A film review by Craig J. Koban September 21, 2021


2021, PG-13, 132 mins.

Simu Liu as Shang-Chi  /  Tony Leung Chiu-Wai as Wenwu / The Mandarin  /  Awkwafina as Katy  /  Meng'er Zhang as Xialing  /  Michelle Yeoh as Jiang Nan  /  Ronny Chieng as Jon Jon  /  Fala Chen as Jiang Li

Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton  /  Written by Dave Callaham, Destin Daniel Cretton, and Andrew Lanham

Very much like BLACK PANTHER before it, SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS - the 25th entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe - is a bold and rousing step forward for inclusiveness for the MCU, not to mention that it places prominent faith in its characters/world by telling a satisfyingly solid standalone effort that doesn't feel slavish to become a glorified MCU cameo-athon or a placeholder vehicle to expand AVENGERS storylines.  

There's definitely something to be said about the rooting interest that B-grade minor characters in the comic books have when making their transition to the silver screen, and Shang-Chi was, at best, a third tier and mostly forgotten super hero in the annals of Marvel Comics.  With this film, though, the titular character is given just as lavish of a treatment as his better known brethren, made all the more culturally important because this is the first MCU adventure directed by an Asian and staring a mostly Asian cast.  SHANG-CHI isn't fully liberated from the more tired and overused MCU conventions, but I nevertheless found it to be a worthy trajectory point for the MCU's fourth wave.              

There have been minority based super hero films before.  BLACK PANTHER, for example, was hardly the first to feature an African American protagonist, but this can hardly be said about Asian representation in the largely crowded genre pack.  I think this leads to SHANG-CHI having a different level of inspirational potency and empowerment for viewers.  Best of all, the film never wallows in Asian stereotypes like, say, the recently released Netflix action thriller KATE.  SHANG-CHI embraces and celebrates its Chinese culture and folklore and amalgamates that with fantastical MCU trappings.  Another thing that made this film more winning than the most recent MCU solo entry BLACK WIDOW is that the makers here are putting their feet on the gas pedal to move forward as opposed to hitting the brakes, looking back, and tying up loose mythology ends.  SHANG-CHI - especially in its opening sections - feels more like a martial arts epic than a super hero saga, which is a good thing.  The DNA of the MCU continuity is absolutely here, to be fair, but this is a rare solo entry for the 13-year-old franchise that dares to have its own unique flavor and identity.

A sensational prologue opens SHANG-CHI that introduces us to some of its key power players, most specifically Wenwu (played brilliantly by Tony Leung), who's yearning for power and conquering lands beyond his own have no bounds.  Thousands of years ago Wenwu discovered the mystical ten rings that give its wearing vast powers and immortality.  He establishes an organization intends to topple any kingdoms that come in his way through history.  Flashforward to the mid 1990s and Wenwu is attempting to locate a magical village that's said to harbor beasts to bolster his armies, but he's stopped  by the village's easy-on-the-eyes, but immensely powerful in her own right Jiang Li (Fala Chen), who manages to stop Wenwu from advancing.  Complicating matters is the fact that Wenwu becomes instantly smitten with her, and they eventually settle down together, marry, and have kids. 



Flashforward again and into the present day and we're introduced to one of their kids, now an adult, in Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), who's anything but modern day royalty; he works a lowly job as a hotel valet with his BFF in Katy (Awkwafina).  What she doesn't know is that her buddy is actually one of the most well trained and dangerous martial artists in the world, thanks to Wenwu's training.  On one fateful day, though, Shang-Chi has to essentially come out of hiding and let his dormant skills re-emerge when he and Katy are ruthlessly surprise attacked by an assassin, and after surviving that Shang-Chi learns that his sister (Meng'er Zhang) - who he's been estranged from for over a decade - is in great danger, leading to him (with Katy in tow) going overseas to seek her out.  Eventually, brother and sister are reunited and discover that their father wants to use his gifted kids to help him on his quest: Seek out his wife's village (where Wenwu believes she is being held captive) and free her...even if it means destroying it and everyone there.  There's one thorny problem:  In Shang-Chi and his sibling's minds, their mother died years ago, making them question their papa's mental state.

Wenwu might be the most relatable MCU villain since Killmonger in BLACK PANTHER.  Here's a centuries old man that's insatiably thirsty for control and will stop at nothing to destroy those that oppose him in his journey to be reunited with the love of his life.  In many respects, he's a soft spoken madman that has dealt with the anguish over losing his wife, which materializes in his mission to free her...that is, of course, if she's actually alive, which Shang-Chi has a very difficult time buying.  Like Killmonger and even to a degree Thanos, Wenwu isn't a simple black and white megalomaniac villain with a dark heart and blood lust.  There's understandable motivation behind his pain, making him a much more compelling creation.  He believes, in his heart of hearts, that his wife's voice speaks to him from the great beyond and needs him to help liberate her, but Shang-Chi grows to learn that this isn't so and that his father's unwavering beliefs could utterly destroy not only his family, but a whole village of people as well.  The father/son dynamic in SHANG-CHI is an intriguing one; Shang-Chi loves his father and sensei, but can't support and honor his wishes, which he feels are delusions of grandeur.  One of the great casting coups of this film is Leung, who never seems to play Wenwu in purely scenery chewing, malevolent form.  Like all great villains, he feels totally justified in his actions, even if they kill hundreds in the process.  Leung makes his antagonist so chillingly effective here; he's a frighteningly dangerous presence in more understated ways.

The hero himself here in Shang-Chi is also exceptionally well cast with TV star Simu Liu, who miraculously got the gig after a much publicized social media call out to Disney years ago about representation.  Right from the get-go he makes an immediate impression, not just on a level of fresh faced and easy-going charm, but also because of his strikingly raw physicality and martial arts might.  Hawaiian born director Destin Daniel Cretton (known for way, way lower budgeted fare like SHORT TERM 12) fundamentally understands that the keys to SHANG-CHI are in fully utilizing his star's ample assets and in delivering the type of gravity defying fight sequences not really seen in the MCU.  A lot of critics have been drawing comparisons of SHANG-CHI to the work of Jackie Chan, which is half correct.  The intricately complex choreographed sequences here have a ballet-like grace and symmetry that mirror the work of Chan, but they certainly have been augmented by multi-million dollar visual effects and resources that Chan never had access to in his career.  That, and Chan's kung fu set pieces had an unprecedented level of pure blunt force hurt factor; the action icon put his body and soul on the line for these dangerous cinematic moments that have become the stuff of legend in the industry.  In SHANG-CHI....yeah...not so much.  There are simply too many CG assets and augmentations here to draw those comparisons, and the battles themselves are largely bloodless.  You never doubted if Chan was in the frame and line of fire in his films, whereas in SHANG-CHI obvious liberties were taken.

Having said all of that, the fights in SHANG-CHI are pretty damn incredible and highlight a different type of overall aesthetic than we're usually spoon fed in the MCU.  Just look at the opening skirmish between Wenwu and his future lover and wife, which has almost a rhythmic eroticism to it.  It's really a sumptuous realized moment, but SHANG-CHI is just getting warmed up and started at this point and later unleashes one staggeringly well executed fight sequence after another, with one of the superb standouts being a breathtaking battle set on a careening out of control city bus.  During it, the titular hero takes on a squadron of assassins for hire in a bewilderingly varied manner (it's actually crazily similar to the centerpiece scene in NOBODY, which was more bloody and visceral).  There's also another incredible moment involving Shang-Chi defending himself against ever more goons on high rise scaffolding that will make viewers afraid of heights cover their eyes with each punch and kick.  So many MCU entries wow us with their VFX and other worldly production values, so it's a real treat to see SHANG-CHI try the more grounded approach...at least as much as a $200 million budget allows.

Unfortunately, SHANG-CHI can't completely get away from the omnipresent MCU shadow as it regrettably commits some of the repeated sins of past franchise installments.  Once again, we have an unnecessarily busy climatic third act that features the hero leading an army of companions against multiple CG monsters, which becomes more disappointingly chaotic, noisy, and numbing as it goes.  It's deeply unproductive considering the better stakes of the more intimately rendered family arcs established beforehand that should have been paid off without falling victim to the MCU playbook for closing out stories.  SHANG-CHI starts off gangbusters good and really immerses us in the more down to earth struggles of its characters, but then gets shifted into more mystical elements that have a whiplashing effect at times.  And like so bloody many MCU entries, there's a lot of shoehorned in comedy into the mix, some of it welcome, whereas most of it seems to work against individual scenes that are trying to be more solemn (they always undercut a would-be grave moment here with a gag).  Awkwafina is, in pure MCU fashion, a quip generating factory here, but at least she's a likeable presence and has decent chemistry with her co-star.  There's one extended cameo here that's utterly superfluous and adds nothing to the narrative trajectory at all.  I won't spoil it, other than to say that his presence in one past MCU solo outing was among one of the most annoyingly polarizing in the whole series.  Why he was included here is a borderline supernatural mystery that even Dr. Strange couldn't solve. 

The longer the MCU has progressed the more of an assembly line sameness has permeated it (BLACK WIDOW was proof positive of that).  The best accolade that I could bestow upon SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS is that despite its adherence to increasingly tired MCU formulas, it nevertheless feels like its own entity that stands proudly apart from them.  As a fringe super hero origin tale, the film is thoroughly involving and works as a soulful family drama with weighty consequences that's pretty atypical for the MCU as a whole, which is assisted by a superiorly rendered villain.  Most crucially, SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS is a rare kind of watershed event picture for Asian representation in these types of blockbusters (which obviously was lost on Disney CEO Bob Chapek, who incredulously referred to its release as an "interesting experiment"...yikes).  Remember the first AVENGERS squad when they made their presence felt in 2012?  Almost all of them were white.  Films like BLACK PANTHER and now SHANG-CHI unequivocally show that even the mightiest of franchises have barriers that need to be and can be broken. 

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