Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings might be a heightened sort of family drama with a lot of action film trappings, but that core aspect of emotion makes its more fanciful elements feel like a breath of fresh air even as it maintains a certain Marvel-ness. Also, it’s a lot of fun. And that’s a good thing when continuing the brand in movie theaters.
(Light Spoilers From Here)
The plot sees Xu Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) living in San Fransisco some ten years after escaping the compound of his father, Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung), the head of the infamous Ten Rings syndicate. Employed as a valet, he spends most of his days maintaining a simple, but quite enjoyable existence with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina). Both apparently excelled in college, but neither feel the pull of adulthood all that strongly. Typically, this would be where the call to be responsible would come barreling in, but even after the film’s first action sequence ends, the sense of fun never completely abandons Shang-Chi or Katy — and that’s considering the serious things which occur as a consequence of the first fight. The pair are an absolute delight to watch in pretty much any situation: Shang-Chi stopping by her family’s home for breakfast, explaining to her his past as a supervillain’s son, or the perils they face as the action moves from San Francisco to Macau and other locations.
Katy is very much a comic relief character, to be sure, but one of Shang-Chi‘s great charms is the way it integrates that into the story and Katy’s progression as a character. In fact, let’s back up — Katy has a character to progress and this definitely feels different from, say, Darcy’s (Kat Dennings) first appearance in Thor. Ultimately, Thor would more or less the same story without Darcy, but Shang-Chi would be unthinkable without Katy along for the ride, whether quipping in response to life-threatening situations or learning her hidden strengths.
The title character, meanwhile, has an amazing facility for being that adult shirking adulthood and someone who recognizes the seriousness of his situation. As a leading man, Liu makes it seem effortless to shift between those two aspects of Shang-Chi. In fact, from his first moment on screen, you never doubt him in the role.
And that’s key as Shang-Chi introduces a lot of new ideas like the real scope of the Ten Rings organization, a new sort of mysticism, and even Wenwu’s personal Ten Rings, a truly dangerous weapon at the heart of the matter. Having the strong bond between the two appealing characters makes all the new information easier to process.
Nevertheless, Leung may steal the film away from its stars. His Wenwu is a complicated and multifaceted antagonist — a still all-too rare thing for Marvel. The actor’s stellar screen presence aids a script which recasts the Ten Rings leader as a man consumed by a certain loss as much as any of his criminal endeavors. And though it might be easy to see what occurs in the plot as the film excusing him of some wrong-doing, one of the story’s more interesting wrinkles is how Wenwu’s actions create the Shang-Chi and Xu Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) — Shang-Chi’s sister — he reunites with during the course of the plot. Their responses to him indicate they will be a sympathetic to him as the movie is willing to be. It’s quite compelling and, again, feels fresh even if some of these ideas have been seen in earlier Marvel films, including last July’s Black Widow.
But even if some of themes are Marvel stock-and-trade, director Destin Daniel Cretton brings a fresh perspective to nearly aspect of Shang-Chi’s corner of the Marvel universe. The framing is different, the camera more cinematic than the Marvel house style, and the experience of the Asian and Asian-American characters seemingly more authentic. We can’t say that is the case for sure, of course, but there is a specificity in certain moments which feels lived-in on the part of the filmmaker. And like the best kind of specific details, it still manages to feel universal.
Also, the action scenes are a lot of fun to watch — so much so, we don’t have a critical appraisal of them beyond the fact they’re enjoyable. Although, that is a rarer thing in tentpole movies these days.
Some early critiques of the film mention the heavy use of CGI in its final third. It’s true. There is a lot of CGI, but it feels earned considering everything the viewer learns before the final battle sequence. That said, if you recently watched the WandaVision or Loki finales, the sense of computer-generated unreality may feel overly familiar. Nevertheless, Shang-Chi is a treat overall; a well-made vista into a happier world.