Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is out in cinemas soon, and anticipation has been steadily ramping up. The newest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe has quite a lot to accomplish.
Shang-Chi (played by Simu Liu). Marvel's approach, dissimilar to its approach with Captain Marvel, was to present us with almost an entirely insular story: one of grief, betrayal and martial-arts magic.
The film follows Shang-Chi, who is confronted by the past he had promised to leave behind – that of the mysterious Ten Rings organisation led by his father (Tony Leung Chiu-wai). Marvel fans already know about the Ten Rings thanks to the much-derided Iron Man 3, but this iteration is a far more enjoyable and earnest ride.
What stands out most about Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is its action choreography (save for the last battle, but we'll address that later). The martial-arts action scenes are each beautifully done, with a distinct style and graceful effortlessness that result in visual interest well beyond 'that looks like it hurt'.
The heart of the film is the tug-of-war Shang-Chi experiences between the fate dictated by his father and the kinder memories of his mother, both of whom influence every choice Shang-Chi makes. How he marries those two halves into a new, whole person is the most compelling part of the film.
But we'd be remiss if we didn't mention the movie's true MVP – Tony Leung Chiu-wai. Already a well-established actor from his work with Wong Kar-wai and Ang Lee, he brings to Marvel a unique gravitas missing from most of their other efforts.
As a man preoccupied with lust for power and the ever-present sting of grief, Leung holds multitudes in each moment – whether it's a glint in his eyes or the slow draw of a breath. As the movie's antagonist, he's refreshing to the Marvel canon, in the vein of Killmonger though distinct even from him – the sort of empathetic villain whose ends-justified-by-the-means philosophy doesn't always hold water, but you still want to see it play out anyway.
What lets the film down is the tug that pulls it back into the MCU. There are too many flashbacks and not enough of the moments that seem most important to Shang-Chi's development (we imagine, once again, this was to keep that family-friendly rating and not delve too deep into real life-ending violence).
There are two comedic foils for Shang-Chi – his best friend Katy (Awkwafina) and the not-so-surprise cameo of Ben Kingsley as the disgraced actor Trevor Slattery. This is a bit of an overkill for the film, whose emotional beats are undermined by slapstick.
As Trevor, Kingsley plays the jester well – and his relationship with the very cute faceless bird-pig Morris introduces a nice levity, but the gag goes on too long, only for his arc to never be completed. Will he appear again? Who knows?
Katy, thankfully, is less of a quirky best friend (see Crazy Rich Asians) and more of a slow-blossoming hero, a woman who embodies so much of what it means to be a second-generation immigrant. While this author can't comment on the specificity of the Asian-American experience, as a second-generation immigrant it's a near-constant struggle many can relate to: how do you honour your past, your ancestors, and all that your family gave up to get you where you are, while also forging your own identity and finding your own passions?
She is burdened with the most exposition but handles it well because she, like Leung, is an actress with deep wells of empathy. She may be telling a story to the audience for the sake of explanation, but you get the sense that this legend she's recounting is deeply impactful for her, and it makes you pay attention when you might otherwise drift away.
She doesn't get enough to do (neither does Meng'er Zhang, who we can only hope will have a bigger role in the eventual sequel), as Shang-Chi's weakest moments are its biggest — not emotionally but literally. The 'epic final battles' are a wash of confusing CGI and rushed emotional beats, a letdown compared to its previous action moments and heartfelt scenes..
While we can't help wondering how much better this movie could have been untethered from the MCU at large, its distinct and fresh story – one that feels more like a classic fantasy tale than a Marvel one – make for an enjoyable watch.