Since "Avengers: End Game" in 2019 and the pandemic that would follow, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has been mostly a slow-burn...much of the excitement has shifted away from cinemas to at-home Disney+ series like "WandaVision," "Falcon & The Winter Soldier" and "Loki," with the MCU having started to set the stage for its "Phase Four." The only theatrical MCU film since "End Game" has been "Black Widow," a movie that chronologically took place back following the events of "Captain America: Civil War," so it feels like forever since the movies have actually propelled us forward in any major way towards whatever the MCU might have in store upcoming.
With "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings," the Marvel origin-story formula is palpable, but while it fails to launch us forward into the teased "multi-verse" that we know is around the corner, it introduces one of the coolest, original characters the MCU has seen in quite a while: Shang-Chi. Unlike the TV shows that have introduced possible "new" versions of The Falcon, Captain America and Loki, Shang-Chi and the artifacts known as the "Ten Rings" feel fresh, and they open up new possibilities for the MCU at large.
"Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings" is funny, action-packed and full of interesting characters. In other words, it delivers upon the high expectations MCU fans have developed over the course of the past twenty-something films. Shaun - soon to be known by his birthname, Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) - and his best-friend, the wise-cracking Katy (Awkwafina) are just two valet drivers living in San Francisco when we first meet them. Shaun's grandmother wonders if the two will ever marry, and Katy's family wonder if she will ever try to live up to her potential in any meaningful way.
After a high-energy opening action piece set on a city bus (one of the best sequences in modern MCU memory), Katy learns that "Shaun" has a mysterious past that he's kept hidden from her. First, he has a sister, Xialing (Meng'er Zhang) and his parents are...let's say, "unique." His mother, Li (Fala Chen) comes from a mystic alternate dimension. His father, Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung) an immortal warrior in possession of the legendary "Ten Rings" artifacts. The "Ten Rings" is also the name of dad's elaborate underground organization...a group that actually was mentioned in passing all the way back in "Iron Man 2."
Xu Wenwu finds a way to reunite his family, but he is misguided. It's up to Shang-Chi, Katy, Xialing and others to stop him, lest he open up an ancient gateway of evil creatures that will destroy their mother's magical realm.
The movie feels like a loving homage to martial-arts films of the past, from the hand-to-hand combat to some of the more "unnatural" fighting styles ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" came to mind more than once while watching). And even though the origin story of Shang-Chi hits familiar notes along the way, the characters feel like positive additions to the MCU. Without spoiling anything, the film also manages to weave in more than one unexpected characters from MCU's past, with hilarious results. The movie lags a bit in the middle, and the convoluted CG-action towards the end feels a bit messy, but all is forgiven because of the central characters.
Especially Tony Leung as Xu Wenwu. In a different universe, his performance as Shang-Chi's father would earn him some award consideration...he's that good. The performance comes to life due to Leung, but even as written, he's the MCU's best villain since Thanos...and being one of the few movies to come out since Thanos, that's surprising that he holds his own. The character isn't written as evil, and even though his methods can be questioned, most of what he does is out of love...love for his wife, his children and his family as a whole. A hero is only as good as his villain, and Xu Wenwu makes Shang-Chi that much better.
The film manages to fit perfectly within the MCU without nagging questions that challenge the continuity (like in the other films, why didn't Nick Fury beep Captain Marvel sooner?). It figured out a way to have real stakes, doing so in a way that wouldn't bring much attention from the outside world...you will understand, for example, why The Avengers or others weren't called in to intervene. And with the two stinger scenes during the end-credits, there were audible gasps in the theater, and entire new facets of discovery and excitement unleashed. Shang-Chi and The Ten Rings - the organization and the artifacts - will most surely play a large role in things to come.
"Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings" is an upper-echelon MCU film, and like the very best of them, it only leaves you salivating for the next installment.
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy.
Run Time: 2 hours 12 minutes.
Starring: Simu Liu, Tony Leung, Awkwafina, Michelle Yeoh, Wah Yuen, Meng'er Zhang
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton ("Just Mercy," "The Glass Castle," "Short Term 12").
"Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings" is in theaters on Friday, September 3rd, 2021.
Looking for a specific movie or review?