don’t know whether that’s a knock on the MCU or a massive win for director Destin Daniel Cretton and cinematographer Bill Pope. Let’s go with the latter, as every single fight is immaculately shot and edited, with absolutely none of the infamous “quick cuts” or shaky cam popularized by Western action films like The Bourne Identity or Taken. Every punch and kick is incredibly easy to see, and the weight of every blow clearly registers, compared to the horrendously-shot Captain America vs Captain America fight in Avengers: Endgame. It also helps that Cretton got A-list talent for these fights, with former boxer Florian Munteanu (Razor Fist) and martial artist Andy Le (Death Dealer) playing assassins who work for Wenwu. Beyond that, fight coordinator Andy Cheng dials up top-knotch choreography, with a multitude of different disciplines of kung fu being used, from the ethereal wushu of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to the frantic and kinetic brand of fighting featured in Jackie Chan or Stephen Chow’s filmography. The introductory fight between Wenwu and Ying Li (top picture) is the most beautiful scene in the entire film, with both combatants engaging in a kind of deadly dance while the brilliantly vibrant forest and waterfall around them provides a warm contrast to the blue lightning of Wenwu’s 10 Rings.
Disregarding the action sequences in Shang-Chi, it’s still one of the most visually striking MCU films, films that tend to hover around “bland” or “average-looking” (read: Captain America, Ant-Man, and Spider-Man movies). Cinematographer Bill Pope (The Matrix, Spider-Man 2, Baby Driver) ensures that every bit of color pops off the screen, and sequences set in Ta Lo provide an especially enchanting feel compared to the harsh and cold scenes in the Ten Rings compound (the above image is the rare exception). However, Shang-Chi‘s final battle does stray into classic MCU CGI grayscale territory, but that’s the only real misstep when it comes to the visuals.
It’s evident that Shang-Chi owes its existence to classic wuxia films and Hong Kong cinema in general, and it’s all the better for it. Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle, Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the Shaw Brothers’ filmography, and even Rush Hour 2, are all felt throughout the film (along with many more that I am undoubtedly forgetting), from certain scenes that are homages to those films (ie: the scaffolding scene, the fighting style of the Ta Lo residents) or actors (Yuen Wah, the Landlord in Kung Fu Hustle, appears as one of the guardians of Ta Lo). Even the score by Joel P. West invokes quintessential wuxia films, and although it could definitely be labeled as “oriental”, is no different from music featured in something like Invincible Shaolin, Five Deadly Venoms, The Avenging Eagle, and believe it or not, the Kung Fu Panda score by Hans Zimmer/John Powell.
Verdict: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is very much more than just “Chinese/Asian people’s Black Panther“, as I’ve seen people call it. It’s a monumental success for Asian-led cinema in Hollywood, as well as proof that diversity can succeed at the box office (as of this writing, it’s smashed the domestic Labor Day box office record and has over $320 million worldwide) and an incredible film in general. With tremendous direction from Destin Daniel Cretton and a brilliant cast led by the dynamic Simu Liu and the enthralling Tony Leung, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is one of the best comic book films ever made, thanks to its resounding success as both a love letter to Hong Kong cinema of old and as a tightly focused adventure that sets the highest possible bar for superhero storytelling.
Let me know what you thought of the film in the comments below!
Disclaimer: I do not own any of these photos or posters. Disney and Marvel Studios own all of these photos and posters.