Shang-Chi is a much-anticipated movie for MCU fans in large part because the character can open up the universe with an entirely new movie. That movie is filled with kung-fu, but also a rich corner of the universe. Now that the film is officially out after a year-long delay, the reviews are pouring in and they are very positive. Let me be the first to tell you the hype is very real and very well earned.
The latest Marvel Studios film is an entirely new and fresh take on a superhero who practically feels like a normal guy until the climactic finish. It stars Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) as a 20 something guy who has run from his past due to his father Wai Wenwu (Tony Leung Chiu) pushing him to become a killer as he runs a crime organization. Katy (Awkwafina) is his only friend for all ten years he’s lived in America, but soon their lives are put in danger and Shang-Chi must confront his past and reconnect with his sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang).
There are three elements done very well, good, and so-so that makeup Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. The first is surprises, the second is the fight scenes, and the third is familiar drama. All three culminate into a movie that’s highly entertaining, feels fresh, and undoubtedly takes chances. MCU-lifers will appreciate unfamiliar elements while the rare fan who hasn’t seen any Marvel movies will find something here.
Mild spoilers ahead for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
Shang-Chi has the best surprises
Tastefully, this movie has a lot of spoken Chinese with English subtitles. In fact, the first chunk of the movie is entirely narrated in Chinese as we learn who Shang-Chi’s father is and how he met his mother. That makes the film feel a bit more authentic but also entrenched in Chinese culture. That pays off later when Shang-Chi goes back to where his mother came from.
Though it is spoiled by the trailers, the very first time we meet Shang-Chi as an adult we’re lead to believe he’s putting on a suit for a stand-up job. This is not true though–he’s a valet–which defies your expectations. Smartly, the director Destin Daniel Cretton and writers David Callaham, Destin Daniel Cretton, and Andrew Lanham spend time developing the kind heart of Shang-Chi before ever having him throw a punch. That makes his first big fight scene a big surprise.
Fast forward past the midpoint of the film and, yep you guessed it, more surprises. These surprises do come a bit quickly, though they are softened by a creature introduced in the real world. This allows the weirdness, and it gets very weird, to mellow out and become more believable so that when an entirely new universe of creatures is introduced you won’t lose your mind. The creature design is fantastic and you’ll immediately want Kevin Feige to further explore it in another movie. Possibly my favorite thing in the entire movie can be summed up in two words: Fu dog. This all leads to an incredibly well-choreographed finale with fantastic special effects with kaiju action. Nuff said.
Make sure to stay for the mid and end credit scenes. No spoilers here for those, but know that the mid-credit scene is going to appease fans of more than two MCU movies.
It goes without saying if you make a film about Shang-Chi you’re going to want great action scenes and this movie delivers. In fact, the bus action sequence seen in the trailers is one of the best action scenes you’ll see all year. It melds CGI, physical fighting, and tons of surprises into a lengthy battle between Shang-Chi and multiple baddies. They clearly spent a lot of time on this scene as it features a multi-act structure of intensity all while the bus barrels down steep hills in San Francisco.
There are multiple scenes of training that are a must in any kung-fu movie as well. These help build suspense and make Shang-Chi–among others–earn their incredible fighting abilities. There’s even a believable reason we get to see Woo and the Abomination fight in the movie as well.
There’s also a good variety of fight scene types, from Shang-Chi vs. a few thugs in the close quarters in the bus sequence to Shang-Chi fighting a ton of baddies on the side of a building, to Shang-Chi vs. just one opponent which occurs in a few different scenes. These all amount to a strong variety of fights all of which have proper stakes and the customary human element the MCU movies always get right. Plus, if you thought the Winter Soldier vs. Captain America fight scene in the street is the best close-quarter fight with a knife, you may need to watch this film to see the fight in front of the giant pink neon sign.
This movie has a lot of family drama in it so much so Dominic Toretto may blush with envy. The entire film opens with Shang-Chi’s father and his legacy which Shang-Chi must live up to (or so he thinks). Then there’s his mother, a sister, and ultimately a tragic death among them. Ultimately it’s messaged to the audience it’s in these bonds Shang-Chi finds his power, which is loosely conveyed. It’s a weaker element that’ll require audiences to buy into a bit more, but it’s there.
Some of these dynamics work better than others–Shang-Chi’s relationship with his sister is rather underbaked given the lack of time devoted to it–and it’s these bonds that make the fantasy and sci-fi elements feel grounded. If you’ve ever had an overbearing parent who seems distant you’ll relate to Shang-Chi’s relationship with his father.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings isn’t a perfect movie, but as far as MCU standards go it may be in the top three origin stories for the universe. It offers an impressive array of actors, an entirely new world to explore, plenty of great fight scenes, and a charming lead character. Fans of the comic books will leave the theater daydreaming about how this character could be used elsewhere and given the response Marvel Studios, and casual fans too will be doing the same.