Shang-Chi is one of the lesser-known Marvel characters among the casual audience, so much so that even I, who has followed the various comic book arcs over the years, wasn’t aware of his background. Like many of Marvel’s recent introductory ‘origin’ stories, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a spectacular introduction to the master of Kung Fu and one that instantly cements Simu Liu’s rendition of the character a fan favourite.
The film was released earlier in September this year and thanks to the Covid lockdown, I arrived late to the party that was the heaps of praise this film was getting. Although I saw the film a few weeks late (surprisingly without getting spoiled), I’m glad I got to see it on the big screen as given the craft that has gone into it, especially its second half.
Note – this review will contain spoilers for Shang-Chi and the Legend of The Ten Rings.
Straight up, the trailer for Shang-Chi presents a rather underwhelming promise, one which the actual film exceeds by a long shot. The film is much closer to classic Wuxia of the past rather than belonging in the American action genre, although it does start out in a way closer to the latter. Starting off by showing the history and origins of the real Mandarin Xu Wenwu (played by Tony Leung) and his legendary ten rings, we get what is one of the MCU’s most beautiful openings. Following that, the film follows a grown-up Shang-Chi ( Simu Liu) as he evades his father’s shadow in modern-day San Francisco.
One excellent bus fight later, Shang and Katy, played to perfection by Awkwafina, are on their globe-trotting adventure to evade, and meet, Wenwu. It is here that the film starts to dive more into the fantastical, with one set-piece featuring a quick cameo by the Abomination and Wong slowly getting us closer to the third act which is straight out of a Dragon Ball anime.
The Marvel brand is well known, and mocked by some, for its use of witty quips during intense sequences. While that is true for a number of its now 20+ film franchises, Shang-Chi scribes Dave Callaham, Andrew Lanham and director Destin use it well here, with no joke overstaying its welcome and earning the laughs. The humour comes honestly from character dynamics and not from a need to tell jokes so the audience doesn’t question the validity of the situations on hand. When the film wants to be intense, it absolutely is without any doubt over its own ridiculousness, and I like that. That doesn’t mean the film isn’t completely devoid of the ‘Marvel formula’, but if the formula is consistently well-developed characters and family-friendly humour with good action, that’s nothing to complain about.
During and after the latter films in Infinity Saga with Thanos and Killmonger, it seems like Marvel is making a more concerted effort to give its antagonists more dimensions with Wenwu joining the formers' ranks as one of the best the MCU has had yet. Marvel takes the somewhat goofy Mandarin of the comics and elevates him by grounding him in reality, at least emotionally, despite him using magical rings to achieve feats of superhuman strength. Wenwu doesn’t have the desire to take over the world in any sense, he’s simply searching for and grieving his lost wife.
A special mention needs to be given to Meng’er Zhang’s Xialing, who plays Shang’s sister and is equally badass, perhaps even stronger than our protagonist when it comes to hand-to-hand combat. While her story is a little predictable, it doesn’t take away from an earnest performance, one which we haven’t seen the last of if the final post-credits scene is anything to go by. I wouldn’t be surprised to see her getting a spinoff on Disney+, although I’d rather see her on the big screen. As long as I’m throwing special mentions, why not include Sir Ben Kingley’s hilarious and heartwarming Trevor Slattery as well? A character I wasn’t the biggest fan of in Iron Man 3, which deceptively (in a genius move) used ‘The Mandarin’ as its central villain in all of its marketing and for most of the film, has come around to become a scene-stealer here. While some may ask more from Kingsley in the MCU, I’m perfectly fine with the role (and redemption, sort of) he has been given in here. More Trevor and Morris, please!
The first time I saw Shang-Chi, I was taken aback by the film’s second half which is firmly rooted in elements of Chinese mythology. I’ll be honest, I came out of the theatre somewhat disappointed by the CGI mayhem in the final act. The second time I saw the film was on my TV thanks to the shorter theatrical window before Disney put the film on streaming. Gloriously presented in an IMAX-like format, this time I was ready to focus more on the characters and the story over the sudden shock of seeing literal dragons fighting demons. I have to say, it’s a well-executed finale, even though the green-screen work frequently takes me away from the story. Director Destin Daniel Cretton knows what he’s going for, although it feels like the mythical setting of Ta Lo has a little too much noise for being the backdrop of an otherwise emotional tragedy.
Finally got to see #ShangChi on the big screen and yeah, it rocks!— Rahul Majumdar (@darthrahul) October 22, 2021
One of the best MCU villains in Wenwu, that opening is just straight up 🔥 with amazing action choreography.
Did NOT expect third act to go full fantasy, and I love it! Need more Trevor & Morris.
Art @AdStothard pic.twitter.com/WkZ0Mf8KCG
Of course, Shang-Chi won’t speak to me on the same level as it will for those of Chinese descent, the same way Black Panther was a revolution in big-budget feature film representation. I can only look at it as a film on its own, and it’s really good at that! It makes the case for the need for wider representation in the MCU fueled by creative filmmakers aiming to tell a good story, and Shang-Chi succeeds at that.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings keeps the MCU fresh and exciting with a likeable new hero and cast of characters, innovative action and most important of all - a beating heart.
You can stream Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings on Disney Plus Hotstar in SDR and HDR in a taller IMAX-like 1.90 aspect ratio.