Ok, everyone take a big deep breath. That’s good…and exhale. Relax; “Shang-Chi and the Legend of The Ten Rings” is good. It is a faithful return to all the things we love about the MCU both in telling a new but familiar superhero origin story and connecting itself to the new phase (almost to a fault at times). It most certainly does it’s job of filling the Marvel Studios void we’ve been missing for what seems like ages, and while one could make the argument that the fantastic Disney+ series fit that bill, there’s nothing quite like a good old fashioned Marvel Studios flick.
“Shang-Chi” has a lot of strengths and some of the more common MCU weaknesses, but the good far outweighs the bad, making the film a worthwhile experience. It is visually dazzling, bold in its approach to new territory. But it is just short of greatness by falling into their own film universe traps.
The film is directed and written by Destin Daniel Cretton (“Short Term 12” and “Just Mercy“) along with his long time collaborator Andrew Lanham, and screenwriting Hollywood darling Dave Callaham. That name should sound very familiar, as he was also the screenwriter for “Wonder Woman 1984,” “Mortal Kombat 2021,” and “Zombieland: Double Tap.” Suffice it to say, he’s got his hand in a lot of major projects for having such a spotty record, but luckily for “Shang-Chi” very few of the downfalls that plagued these aforementioned films come into play here. Though Cretton has really focused on indie dramas instead of big budget blockbusters, he brings a love and deep passion to “Shang-Chi.” You can tell that Cretton feels connected to the material, and truly wants to create something special, even if the MCU itself doesn’t always allow for it. Cretton (along with Lanham and Callaham) not only create a visually immersive, fantastical experience for audiences, but tell a great origin story with some stand out performances and ideas that make “Shang-Chi” refreshing.
The film is powered by its cast, who all do an incredible job here. Simu Lui cements himself as a bonafide superstar, capable of both emotion and action, perfectly balancing the tall order to carry a long standing franchise into a new phase. Whether we mean to or not, the MCU requires a tremendous amount from their heroes, and these new ones coming up to the fill the massive voids of some of the most beloved characters and actors is no easy task in the best of times. Luckily for us, Lui takes the challenge head on and excels. He may have been wrong to misinterpret comments made by Disney execs, but his passion for the role and the film and all that’s riding on it comes through in his performance. Liu is very easy to root for, and he leaves you wanting to see much more of him and “Shang-Chi.”
Liu isn’t the only one pulling his weight here, either. Awkwafina as the comic relief, buddy side kick is a perfect compliment to Liu and their onscreen chemistry is undeniable and enjoyable. They pair very well together, and “Shang-Chi” does a really good job in avoiding the romantic pitfalls that could muddy the film and the hero himself by making it very clear that they’re simply best friends and nothing more. Awkwafina is also extremely balanced here, knowing that she’s meant to deliver the comedy (much of which lands pretty hard) but also NOT ruin every emotional moment with a quip or joke. This is something that often plagues other films in the MCU, but “Shang-Chi” is smart enough to let the more dramatic moments sit and recognizing that tension is good sometimes. Not everything needs to be cut with a quip, and I’d understand if you thought that’s all she does here. She doesn’t, and she’s a great sidekick who actually adds to the story rather than undercutting the emotional stakes. Also, Men’ger Zhang makes her onscreen debut as Shang-Chi’s sister Xu Xialing, and you would never, ever know she hasn’t done this before. She fits right in with the pros, shows no signs of cracking or inexperience, and becomes a character you definitely look forward to seeing more of.
Where “Shang-Chi” really shines is in its visuals, martial arts action and an actual complex villain. The martial arts action is truly unlike anything you’ve seen before in the MCU, and Cretton clearly knows his Hong Kong cinema. He pulls from a number of Hong Kong martial arts films. Not just their choreography (which is absolutely wonderful and I need much, MUCH more of this in the MCU) but also in how the story unfolds and the mysticism that escalates as more and more gets reveals. The first 15 minutes have elements of things like “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon,” “Hero,” and even “House of Flying Daggers.”
There are more influences to be sure, but it is so beautifully crafted and visually gorgeous you find yourself wanting to see this introduction film play out all the way instead of being a small piece of larger “Shang-Chi” narrative. This also ties into the Andy Leung as Wenwu, the “villain” of the film. Someone at Marvel looked back at the decade of films and said, “You know, people really loved Thanos. Maybe we should give this villain motivations OTHER than destroying the world just because.” Someone listened, but paired with Leung’s powerhouse performance, “Shang-Chi” gives a villain you actually care about, one with relatable motivations and human emotions that make his journey and relationship with Shang-Chi rich with purpose and investment. This film avoids a lot of villain tropes with Leung, and it is refreshing to see the MCU correct some their known mistakes in real time.
They don’t correct all of them, though. “Shang-Chi” isn’t without its faults, namely the incredibly slow pace of act 2 and the all-in MCU CGI fest of a 3rd act that escalates so fast and so extraordinary it almost takes you out of the film. I’m all for mysticism and magic, and I like the departure from trying to explain the unexplainable by letting things travel further and further into cosmic consequences, but “Shang-Chi” loses itself in it by its end. The final battle goes from intriguing, unique martial action to- you guessed it- a battlefield riddled with faceless hordes of monsters squaring off against an army of unnamed heroes with giant cgi creatures all over the place. It’s frantic and over the top, which would be fine if it wasn’t what we’ve come to expect in the worst of ways from Marvel movie conclusions. The third act is a carbon copy of countless MCU films before it, and the final battle suffers for not continuing with its uniqueness that is set up so beautifully at the start of the film. I can’t overstate how massive the end of “Shang-Chi” is without spoiling it, but it travels into ridiculous territory that, while it looks good, feels more like a studio takeover than the natural progression of the unfolding story being told.
If you like martial arts action and a good superhero origin story and dragons and cameos and cute mythical creatures that your kids will most certainly be begging for come Christmas time, then this is for you. It is visually stunning, wonderfully acted, charming, funny and heartfelt. It is a true return to form for the MCU, and while some of those elements serve as faults, the overall strengths far outweigh any of these weaknesses. It is an experience, one we’ve been cautiously optimistic about and I’m happy to report delivers on just about every promise and expectation.
And for those you wondering, yes, “Shang-Chi” addresses both “Iron Man” and “Iron Man 3” head on in some of the best ways possible. It’s like they know what they’re doing even when they don’t, and know how to correct mistakes without creating ANOTHER multiverse. They handle it, it’s good. It is really good, and sets us up for a very exciting new phase that I’m all in for.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to scour the internet for a six legged, double winged, no face creature named Morris plush toy or backpack. Trust me. Start looking. Your kids are good NEED one and you’re probably gonna want one too.
“Shang-Chi And the Legend of the Ten Rings” opens exclusively in theaters September 3rd, 2021.