Well into Marvel Studio’s oversaturated “Phase 4” slate of releases this year, due to the Global Pandemic, there have so far been 4 series to premiere on Disney Plus and now 2 films out of 4 to hit the streaming service and theaters (next up is Eternals, Hawkeye & Spider-Man: No Way Home). Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is the first origin story told in quite some time. Black Widow, released earlier in the year doesn’t count since Natasha Romanoff has been a major player in the larger MCU since phase 1, acted more like a swan song for Scarlett Johansson than an introduction to the character.
No doubt the term comic book fatigue is as relevant today than ever before since the genre took off in the mid to late 2000’s. This is after all, the golden age of comic book films and series with new properties being developed and green-lit almost every month. And after the climactic finish of the Infinity Saga with Avengers: Endgame the question that most of us had who have been on this ride over the course of 12 years popped up: Where will the MCU go next and how will they ever come close to the greatness that has already been released?
Before Black Panther, each of the Marvel leading heroes have been white males. Panther changed the comic book landscape giving an opportunity to men, women, boys, and girls of a different race to see themselves in a way that hasn’t been done before. Followed closely by Captain Marvel and now bleeding into the series Wandavision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Shang-Chi is the first Asian character to lead a comic book film in the MCU featuring a mostly all Asian cast that celebrates the culture, style, history, and mythology that has come with it.
And it deserves all the praise it’s been getting from fellow critics and fans that have witnessed its greatness. To most of the general audience Shang-Chi or Shaun (Simu Liu) is an unknown entity but leave it to Marvel and Kevin Feige to take an unknown character to the masses and make him feel like he’s a part of the family. It was done with the Guardians of the Galaxy and just about every character that isn’t Captain America or Spider-Man.
Leading up to the release of Shang-Chi Disney tried (and failed) doing the day and date release with premiere access on Disney plus. Shang-Chi is the first film in the Disney slate to get different treatment that will give it a better opportunity to be seen by audiences if safe. And it should be seen in a theater, on the biggest screen possible. Out of the 132-minute runtime, the first 15 minutes are the most crucial to the success of the film, setting the tone that is to follow for the remainder. In the exposition, thousands of years ago Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung) finds the Ten Rings, amasses an army of the same name, and conquers many kingdoms and topples governments throughout history.
It’s in that time that Wenwu goes on to search for a village called Ta Lo to expand his power but finds love instead in Ying-Li (Fala Chen). Wenwu gives up the power the Ten Rings grant for his family but when Ying-Li is murdered in front of Shang-Chi’s eyes, Wenwu decides to train Shang-Chi to become the heir to his empire. Shang is given a mission by Wenwu but flees to America where he lives in San Francisco as a valet with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina).
From top to bottom, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is gorgeous. Visually, this film is breathtaking offering some of the best visuals Marvel has put out in the MCU with crisp colors a heavy mix of modern/traditional set design and an ascetic that molds well with the mythology that is being introduced. Highly stylized to the Asian culture, screenwriters Dave Callaham, Destin Daniel Cretton (director), & Andrew Lanham capture the look, feel, heart and soul of the martial arts genre bringing it to western audiences who may not be familiar with the style of film.
Glances turn to fights, fights turn to dances and dances become symphonies orchestrated by stunt coordinator Brad Allen, whom the film is dedicated in his memory.
Something Marvel has done exceedingly well in the MCU is blending different genre’s together with a comic book property.
The eastern martial arts influence is everywhere. Emphasis is placed on the different martial arts/kung-fu fighting styles used by each character besides the aspect of family and ancestry. Fighting choreography from Shang to Wenwu to Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) to Ying Nan (Michelle Yeoh) is brilliant resembling more of a dance than an actual fight. It’s easy to fumble the fighting styles and make them look bland but Shang-Chi focuses on the fighting and plays it as its own character.
Bill Pope’s cinematography is out of this world, framing each scene that spills eastern films influence like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Matrix.
Possibly the strongest aspect of Shang-Chi is the characters that are being introduced and making a surprising return with just enough screen time and comedy to not overdo it. With an impressive supporting cast some characters end up being underused that were overhyped. Some appear bad but given the circumstance switch sides and some standout as much as the leading men. Ying-Li is the heart and soul of this film – both Wenwu and Shang-Chi start out one way, set in their ways, one on a path for vengeance, one looking to forget his upbringing, yet are foundationally changed over the course of the film because of the impact she had on her husband and son.
Out of the now 25 MCU films the one element that has stayed consistent throughout is the weaker written and executed villain. That’s not the case in writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton’s story. Wenwu is a top tier villain that can be in the same conversation as Thanos, Loki, Vulture and Killmonger. Wenwu’s motivations are established early and the decisions he makes are ones that you can get behind and wish to see him succeed. What makes him a villain is his methods in carrying out his plan. Tony Leung nails his character making him formidable and vulnerable in his quest to save his wife.
Shang-Chi for as brilliant as it is, isn’t flawless, no diamond is, but the flaws are minimal. The film centers itself around the relationships of its characters. The relationship between Shang and Wenwu hits all the emotional beats through uses of expository flashbacks mixed in with the present. There is a ton to unpack in the flashbacks that create the emotion with side characters but its Wenwu and Shang that the emotion hits hardest. Both act 1 and 2 focus on the relationship where act 3 puts the relationship to the background to focus on the spectacle of mythological beasts battling in a CGI heavy duel of the dimensions.
Aside from saying it’s a part of the larger cinematic universe and some connective tissue with familiar faces popping up (Benedict Wong) Shang-Chi does little to expand the universe nor tie into the multiverse storyline that Phase 4 is setting the stage for. The film very much stays in its own sandbox of authentic eastern influenced films.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is the best origin film since phase 1, top tier MCU and one of the best comic book movies made. Keeping Shang and Katy’s relationship plutonic made Awkwafina’s performance with Simu that much better making the two’s snappy back-and-forth dialogue believable in their decade long friendship. Stunning visuals, a rich mythology, excellent characters and writing, and jaw-dropping action sequences, Bill Pope’s cinematography (which could have an essay written about it) and Joel P West’s authentic score, Shang-Chi deserves to be in the conversation of the top comic book movies.
Written By: Destin Daniel Cretton, Dave Callaham, Andrew Lanham
Directed By: Destin Daniel Cretton
Music By: Joel P. West
Cinematography: William Pope
Starring: Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Tony Leung, Meng’er Zhang, Fala Chen, Benedict Wong
Distributed By: Walt Disney Studios
Release Date: September 3, 2021
Running Time: 2 Hours 12 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 93%
My Score: 4 out of 5