Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that Marvel Studios has become a little stale. Avengers: Endgame (2019) was a legitimate blockbuster and really cemented the MCU as a crowning achievement of modern cinema, but it made even Marvel’s own recent output seem lackluster by comparison. When you look at the last five Marvel products, three of them have been slightly disappointing. The issue is that the recent entries have been tying up loose ends more often than paving the way forward. Sure, WandaVision (2021) and Loki (2021) succeeded in building the foundations of Marvel’s new era, but even they were locked into the same characters we’ve seen time and again. Thankfully, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) finally brings us new heroes to root for.
Thousands of years ago, a Warlord named Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung) acquired 10 mysterious rings with magical properties. These rings give him the power of immortality, as well as the ability to harness various energies. With his new found powers and an army at his back, Wenwu successfully created an empire, which he used to control or topple various governments. Upon finding the mystical city of Ta Lo, Wenwu fathers a child with the city’s guardian, Ying Li (Fala Chen). That child’s name is Xu Shang-Chi (Simu Liu). Throughout his childhood, Shang-Chi is raised to be a deadly assassin for Wenwu’s organisation. When he came of age, Shang-Chi fled to the USA, living a peaceful life along with his best friend, Katy (Awkwafina). However Wenwu’s forces close are in, which prompts Shang-Chi to confront his violent past.
At this point you probably know the Marvel formula like the back of your hand. We have a flawed hero on a journey of self discovery, battling a villain who is a dark reflection. There’s a series of fights, battles, chases and skirmishes which eventually lead to a big third act blowout. Finally, there’s a welcome focus on wholesome character development and fun-loving energy. While all the Marvel hallmarks are definitely there, the key to Shang-Chi’s success is that it strangely doesn’t feel like a Marvel film. For example, Captain Marvel (2019) functions as long as it maintains its connection to the wider MCU. Without it, there’s not much keeping the viewer engaged. Director Destin Daniel Cretton isn’t letting that happen, having made sure Shang-Chi can function as it’s own story first, and a Marvel film second. In a weird way, it feels almost as fresh as the first Iron Man (2008).
There are of course connections to the wider MCU, but they aren’t distracting if you’ve never seen any previous films. As far as a first time viewer is concerned, the world-building elements feel isolated to Shang-Chi’s own self-contained narrative. Amazingly, Cretton achieves this without making the film feel small or grounded, instead pulling out all the stops and successfully delivering a story with a huge, sprawling and epic scope. However, there are moments that could be distracting for those who are aware of the previous films. Namely, the story stops at a few critical points to re-explain a previously controversial decision made in Iron Man 3 (2013). Granted, these moments fit neatly within the story at hand, but they can arguably be a little too self-aware for those who remember the controversy. It almost feels like Marvel is going out of its way to apologise for something they definitely don’t need to apologise for.
Even with these minor distractions, there’s always something to bring you back to the edge of your seat, namely the action sequences. It’s no surprise that a big budget superhero film has stellar action scenes, but Shang-Chi treads new ground (as far as Marvel is concerned). We’ve seen plenty of explosive fights, but this is the first time the studio has dipped into the wonderful world of Wuxia. Unlike Disney’s misguided Mulan (2020), Shang-Chi does the genre justice, with beautifully choreographed battles and gorgeously composed cinematography. From action beat to action beat, you’ll be thrilled, amazed and in awe of Cretton’s directing prowess, as well as Simu Liu, Tony Leung and Meng’er Zhang’s fighting skills. Even Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) veteran, Michelle Yeoh, is on hand to add some extra credibility. This is Wuxia done right, making each action sequence more inventive and magical than the next.
With that in mind, it’s refreshing to see Cretton bring back a sense of tension to Marvel. No one really thinks the hero is going to lose, making it especially difficult to trick the viewer into feeling like there’s anything at stake. Incredibly, Shang-Chi knocks this out of the park, injecting the story with personal and emotional stakes which reverberate through the entire narrative. Whenever the hero meets the villain, you really want to feel the gravity of the situation, but you rarely do. Shang-Chi easily rectifies this, delivering emotional stakes that live up to the climatic third act. This is to say nothing of how likeable both parties are. By the time you get to the final confrontation, the audience deeply cares and sympathises with both players, resulting in a hero vs villain story that ranks among the best of the whole series.
What really sets Shang-Chi apart is the same thing that worked so greatly in Black Panther’s (2018) favour: culture. When you break it down, Shang-Chi is about an individual who turned his back on his culture, and is now rediscovering it. In doing so, he not only gains appreciation and understanding of his roots, but he also regains a piece of his lost identity. This is the thematic meat of the film and the reason why the viewer connects so deeply to the story. Everyone has a cultural background, and everyone feels a sense of personal growth when they delve into that background. To be fair, this is a standard formula for Disney properties whenever they dip into different cultural worlds, but that shouldn’t take away from this film’s clean presentation. Some of this may bore action junkies, but if none of these themes were there, no one would care or remember the final product.
For the superhero genre to survive, it needs to keep evolving. Happily, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings proves that Marvel is aware of this. Consequently, it doesn’t even feel accurate to describe this film as a superhero story. Ultimately, Shang-Chi is a fun, funny, exciting, thrilling and imaginative Wuxia action-fantasy film, which does more than just rely on the capes the characters are wear. There may be a recognisable formula, but the presentation makes it feel unique.
Best way to watch it: Friday night out.