“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” begins with what may be my favorite opening sequence of any Marvel movie to date: a thousand years ago, the warrior Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung) finds and takes control of the ten rings, a weapon that grants their user great power and immortality. As the centuries pass, Wenwu continues to take over kingdoms and amass his army and fortune. That is until, while trying to infiltrate the mystical village of Ta Lo, he is stopped by one of its residents, Ying Li (Fala Chen). The pair whirl around each other in a gorgeously choreographed fight that is less a battle than it is a dance, the lush greens and sparkling blue waters that surround them contributing to the romantic tone of the scene. We skip ahead in time; the pair have fallen in love and gone away together, and Wenwu is cradling their infant son, Shang-Chi.
“Shang-Chi” is an origin story, the first feature film to spotlight the character who first appeared in Marvel Comics back in 1972, and it approaches that story in a fun and rather different way. We learn a bit about Shang-Chi’s parents first with that opening sequence. We then jump ahead a significant amount of time to the present day: Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) is a young man living in San Francisco, going by the name Shaun. He’s best friends with Katy (Awkwafina), and the pair drift through life together, parking cars as valets for a fancy hotel by day and belting out karaoke tunes by night. But Shaun is not the sort of hero we watch gain and own his power over the course of the film. An incident on a bus on their way to work reveals that Shaun is actually a pretty incredibly skilled martial artist, and that he ran from China, his father, and his empire as a teenager, no longer able to stomach participating in Wenwu’s criminal activities, which he reverted back to after the death of his wife. Shang-Chi is forced to confront head-on a past and a power that he has been running away from, as the film continues to peel away more layers to his story. He reunites with both his sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), now a warrior in her own right, and his father, still hurting from the loss of Ying Li—a loss that may prompt him to use the ten rings to do something that could threaten the entire world.
“Shang-Chi” is the first MCU movie to feature both an Asian lead and an essentially all-Asian cast. That diversity is reflected behind the camera as well, in director Destin Daniel Cretton and writer Dave Callaham (who penned the screenplay along with Cretton and Andrew Lanham). Together, they’ve created a significant milestone for the Asian community and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, erasing many of the problematic stereotypes that existed in the original comics (in which Fu Manchu, a character with a long and rich history of racial stereotypes, was Shang-Chi’s father), expanding on and improving the portrayal of the ten rings and characters previously associated with them in the MCU thus far (thank you internet for reminding me that these were a thing in “Iron Man”), and utilizing a mesh of styles that pay tribute to Asian action cinema of the past, from the elegant, gravity-defying fights of films like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” to the more grounded, fast-paced, slapstick-based fighting style of Jackie Chan. Even though the appearance of one character occasionally threatens to upstage the leads, Cretton keeps the focus on Shang-Chi, his family, and the lore that surrounds them.
“Shang-Chi” is also just a ton of fun, even when it starts to get lost in itself in the second half. I needed more films starring Liu and Awkwafina yesterday; the friendship their characters have is different from most relationships we’ve seen in the MCU so far, and they have an easy chemistry that is frequently hilarious and endearing. Awkwafina’s Katy is way out of her depth, but she doesn’t hesitate to follow her friend when it’s clear that he’s in trouble. Liu oozes charisma, not to mention he handles the fight scenes with aplomb (he is, after all, a former stunt man). The film also frequently recognizes the differences between Shang-Chi’s Chinese upbringing and Katy, who was born and raised in America. Leung, an icon of Asian cinema, is a welcome presence here. His character easily could have been the villain, but it’s clear that Leung doesn’t view him that way. He plays him as a character who has experienced love, and feels the loss of it so acutely, it drives him to actions he may not even fully realize are bad, just so he can feel that love once again. His creased features carry the weight of the centuries his character has lived through. The equally legendary Michelle Yeoh also appears as Ta Lo resident Ying Nan, in a role that calls back to her past martial arts-driven performances and whose wisdom guides a good part of the film’s final act. Zhang is also worth mentioning for her cool portrayal of Xialing, who feels immediately iconic and whose future in the MCU I’m excited to see.
“Shang-Chi” also does that thing that I love to see in a Marvel movie, especially nowadays when it often feels like they can get too easily bogged down with connections and references to all of the other movies and content happening around them: it stands well on its own, with just enough references to the MCU’s past and future to satisfy fans while keeping more casual viewers engaged. It leans a lot further into fantasy than other Marvel entries, but the variety of colorful and weird creatures are a welcome departure from the dull gray visuals that seem like a staple of so many action movies nowadays. “Shang-Chi” really only falters when it tries to balance all of these things and sort of comes up short. The first half of the movie is more grounded in both the style of the action scenes and the content, exploring Shang-Chi’s past and connecting that to the conflict happening in the present. By the second half, we’ve amassed quite a few characters and quite a bit of information, to the point where we’d go so long without seeing one character I’d almost forget they were there too until they suddenly popped up on screen again. Even Shang-Chi, our lead, our hero, doesn’t always feel like he’s at the center of everything that’s going on. The final battle trades in drama and intimacy for spectacle; there are at least a couple of scenes that lack the poignancy and weight that it feels like they should have. Essentially, it feels like “Shang-Chi” begins as one movie, and ends as a rather different one.
Despite some messiness, “Shang-Chi” is a blast: funny, action-packed, and even at times romantic, a trait the MCU to date is oddly lacking in. As with “Black Panther,” it’s great to see a big movie like this paving the way for more minority groups headlining major studio movies, even when this should have been happening a long time ago. It’s too bad that Disney’s marketing powers at be don’t seem to think so; when I overhear multiple people at the movie theater commenting on how they haven’t seen or heard much about not just a movie, but a Marvel movie, there’s a problem. For every Marvel trope that “Shang-Chi” succumbs to, it also contains a unique feature to make it stand out from everything else that’s come before.
“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 132 minutes. Rated PG-13.