[Early Review] Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)

Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Cast: Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Meng’er Zhang, Fala Chen, Florian Munteanu, Benedict Wong, Michelle Yeoh, Tony Leung
Screenplay: Dave Callaham, Destin Daniel Cretton, Andrew Lanham
132 mins. Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and language.

There’s been a level of uncertainty surrounding the MCU following the finale of the Infinity Saga. As Avengers: Endgame came to rest, fans everywhere were overjoyed by this conclusion to the story, and a few of us were left wondering, “Where do we go from here?” It’s a fair question, of course. No cinematic universe has been more ambitious or successful as the MCU, but even so, how could they top that ending? As solid as Spider-Man: Far From Home was, it was seen as an epilogue to the story, instead of being a jump-start to the next film. Then, 2020 and COVID gave us the first year since 2009 without an MCU installment. Even 2021’s Black Widow was set during Phase 3 and acted more as a sendoff to a beloved character than a true starting point for what was next. We were fools, of course, not to trust Marvel, a studio that has consistently triumphed in spectacle and action and also seems to be consistently gaining speed in the general artistry of their epics. The newest installment, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, feels like a breath of fresh air and a reminder that this world is far from stale, and it’s indeed the best origin story the MCU has had in years.

Shaun (Simu Liu, Women Is Losers, TV’s Kim’s Convenience) and his friend Katy (Awkwafina, Ocean’s Eight, TV’s Awkwafina is Nora From Queens) are virtually inseparable. They both work together as valets during the day and spend their evenings hanging out, living in the moment, and trying to make ends meet, and it doesn’t seem like this cycle will break anytime soon. That is, until a group of trained killers board their bus, looking for Shaun and a necklace he’s wearing. After dispatching the foes with a blend of incredible martial artistry, Shaun is forced to reveal that his real name is Shang-Chi, and he’s a trained master of martial arts and son to a criminal mastermind, Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung, In the Mood for Love, Europe Raiders), known as The Mandarin. Now, Shang-Chi and Katy are on a mission to reunite with his long-lost sister and foil his father’s dangerous plan. In doing so, Shang-Chi will be forced to confront a past he ran away from and a legacy he has tried to hide.

I’m very unfamiliar with Shang-Chi, the local bookstore where I would hunt down old comic books never had any back issues as far as I knew, but I knew just bits and pieces and hoped for the best here, and I was blown away by this film. It’s a classic action epic fantasy more so than any singular superhero tale, dealing with strange new environments, lots of mythology and mysticism, and spectacular creature design. If you removed the MCU connections, this movie could very much stand on its own and be just as entertaining, but know that Shang-Chi is stepping into a larger world only makes me more excited for where this character is headed, and all of that stems from an incredibly strong lead performance from Simu Liu. This is the first time I can recall seeing Liu perform, and I was enamored with his ability to flip between the serious emotional family drama on display and the playful Marvel tone so easily. He never stumbles, and none of the drama or comedy feels forced into the situation. When I’d heard that Marvel had cast the guy that tweeted them for the role, I was very uncertain, but Liu’s ability to hold his own against Tony Leung and Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Boss Level) confirms to me that he has a long career ahead of him.

Another aspect of the film that concerned me on the outset was the decision to revamp the character of the Mandarin. I am a huge fan of Iron Man 3 and I actually loved how they pulled the rug out from under viewers, revealing that the Mandarin was really Trevor Slattery, a cheesy character actor playing up to the more stereotypical aspects of the villain, and he was used as a front for Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian. The Mandarin is a tricky character in the comics, a very stereotyped character that plays to the offensive fairly often, so I found the Slattery reveal to be a high point of the Shane Black sequel, and when I heard that this film would retcon the Mandarin, I was pretty frustrated, but the combination of Tony Leung’s performance and the way he is incorporated into the already laid-out mythology of the MCU’s Mandarin is so classy and interesting without a hint of disrespect to what came before. In fact, they honor the previously-established mythology so well that I giggled with glee throughout most of Leung’s scenes. I’m a big fan of Leung’s work already, and I already knew he was going to knock his performance out of the park, but Xu Wenwu will likely go down as one of the stronger MCU villains, showing that the studio is again willing to learn from its villain problem and create a nuanced character antagonist. Part of that stems from the collaboration between director Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12, Just Mercy) and Leung in crafting the character, with Leung given more control than most to create the villain, and he’s a sympathetic, but never weak, villain that you can understand even if his actions cannot be condoned.

It also cannot be overstated how much Awkwafina adds to this movie. Almost more egregious than their villain problem is Marvel’s way of dealing with the romantic leads in their films, and though I wouldn’t state that Katy is a romantic lead even though there’s an obvious hint at something under the surface, she’s dealt with significantly better than Thor’s Natalie Portman or Doctor Strange’s Rachel McAdams, to name a few. For starters, Katy is given way more to do in the film, and there are several sequences, particularly in the film’s third act, where she is given the spotlight and it all works just as well. Her character arc still runs alongside Shang-Chi’s, but she consistently plays a part in the narrative and is never discarded or forgotten in the story, playing an integral role in the story, as well as a healthy dose of comedic relief and some of the best chemistry of all the MCU in her scenes with Liu.

I saw Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings after only catching the first trailer (one of the benefits of closed theaters for all of 2020 was not getting beaten over the head repeatedly with spoilery trailers), and I think it’s best to avoid ruining some of the many surprises in store for viewers, so I don’t want to give away too much, but I’ll say that the fight scenes are intense and beautifully shot, there are battle sequences that feel on par with other fantasy epics, and the creatures in the film vary from cute and cuddly to horrifying and monstrous, and I was never bored at all throughout the film. There’s always a worry when a filmmaker steps up to the blockbuster plate after being so successful at indies (while many are able to accomplish this feat, not all of them are able to), so I’m pleased that Cretton takes the independent film sensibilities he’s used all his career and applies it to a big budget studio tentpole, creating one of the most unique tones and experiences of the entire MCU. This one stands on its own two feet but leads to some interesting places for where the character and series can go from here.

I grew up watching a lot of movies that featured people that looked like me, and as I get older, I tend to find the more interesting stories tend to be the ones surrounding people who don’t look like me. Shang-Chi features a lot of amazing mythology that feels like a window into another world, and it’s also really important that the MCU, 25 films deep at this point, finally has an Asian Leading Superhero. Shang-Chi had many failed attempts to get to the screen stretching all the way back to the 1980s with an adaptation in the works that would’ve features Brandon Lee, and there was an attempt back in 2001 as well with numerous directors entering and exiting the project. It took a long time, but at least the film we’ve been waiting decades for is pretty much the best case scenario, a movie that expands on that classic Marvel storytelling formula but goes in some completely unexpected directions. I had loads of fun with this character and this world, and I’m so excited to go back to the theater when this opens to see it again. Much like DC’s The Suicide Squad, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings showcases a bright future for the MCU, and this film comes with my highest recommendation.

5/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

  • For my review of Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger, click here.
  • For my review of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Captain Marvel, click here.
  • For my review of Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, click here.
  • For my review of Jon Favreau’s Iron Man 2, click here.
  • For my review of Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk, click here.
  • For my review of Leythum’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Thor’s Hammer, click here.
  • For my review of Joe and Anthony Russo’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, click here.
  • For my review of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, click here.
  • For my review of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2, click here.
  • For my review of Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, click here.
  • For my review of Joe and Anthony Russo’s Captain America: Civil War, click here.
  • For my review of Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, click here.
  • For my review of Jon Watts’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, click here.
  • For my review of Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, click here.
  • For my review of Joe and Anthony Russo’s Avengers: Infinity War, click here.
  • For my review of Joe and Anthony Russo’s Avengers: Endgame, click here.
  • For my review of Jon Watts’s Spider-Man: Far From Home, click here.

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