Film: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

It’s almost as if an unfair world is punishing Marvel for finally diversifying. Just as the long-overdue Black Widow was released on the unlevel playing field of the pandemic, so was Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021), the MCU’s first Asian-led superhero film. It’s an unfortunate turn of fate for both films, which while hardly groundbreaking as Marvel narrative, are still among the franchise’s better recent offerings, providing stories that deviate just enough from the formula to feel differently entertaining.

Shang-Chi begins in San Francisco, where aimless valet driver Shaun (Simu Liu) enjoys his simple life parking cars and hanging out with his best friend/co-worker Katy (a delightful Awkwafina). When Shaun is attacked on a bus by a gang of martial artists, attempting to steal a pendant from him, he fights back—and his secret past emerges, stunning Katy. It turns out Shaun is the son of mystical warriors from the faraway village of Ta Lo, which protects the world from a dark, threatening portal. The fact that Shaun’s pendant has been stolen suggests that his sketchy father Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung) is up to something; Wenwu, an international criminal with a long history, went on the straight and narrow for a while, but maybe he’s relapsing. That, coupled with a mysterious postcard, sends Shaun packing to confront his warrior past. Stubbornly, Katy accompanies him to meet Shaun’s fiery sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) at a Macau fight club, leading to further conflict with Wenwu—who is mobilizing his powerful empire toward a world-threatening confrontation in Ta Lo.

It’s possible to say that Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings succeeds despite being a Marvel movie, rather than because of it. While it possesses many of the MCU’s stock-in-trade elements, it seems less dependent on them, creating its own lore with less familiar characters. (Indeed, the requisite crossover elements—importing Benedict Wong from the Dr. Strange franchise and, even more incongruously, Ben Kingsley from Iron Man 3—feel more pro forma than organic.) Really, it’s less a superhero origin film than a martial arts epic, full of exceptionally staged action setpieces that generally let the performers sell the action more than the CGI. This is a refreshing change, making the film one of the more visually coherent spectacles in the storied universe. The MCU has no shortage of cinematically striking films under its belt, of course. But Shang-Chi seems more interested than most in letting you actually see it, rather than cluttering every frame with flashy fireworks. This is especially true of its glorious depiction of Ta Lo, a beautifully realized fantasy setting conjuring real sense-of-wonder vibes (not to mention a welcome appearance from the legendary Michelle Yeoh).

If there’s a flaw to the film, it may be the fact that Shang-Chi himself may be the least interesting part of the film. Liu delivers a respectable performance, but the script doesn’t consistently center him, which gives the character an unfortunate hole-in-the-middle quality. It doesn’t help that Awkwafina literally steals every moment she’s onscreen, or that Leung’s incredible charisma in opposition is so distracting. There’s also the Ant-Man problem: just as Hope was a better option than Scott, why isn’t Xialing a better option than Shang-Chi? The answer, again, is that Marvel lore says so. Still, by and large Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a successful start for this character, introducing welcome new elements to the universe and once again resuscitating my interest. (And in the end, it seems to have done pretty well for itself, so suggesting Marvel is being “punished” may be a little hyperbolic.)

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