Every time a new Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) film comes out, the reactions are overwhelmingly positive. Somebody always makes the bold claim that this is either the MCU’s best film yet or that it’s different from all the others. It’s natural to be hesitant when seeing those reactions. Folks, go ahead and make me a feast of crow, because Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is both the MCU’s best film and different from all the others.
Now, does that mean that it abandons the core tenets of the MCU formula? Of course not. Shang-Chi has a likable lead character taking us through an adventure that introduces us to a new corner of the universe. Plenty of jokes in tow, of course. Even the customary lore dump prologue makes an appearance. During this prologue, however, a funny thing happens.
Writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12), narration notwithstanding, uses this prologue to give us a near-wordless fight between a man and a woman that turns into something else entirely. Backed by a lush Joel P. West score, this fight becomes a romantic gravity-defying dance between the two. By the end of it, they’ve fallen in love. The information the film gives out before this sequence seems meaningless, as the sheer beauty radiates over the audience. I can’t believe an MCU movie is making me feel this way.
This first impression proves to be correct as the movie jumps forward to the present day. Simu Liu is a damn delight as Shang-Chi, who is living in San Francisco under the name “Shaun”. Having cast aside his life as a child assassin under his father Wenwu/”The Mandarin” (Tony Leung), a warlord leading the ubiquitous “Ten Rings” organization, Shang-Chi grinds out the day as a valet with his best friend Katie (Awkwafina).
Liu and Awkwafina are a charming slacker duo whose antics – including but not limited to drunken karaoke singing – carry the first act of the film. For his part, Liu imbues Shang-Chi with a rare relatable touch. He’s not the wacky, quip-spewing protagonist we’re used to seeing. He’s a man who wants to find purpose in a normal life. Of course, fate has different plans.
Wenwu sends emissaries of the Ten Rings to reclaim his son. On a civilian bus, all hell breaks loose and Shang-Chi is forced to unleash his hidden power. As he does, so does Shang-Chi unleash its own hidden power: the fury of its action sequences. Complete with stunts coordinated by the late, great Brad Allan, Shang-Chi kicks some serious ass in what immediately becomes the most effective action sequence in MCU history. Shot in glorious wide shots by The Matrix cinematographer Bill Pope, Shang-Chi shows an unbridled fury that only needs purpose to guide him.
Purpose is what guides the grand adventure that lies ahead of Shang-Chi and Katie. Moreover, it weaves its way through a grand narrative that puts its emotion before any core superhero film staples. Sure, you have things like the grand final battle, but they’re in service of this grander theme. Shang-Chi must find how to use his great abilities for good. Katie must figure out what she wants to do with her life. In a standout supporting performance, Meng’er Zhang as Shang’s sister Xialing struggles to find her place in a male-dominated organization. And, of course, our villain Wenwu, “The Mandarin”, must contend with living with the loss of a loved one.
All of these character paths collide in a story that takes us to locales ranging from underground fight clubs to mystical battlefields. Never at any point, though, does it fall out of the grand tradition of wuxia martial arts films. So much smoke is blown about films in the superhero genre having a symbiotic relationship with other genres. Few do so more accurately than Shang-Chi, the tale of a chivalrous warrior who unlocks his great abilities to help the downtrodden.
Even when it comes time to connect to the wider universe, Shang-Chi does so in a surprising way. Connecting films as far apart as Captain America: The First Avenger and Iron Man 3, it uses these connections to enrich its own story while coloring the overarching story in an enriching way. Just like its prologue, the film goes above and beyond in this apartment.
In no department does Shang-Chi slack. It’s a part of an ongoing universe that shows no lack of pep in its step. Cretton and his crew make this film like it’s the last film they’ll ever get to make. And it shows. It fires on all cylinders, fists of fury breaking through expectations of what a superhero movie in 2021 can be. Get ready to fall in love with superhero movies all over again. –James Preston Poole
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is in theaters this Friday, September 3, 2021.