As a fan of martial arts and superheroes, I was looking forward to Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (herein referred to simply as Shang-Chi), although I suspect not as much as Asian people who are fans of the MCU. This film is the first Asian American superhero from Marvel, so it had a lot riding on it; fortunately, it lives up to the pressure to deliver an exciting origin story for the premier martial artist in the Marvel comic book universe (Iron Fist might have made it to the screen first, and I love the Matt Fraction/David Aja series, but Shang-Chi was published first).
The usual disclaimer about mentioning spoilers in this discussion, before further details.
Marvel Studios continues to retain its success rate in making entertaining origin stories for lesser-known characters from the comic books that introduce new characters, set up a new corner of the MCU while still ensuring that the film is part of the MCU with appearances from characters form other films. Shang-Chi is no exception. It starts with the villain: a millennia ago, Wenwu (Tony Leung) discovered the ten rings that grant him immortality and mystical powers, which he uses to conquer throughout history. This pauses in 1996, when he seeks to discover Ta Lo, a place rumoured to be home to mythical beasts, only to be stopped by its guardian, Ying Li (Fala Chen), in a beautiful fight that echoes Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Hero, in which Leung starred – this is the story of how they fell in love, as told by Li to her son, Shang-Chi (all done in voice-over in Mandarin, a wonderful statement of intent from the film). In the modern day, Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) is a valet at a hotel, using the name Shaun, with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina). On the bus home, he is attacked by men who want the pendant his mother gave him – Shang-Chi reveals he can more than take care of himself, beating the attackers (including Razorfist, who has a retractable blade instead of a right hand), but losing the pendant. He reveals he has a sister, Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), and has to find her in Macau – Katy accompanies him and he reveals how his father had him trained from the age of 7 years old in martial arts, until he was sent at 14 years old to kill the man who was responsible for the death of his mother. When they arrive, they discover that Xialing runs a successful fight club (which sees an appearance by Wong [Benedict Wong] and the Abomination) and still holds a grudge against her brother for leaving her when he escaped the family after going on the hit. The Ten Rings arrive – Wenwu sent the postcard that revealed Xialing’s location so he could get his children back and their pendants, which reveal the location of Ta Lo and the way in through the moving bamboo maze that protects it. Wenwu believes their mother is there, having heard her voice, and nothing will stop him from going there and destroying it to bring her back; it will be up to Shang-Chi, Katy, his sister and an unexpected party to get to Ta Lo first and stop Wenwu …
There’s a lot going on in the film, as the brief synopsis suggests, but director/co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12) does a great job of keeping everything on track. There are great fight scenes, wonderful buddy comedy from Liu and Awkwafina, as well as tackling themes of grief, generational difference, identity, redemption, family. Quite an achievement. This is helped by a terrific cast: Liu is great as Shang-Chi – bad-ass but also charming and funny, the perfect combination for an MCU hero, and looks and acts the part: he’s not a martial artist but he has put in the work (as The Matrix showed, the actors have to look like they know what they’re doing in the fights); Awkwafina is funny as best friend Katy, getting most of the good lines and acting as the perfect foil; Leung is great, as usual – I’ve thought he was great since I first saw Hard Boiled back in the early 1990s and he’s got better since then; Michelle Yeoh (as Shang-Chi’s aunt in Ta Lo) is her usual excellent presence, but she doesn’t get enough to do; and then there is the unexpected appearance from Ben Kingsley as Trevor Slattery, who has been a sort of court jester for Wenwu since being broken out of jail for his performance as ‘the Mandarin’ (there’s a nice line in which Wenwu rejects the Mandarin title because it’s an orange) and has got himself clean. It’s always nice to see other actors from the MCU – Wong is great value, and there’s a nice post-credit scene with him, Carol Danvers and Bruce Banner (‘Welcome to the circus’) talking to Shang-Chi and Katy about the unknown nature of the Ten Rings.
I found the first two-thirds of the film the stronger – the action scenes (the bus fight is a phenomenal Jackie Chan sequence), the comedy, the character interaction are all on point. The last third has some of the MCU final-act features, involving very large destruction and the scale exceeding that of what happened before – the very large fight with dragons was awesome but it loses some of the human-level focus that had worked so well (although Ta Lo was beautiful and the mythical creatures were absolutely gorgeous). There are other minor niggles, such as how Katy somehow being an amazing archer suddenly, or how Shang-Chi is still the best martial artist since all we see him do is some push-ups before going to work and then spend the night drinking and doing karaoke – yes, he trained solidly for 7 years, but he hasn’t done any fighting in the 10 years after that. His sister has been running a cage-fighting syndicate and practising diligently since, so is clearly the better fighter (although I didn’t like that she took over the Ten Rings organisation at the end – it felt a bit too much like Sharon Carter as the Power Broker at the end of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier – but it would explain why she didn’t get much to do in this film if she’s going to be a focus in the sequel).
But, in the end, I really enjoyed this film, which brings wushu into the MCU, opens up another angle to its cinematic universe, remixes the formula that Marvel Studios has working so well – it’s another great entry into the biggest superhero franchise, which must be a tough gig for anyone. I can tell how much I enjoyed the film because I have never liked the song Hotel California, but now I will remember it fondly because of this movie …