Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings shows just how casually confident Marvel has become with their cinematic enterprise: This tentpole film is built around a lesser-known character, and offers only oblique references to the MCU storyline as a whole. Still, even as a standalone experience, Shang-Chi bears a lot of same strengths that made Iron Man and Dr. Strange box office champions. It’s well-cast, sharply written, and blessed with a freewheeling attitude that keeps it from wallowing in self-seriousness. Put another way: This may not feel like a Marvel movie, but it is–all the way down to its bones.
The film begins with another one of those expositional flashbacks, wherein an entire script’s worth of story gets mashed into a few minutes of narration. I’ll compress it even further for your benefit: Eons ago, a warrior named Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung) discovers the mystical Ten Rings, or incandescent bracelets that give their wearer immortality and enormous power. Well, the proverb says that absolute power corrupts absolutely, so Wenwu spends centuries engaged in a greedy rampage, taking and destroying with the lethal precision of a supervillain.
All that changes the day Wenwu encounters Ying Li (Fala Chen), a guardian of the hidden village of Ta Lo. Beautiful, mysterious, and serenely powerful, Li warns him against trying to pass her. Wenwu arrogantly resists, and the two share a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fight scene, which naturally ends with them totally smitten with one another. Thus domesticated, Wenwu swears off the rings and his appetite for conquest. He settles down with Li, and they have a son and daughter. I don’t want to give a whole lot away, so I’ll just say that tragic circumstances scatter the family to the winds.
Cut to the present day, where we meet Shaun (Simu Liu), a young man leading an unremarkable life in San Francisco. He parks cars for a living and parties hard with Katy (Awkwafina), his best buddy and loyal confidante. These two amigos seem fairly content to drift through the doldrums of twentysomething life, until fate gives them a good, firm kick in the ass: A squad of goons attempts to jump Shaun and Katy on the bus to work, prompting him to unleash some crazy-powerful fight skills. (This dynamic fight scene is one of the highlights of the entire film.)
Katy’s mouth drops to the floor, and Shaun has some ‘splaining to do: His real name is Shang-Chi, and he’s been in hiding from his treacherous father. Shaun-Chi has incredible powers, even though those only remind him of his father’s terrible legacy. Now, it seems that Wenwu has a new terrible plan, and Shang-Chi must find his estranged sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), and put a stop to it.
If that seems like a lot of movie, it is. Shang-Chi is loaded with plot, sub-plots, flashbacks, surprise cameos, and more. Despite all this, director Destin Daniel Cretton and his co-writers Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham keep things coherent and compelling. The story does lose momentum in its final third, but we’ll talk a little more about that in a minute.
First, let’s cover one of the film’s quietly ambitious achievements: In a rarity for a comic book movie–rarer still for the MCU–Shang-Chi actually attempts to retroactively address key flaws in a preceding film, and within its own origin. When Iron Man 3 was released, many fans grumbled about that film’s depiction of the Mandarin, a major nemesis of Tony Stark. The script detoured sharply from the comics, in a way that diehard fans felt was awkwardly handled. Further, the character of Shang-Chi was originally the son Fu Manchu, who represented a wrongheaded assemblage of anti-Asian stereotypes. With the new character of Wenwu, and a few carefully written scenes, Cretton and company deftly address those mistakes in a way that actually sharpens the story. Everyone involved wins a few points for the way this messy situation gets handled.
Now, on with the countdown: As Shang-Chi, Liu does a fine job conveying the shaky self-confidence and muted anger the character feels toward his own father. Much like Tony Stark, Thor, Carol Danvers, and just about everybody else in the MCU, Shang-Chi is a person of destiny who finds that Great Responsibility is actually tougher to manage than Great Power. It takes a strong personality to anchor a film like this, and Liu is more than up to the part. This continues Marvel’s run of spot-on casting. With all that said, Awkwafina pretty much walks off the entire movie. Again. She’s funny, mouthy, and keeps this mystical martial arts epic planted firmly on the ground. Take Katy out of the story, and Shang-Chi would be a much more dour, drab experience.
On that note, Shang-Chi does make a classic Marvel misstep: After a few crisply-edited fight scenes, the third act settles in for a big, blah CGI finish. I don’t know about you, but I’m over watching fake-looking armies battle on a fake-looking battlefield. Especially when it drags on and on and on. At 132 minutes, Shang-Chi is already longish, and this overwrought sequence makes it feel even longer.
With that said, most of Shang-Chi is sturdy, escapist entertainment. It’s refreshing to watch a Marvel movie that isn’t preoccupied with multi-movie story arcs, meticulous callbacks, and in-jokes. (We do get a little bit of that stuff, but only a smidge, and mainly during the end credits.) For the moment, this is only in theaters, but Disney plans to stream it forty-five days from its theater premiere. Is it worth braving the Delta variant to see Shang-Chi in the theater? That’s an answer I’ll leave up to your own vaccination status and good judgment. Is it worth streaming on Disney+ when it’s available? Absolutely.
132 min. PG-13. On Disney+ sometime in mid-October.