Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings follows Shaun (Simu Liu), an Asian American man working as a valet with his best friend, Katy (Awkwafina), neither of whom are fulfilling their potential. Following an assassination attempt, Shaun embarks on a globetrotting journey to find his long-lost sister, Xialing (Meng’er Zhang,) and bring the ring-wielding terrorist who sought his death to justice: his estranged father, Mandarin (Tony Leung).
Shang-Chi is the newest origin story MCU film, following Captain Marvel in 2019. Though it may not top some other heroes’ introductions, notably 2016’s Doctor Strange and 2008’s Iron Man, it does deliver another entry into that pantheon. The action is more dynamic, better shot and better choreographed than any other Marvel film to date. Shots pop with color and fun framing, showing how truly beautiful an MCU film can be; this is following years of mostly muted and gray-looking films. The acting is mostly great, with only one true exception. While the film still isn’t perfect, having some small issues and a larger one, it’s still great to see Marvel put out its most entertaining and creative theatrical project in a long time.
Saying Shang-Chi is better than Black Widow, the most-recent prior MCU project, is a no-brainer. It’s better in nearly every conceivable way, from characterization to the visual effects. Somehow, a film about a brand-new character from niche comics was more fascinating and engaging than a long-awaited film about a character that audiences have been watching and enjoying for the better part of a decade. It’s insanity. It really feels like Marvel went all out for this debut solo outing, something that can’t be said for a lot of their projects, Black Widow being the easy target in this situation. While that film felt like an uneven mishmash of the “grounded” side of Marvel with a side of the ridiculous, Shang-Chi hits the right balance of realism and surrealism.
The camera work, especially during action scenes, is the real star of the show, so credit is due to director Destin Daniel Cretton and cinematographer Bill Pope. While most MCU films in the past have over-relied on close-up, shaky cam for their hand-to-hand fight scenes, Shang-Chi does the exact opposite. The camera movements are fluid, fast and purposeful, much like the martial arts being practiced in frame. Every shot is framed to show the most optimal angle of the action, never trying to hide poor stunt work or choreography. There’s often long takes with wide angles, something mostly unseen in modern Hollywood action blockbusters, aside from whatever projects Keanu Reeves or Tom Cruise happen to be an active participant in. In short, Shang-Chi has some of the best action the MCU has ever seen.
The cast is made up almost entirely of notable Asian actors or those on the rise. The biggest rising star here is Shang-Chi himself, Simu Liu, who’s great in this role. He’s charismatic, funny and completely unique from other Marvel heroes, being more laid-back and immature in spurts. Liu, justifiably, is like a kid in a candy store in this role, one he’s wanted to play for years before now. He’s endearing and relatable in all the right ways, feeling like a realistic person, aside from all the kung fu and magic, of course.
His best friend, Katy, played by Awkwafina, is a solid addition to the film. While she’s often used as a surrogate for exposition dumps for the audience, almost all of her comedic beats hit, which offsets any negatives that could be tied to her character. Xialing, played by Zhang, is the only real weak link in the cast. Her acting is often uneven and wooden, but that may be because this is her first credited film role. Michelle Yeoh is great in the limited screen time she receives, but she seems to only have been cast to add credibility to the film’s action pedigree.
Her inclusion is just strange for such a small role. There’s also another role that fits perfectly in the film. While I will not spoil their inclusion, as they haven’t been shown or mentioned in the film’s marketing, their comedy and on-screen presence lifts scenes higher than if it were another less-seasoned performer while also simultaneously never making any part of their over-the-top performance feel like too much for the audience to believe in.
Tony Leung, a long-time staple of Chinese and Hong-Kong cinema, is a true scene-stealer here, always upstaging his co-stars. His villainous turn as Shang-Chi’s father, Xu Wenwu, a legendary, mythical, immortal terrorist known worldwide as The Mandarin, should long be remembered as one of the best villains in the MCU. His character is deeply flawed but also has understandable motivations. He’s almost likable, in a way, and he’s one of the best aspects of the film as a whole.
The only real issues with the film are small and excusable. At two hours and 12 minutes, the film is quite long but feels longer than that. This is mostly due to the amount of explanation that has to be given to the audience to properly set up the world and its characters, which are nearly all brand-new additions. The action scenes make the slower overall pace worth it, but the issue is still worth mentioning. Another issue is the sheer amount of visual effects toward the end of the film’s final battle. It becomes a bit too busy to clearly see what’s happening a few times, which isn’t an issue anywhere else in the film. Again, most of the issues are small and nit-picky, never being too serious or enough to hurt the film in any significant way.
This is a film one should see and support, whether it be for the originality and beauty or for the fact that it’s a big-budget studio film without a white leading cast.
You should see this film on the biggest screen if possible and if it’s safe to do so. The action is epic and fun, the characters are interesting and different from the typical Marvel film and the story is engaging and (mostly) well-written. There are two significant post-credits scenes that tease future MCU events, so, if anything, it’s worth seeing for those alone if you’re a Marvel fan. There’s plenty of surprises and things to spoil, so go see the film before those are ruined for you. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is exactly what a theatrical big-budget action film should be.