Synopsis – Shang-Chi, the master of unarmed weaponry-based Kung Fu, is forced to confront his past after being drawn into the Ten Rings organization.
My Take – With Phase 3 ending with stupendous Avengers: Endgame (2019), Phase 4 was always going to be a momentous task for Marvel Studios to live up to.
And with a couple of Disney + Series and their last sole feature, Black Widow, still firmly rooted in the happenings of Endgame, it seemed like the Marvel Cinematic Universe was heading for an intriguing yet patchily familiar curve, that is until the Loki series finally inaugurated the much needed fresh and brave new post-Infinity Saga world that is going to dominate our lives for the next couple of years. As a result, their latest release feels like the proper start of MCU‘s Phase 4, especially with its clear link to next year’s ‘Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’ and the introduction of their brand new hero, Shang-Chi.
Though the character is 48 years old, who made his comic-book debut during the ’70s martial-arts craze, and is rarely known by a few outside of hardcore comic book fandom, Shang-Chi has now become the first Asian superhero to get the full Marvel film treatment. And as everyone has come to expect from Disney backed studio, the results are quite excellent.
As origin stories go, the film is fun and furious, with the right amount of heft mixed in and a welcoming promise to further diversify. Here, director Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12, Just Mercy), who co-wrote the film with Dave Callaham and Andre Lanham, recreates the tried, tested and successful narratives of previous standalone MCU endeavors which sees our titular protagonist tackle an existential crisis but blends it with the right amount of emotions, fantasy elements and cultural representation.
A factor which aids in setting the film apart from the franchise’s other origin stories and goes a long way in setting the stage for a unique, vivid and captivating adventure that should be seen on the biggest screen available.
The story follows Shang-Chi / Shaun (Simu Liu) who lives quite a content but directionless life in San Francisco, working as a parking valet with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina) in the daytime and singing karaoke through the nighttime. However, his ordinary life comes to an end when a bunch of thugs led by Razor Fist (Florian Munteanu), seeking his green pendant, attack him on a bus, forcing him to display his incredible fighting skills.
Realizing that after being on the run for eight years, his father Wenwu (Tony Leung) aka the Mandarin, a very powerful centuries-old Chinese warlord and the leader of the Ten Rings organization, has finally found him, he heads to Macao with Katy, to meet up with his estranged sister, Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) to warn her of his upcoming arrival. Thereby setting off a chain of events in which Shang-Chi must travel around the world to finally confront a past that fragmented all of them.
Following the compelling template laid down by Black Panther (2018), this 25th installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a unique origin story that is rich in its own culture, producing a tale that not only succeeds in the story department but one that will be seen as a game-changer in terms of representation for decades to come. Here, director Destin Daniel Cretton doesn’t just pay homage to representation claims by having a very western narrative or style played out by its near wholly Asian and Asian-American cast, but does it by borrowing the fantasy filled authenticity of some of the best of the genre.
The story’s complexity, in many ways, is reflected in the protagonist’s journey because Shang-Chi wouldn’t necessarily consider himself a hero, and yet he embarks on an enticing quest to find himself and stop his father, overcoming the demons that have haunted him throughout his whole life.
But the reason to see the film isn’t because of some dry concerns of ethnic importance. The reason is that it’s fun and beautiful and entertaining with gorgeous martial arts scenes that are really worth seeing on the big screen if you feel safe enough at this point to do so. As the visuals are vivid and the CGI second-to-none. What really stands out, though, and this won’t come as a shock to many, is the sheer quality of the action sequences.
The many martial arts-heavy showdowns are executed in such a seamless fashion, with flawless choreography that flows so beautifully it might as well be dance choreography and impressive direction from Destin Daniel Cretton who captures each fight from different angles to highlight their own individuality, all ensuring that you never tire from it.
He also impressively navigates the big climactic battle with some elements that would have been even more spectacular if they weren’t revealed in the trailer. The fantasy elements were needed to make the film more than a standard martial arts film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, director Cretton understands how to make it properly extravagant for the big screen without feeling too overwhelming.
Simu Liu also makes for an appealing lead, showing range from impressive comedic chops to the capacity for quiet despair and inner conflict. Whether playing an unremarkable valet or an unbeatable martial artist or a tortured son or a ring-wielding superhero, Liu manages to make him feel sympathetic and real. He is ably supported by Awkwafina who blends her familiar sassy observer but smart enough to appreciate how ridiculous a situation is character with complete success.
Meng’er Zhang also gives a quiet, yet powerful performance with many layers still left to peel. It’s delightful to see the great Michelle Yeoh turn up late in the show as a benevolent mentor to Shang-Chi. Also making his hilarious return to the MCU is Sir Ben Kingsley, who reprises his role as Trevor Slattery with his Shakespearean acting coming in handy as he becomes an inimitable tour guide.
But the film really belongs to Tony Leung, however. As the 1,000-year-old Xu Wenwu with an almost operatic strength, showing the passion he had for his wife and family, and the rage and despair he feels at their loss like waves that break and crash over everyone around him. Though we don’t get more time to resolve his conflicts, Leung without a doubt has become the face of one the best (and few) Marvel antagonists.
In other roles, Fala Chen, Florian Munteanu, Ronny Chieng, Andy Le, Dallas Liu, Jade Xu, Jodi Long, Menzer Zhang, Rosalind Chao and Zach Cherry are also good. While Benedict Wong, Mark Ruffalo, Brie Larson and Tim Roth make welcoming special appearances. On the whole, ‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ is a very enjoyable solo action adventure that ushers in the next age of heroes for Marvel Studios.
Directed – Destin Daniel Cretton
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 132 minutes