After over 20 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, audiences are finally getting their first Asian-American superhero, and neither he nor the film disappoint. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings introduces fans to a confident lead who ably carries the mantle of heavy expectation into a solid, action origin story that’s a guaranteed blockbuster.
The film delves straight into a fantastical world filled with ancient mythology. In it we find Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung), an immortal warlord who has been in possession of the Ten Rings for centuries. He stumbles upon a magical place called Ta Lo and meets his future wife, Jiang Li (Fala Chen), vowing to give up life in the mafia. There he trades his ten rings for another ring as he becomes both a husband and father of two. That is until Jiang Li is killed, then the enraged Wenwu starts to train his young son Shang-Chi to become an assassin. Shang-Chi rejects the life chosen for him and escapes, leaving behind his little sister Xialing.
The opening scene’s dialogue is entirely in Mandarin—the first of many indications that this Marvel movie is not only more than you were expecting, but also much, much better.
Years later we are re-introduced to Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), who now lives in San Francisco under the name of Shaun. He does his best to keep a low profile while working as a hotel valet alongside his best friend Katy (Awkwafina). After Shaun is attacked by his father’s henchmen—heavies after a necklace that belonged to Shang-Chi’s mother—he returns to China with Katy to warn his sister, believing that she might be the next target. While in Macau, he is reunited with Wenwu and Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) but time apart has fractured their relationships.
Shang-Chi’s father reveals his plans to find a path back to Ta Lo, where he believes Jiang Li is being held prisoner. As a part of his plan, he intends to attack the village with his warriors. This doesn’t sit well with Shang-Chi and Xialing, who forge their own path to the magical kingdom for answers.
The Script + Filmmaking
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, Shang-Chi stays soundly grounded in Chinese and Asian-American culture, while adding complex family dynamics into the mix. It also manages to deftly weave in ties between Marvel’s different eras, with the Ten Rings organization connecting to Iron Man’s past.
The film particularly thrives when it comes to its martial arts sequences—the best I’ve seen on screen in recent years—and its impressive stunt choreography. There’s a wuxia–inspired fight between Shaun’s parents, Wenwu and Jiang Li, that flows like a courtship dance all while displaying their killer moves. It was a beautiful piece that blossoms into romance.
Liu’s bus fight sequence, teased in the film’s trailer, is the first time that audience truly gets to see him in action and it’s one of the most memorable action pieces in the film. He flaunts his martial arts skills as he battles half a dozen henchmen on speeding transport, all while being the epitome of cool.
In his magnetic turn as Shang-Chi, Liu ably straddles the line between vulnerability and strength. He dons the superhero suit and locks into the mind of a Kung Fu master, showing off the skills he mastered during his four-month training regime. Liu also bring his excellent comedic chops to the fore, as he and Awkwafina deliver on all the laughs sprinkled throughout the action-focussed script. There’s never a dull moment with these two, who seem comfortable and at home in each other’s company.
The women in Shang-Chi are all given the chance to be fully multi-dimensional. While Awkwafina’s Katy may not be the star of the show, she is given purpose. As she journeys alongside Shaun, she is also searching for her passion in life and navigating her own internal conflicts. Awkwafina plays to her strengths as a comedian, but shows that she has much more to offer dramatically as well (as glimpsed in The Farewell). Xialing, played by newcomer Zhang, is given an interesting and compelling backstory here too, although it would’ve been nice to see more of her story arc play out.
The rest of the well-rounded cast is given more than enough material to shine. Cinematic treasure Leung gives an arresting portrayal of an antagonistic father and husband who’s still grieving the loss of his wife. The actor paints Wenwu as merciless and cruel in his quest, but in his quieter moments of anguish and despair, he compels.
Though the film falters in the third act, where it seems to lose some of its pace, you’ll find it still contains the classic climactic Marvel showdown that we have come to expect. Speaking of Marvel staples, there are also two end-credit scenes that are not to be missed as they tease how Shang-Chi fits into the MCU universe of the future.
Shang-Chi is a beautifully choreographed, heartfelt origin story that neatly wraps a fractured family’s story into the Marvel superhero world. The film doesn’t fall into any stereotypical traps around Asians and Asian-Americans on-screen representation, but instead adds subtle and respectful nods to Chinese culture. The biggest story here though is Liu. The actor proves to be perfectly suited both as a franchise lead and as Marvel’s first Asian-American superhero—a role long overdue.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings opens only in theatres September 3.
Watch That Shelf’s interviews with Shang-Chi star Simu Liu then re-visit the trailer below: