Having just seen Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings earlier today, I can tell you that it is the knockout we all hoped for. Sure, it’s not free of certain origin story beats, but this is still a beautifully crafted piece of cinema that tugs at the heart, punches the gut, and even splits some sides.
Shang-Chi is another of the more obscure characters that Marvel has opted to adapt over the years, much like the Guardians of the Galaxy, only this time they need to focus on the primary character, and the structure of the narrative is all the better for it. This allows director and co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton to focus on the title character’s backstory in an effective nonlinear fashion (a risk in any movie) throughout, but not at the expense of modern-day Shang-Chi, played by Chinese-Canadian actor Simu Liu from CBC’s Kim’s Convenience, who initially works as a valet with long-time friend and fellow underachiever, Katy (Awkafina). Yet, instead of beating around the bush, the film is quick to reveal his true identity to Katy through one of the many action sequences to follow, allowing valuable time to build upon the Asian-infused lore that Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings to the MCU. It also fleshes out the motivations of the villain, Wenwu, AKA The Mandarin, who seeks the pendants of his estranged children, Shang-Chi and Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), for wholly human reasons, in spite of the monster that he is.
Tony Leung’s Wenwu/Mandarin could have been nothing more than a one-note stock villain with little driving him past the lust for power in the vein of Doctor Strange’s Kaecilius, who came off as decidedly flat in the process in spite of his tragic background. Instead, in a clever twist of storytelling, he is portrayed as an immortal warlord who had conquered all, but from there Cretton and his co-writers, Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham, take a far more nuanced approach that adds a necessary depth to his character. And of course, Leung delivers the goods, resulting in one of the most compelling one-and-done big bads of the MCU who earns a spot alongside the likes of Alexander Pierce and Eric Killmonger.
However, that’s not to say that Leung steals the show from Simu Liu. This is Liu’s movie, and he is allowed to shine as such, making his case as the new swiss-army knife of MCU actors with his ability to balance drama, action, and comedy like no other Marvel lead before him, even Robert Downey Jr.
No doubt purists are up-at-arms by such a statement, but it’s true. In no short terms, Liu’s portrayal of Shang-Chi is the closest thing to Jackie Chan we’ve seen in modern-day cinema since…well, Jackie Chan! He injects a mix of kineticism and comedy into his performance that is hard to emulate. And when Liu isn’t expressing character by combat, his effortless chemistry with co-star Awkwafina humanises Shang-Chi further, whilst never forgetting to sneak in a well-earned chuckle here and there. The greatest source of comedic relief is actually from a character of MCU past that I was somewhat surprised to see – perhaps even a little concerned – yet, in the end, his presence was not only shockingly welcome, but it also eased my stance on one of the most divisive plot twists of the entire cinematic universe.
Of all the pre-release buzz, though, hype was most focused on the fight sequences. Even with that knowledge, I hadn’t been prepared for the sheer intensity of the bar-raising choreography and cinematography in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. I suppose it is only fitting, given that Alexander Pope, best known for his work on the Matrix trilogy, serves as director of photography, while Simu Liu proves to be the most photogenic of any MCU actor in an action sequence.
Shang-Chi wears its influences on its sleeve, and rightfully so. Western audiences have expressed their love of Asian martial arts cinema since the days of Bruce Lee, while the release of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon at the turn of the century reaffirmed this, influencing countless action films in ways you wouldn’t even think. In hindsight, it’s surprising that Marvel ever resisted emulating such a genre for so long, but their whole-hearted embrace of this brand of cinema, without any of the contrivances that could have come with it, is frankly astonishing. And no, there’s no cringe-inducing moment of female empowerment, but plenty of female characters allowed instead to flourish through their portrayals, in particular how each of them rejects patriarchal structures in the name of their own unique sense of empowerment, with Awkwafina and Zhang being the standouts, although Michelle Yeoh, in her relatively limited role, expectedly crushes it.
Between the action, comedy and family drama, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings easily could have buckled under the weight of its juggling act, more so than almost any other superhero film I have seen in recent years, and it almost does in a final act that leans a little too heavily on CGI, though not as egregiously as Black Panther or Wonder Woman. Nevertheless, Cretton does an exceptional job of making this thousand-piece puzzle work in what is a cohesive, compelling entry in the MCU, proving Marvel can still do origin tales with nuance.