Starring: Simu Liu (Kim’s Convenience), Awkwafina (Raya and the Last Dragon), Meng’er Zhang, Fala Chen (Turning Point), Florian Munteanu (Creed II), Benedict Wong (The Martian), Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Tony Leung (Chungking Express)
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12)
Writers: Dave Callaham (Wonder Woman 1984) & Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham (Just Mercy)
Runtime: 2 hours 11 minutes
Release Date: 3rd September (US, UK)
Some people are sick of superhero origin stories; they think they’re tired and samey, and that more movies should just skip to the good stuff. Whilst this makes sense with characters whose histories are not only simple but ingrained in pop culture (Batman, Spider-Man, Hulk, etc), origins are vital to those who sit outside the trodden grounds of dead parents and/or freak accidents. Shang-Chi is a venerable but oft-forgotten Marvel hero whose story has potential that even the comics never fully tapped into, with not only his martial arts prowess and mystical connection to Chinese folklore, but as a superhero descended from a supervillain. Now is a better time than any to put him in the spotlight, and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings rises to the occasion in every aspect. It’s not only the best Marvel solo movie since Black Panther, but an engaging and beautifully put-together blockbuster that meshes western and eastern influences seamlessly.
Shang-Chi immediately sets itself apart from the other MCU origin stories by following the Batman Begins structure, switching between past and present as we witness both our hero’s sinister past and his ascendancy to the light. The story is simple but well-told and filled with theatrical heft, putting far more focus on character dynamics and thematic resonance than furthering the MCU canon (though it has its fair share of that too). On balance it is certainly classic Marvel tone-wise, but it does swing pretty far to both sides of that spectrum. It unexpectedly goes to some incredibly dark places, especially when showing Shang’s upbringing and his contentious relationship with his father, which help emotionally ground it in a way very few Marvel films do. At the same time, it’s an incredibly bright and funny movie, injecting a lot of self-aware humour and imaginative worlds that feel pulled from animation more than reality. It’d be easy for these clashing vibes to muddy the emotional timbre, but for the most part Shang-Chi doesn’t undercut itself where it counts and shows restraint even when it has an easy opportunity to chuck in a joke. I can’t speak fully to its authenticity (being a white European and all), but the film’s use of its Asian cast, setting and cultural influences is outstanding by Hollywood standards. Roughly 20% of the film, including the entire prologue, is in Mandarin and fluidly switches between it and English to great effect. Aside from a solid jab at the racist undertones of naming a character “The Mandarin”, it’s not exactly a thematically weighty film with something deep to say about Asian culture like Black Panther did for the African experience, but there is certainly a similar level of respect and a revelling joy from the filmmakers getting to tell this kind of story on such a huge canvas. That said, what it does do is tell a story with a core conflict that speaks to Asian experiences but that audiences of all backgrounds will relate to in one way or another. This is ultimately a family drama about legacy and nature vs. nurture told through the lens of an action fantasy epic, and it doesn’t have to be any deeper than that.
There are so many great portrayals of superheroes on screen both past and present, but only a few are so iconic that the actor and character become the definitive version in your head; Christopher Reeve, Hugh Jackman, Robert Downey Jr, Gal Gadot, and Margot Robbie are just a few that come to mind. Simu Liu certainly has an advantage stepping into the role of Shang-Chi, as the character has no major prior appearances outside the comics, and yet he manages to make the character iconic entirely by his own skill. Liu is an immediately likable leading man with a natural wit and strong physicality, but what truly sets the character apart is his internal conflict. We’ve seen plenty of heroes who don’t want the power or responsibility of saving the world, but Shang-Chi stands apart as someone whose abilities are irreconcilable to them from their childhood trauma and inner demons, and their journey overcoming this block could prove inspirational to those struggling with their own dark side. Awkwafina does what she does best as Shang’s best friend Katy, but they thankfully avoid making her just comic relief and make sure she has her own satisfying arc and relationships. Her chemistry with Liu is absolutely top-notch, more than selling these two as long-time buds who are there for each other in both good times and bad, and hopefully the MCU finds plenty more room for both of them.
Meng’er Zhang is fantastically stoic as Shang’s sister Xialing, getting across a lot with very little dialogue and selling herself as a stone-cold badass throughout; whenever she has an action sequence, it’s hard to take your eyes off her. Michelle Yeoh is as gracious and excellent as you’d expect her to be as Shang’s aunt Ying Nan, Florian Munteanu manages to bring forward depth and humour in what could be a stock henchman role as Razorfist, and there’s a fantastic redemptive return from an old MCU character I won’t spoil here (no, it’s not Wong, whose role is little more than a fun extended cameo). All that said, anyone who’s a fan of Chinese cinema will be here for Tony Leung as archvillain Wenwu, and he absolutely owns the movie from the moment he appears until the end. He is a far cry from the racist stereotyping of both The Mandarin and Fu Manchu, incorporating the better aspects of both into a new composite character that utterly destroys those dated expectations. He has all the trappings you’d expect of a supervillain, from the mountaintop lair and army of henchmen to his unyielding lust for power, but he’s also incredibly grounded and his motivations come from a completely human pain. Leung absolutely sells both sides of the character without ever undermining the other, and the father-son dynamic he has with Shang-Chi is relatable yet tragic; they both clearly want the best for each other, but know their paths cannot cross. He’s not only one of the MCU’s best villains yet, but possibly the first performance I’ve seen in one worthy of awards consideration.
Destin Daniel Cretton is a fantastic director of intimate drama, and that experience is absolutely key to why the story and characters work so well. That said, he finds himself at the helm of a martial arts movie despite having no experience in directing action of any scale but, like any good director knows how to do, he’s surrounded himself with the best in the business. I mean, he has the late Brad Allan, veteran of multiple Jackie Chan films, as his stunt co-ordinator, and Bill Pope, cinematographer of the first three Matrix movies, behind the camera. If the final result wasn’t some of the best hand-to-hand action sequences in MCU history, you’d want your money back, and thankfully Shang-Chi delivers on all that and more. This is a visually stunning movie on every level, from its gorgeous environments (both realistic and mystical) to its spectacular special effects, but of course the fight choreography is the real showstopper. It’s not quite on par with classic Hong Kong cinema, especially considering it can’t get too brutal for the kids in the audience, but it comes as close as it can and melds surprisingly seamlessly with the expected Marvel flair. This is further bolstered by the film’s music, with both Joel P. West’s gallant score and the great selection of rap and EDM tracks on the soundtrack perfectly symbolising the east-meets-west nature of the entire production.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is an absolute blast from start-to-finish and a wonderful way to truly kick off the Phase Four films. Even after over a decade of storytelling, Marvel Studios shows no signs of slowing down and continues to find new ways to keep their output fresh, diverse, and of quality. Simu Liu is a superstar in the making, ably taking on the title role with the confidence of a veteran of ten blockbusters, and holds his own against a cinema legend like Tony Leung. It feels like another cohesive piece of the Marvel universe, but it stands up better on its own than most and has gallons of potential as a franchise in its own right, and hopefully it finds an audience craving more. Whether you’re a diehard MCU fan, an action junkie wanting something with a little Hong Kong flavour, or you just appreciate good storytelling and imagination, you cannot go wrong with Shang-Chi.
FINAL VERDICT: 9.5/10