NOTE: This review is spoiler free.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings didn’t kick off the fourth phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it sure as hell launched it into the stratosphere. Prior to the picture, Phase Four of the MCU was off to a lackluster start. While Disney+’s WandaVision, Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and Loki were ingenious in forwarding the overall plot of the MCU, Black Widow was more of a set up for Yelena’s position in the cinematic universe than furthering the Marvel mythos. But with Shang-Chi, Marvel plunges audiences headfirst into the new stage of the MCU, creating an epic narrative worthy of holding a high spot among the best Marvel movies.
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton (Just Mercy, I Am Not A Hipster), the story follows Shaun (Simu Liu), a San Fran transplant of wasted potential who slums it with his bestie Katy (Awkwafina) as they spend their days valeting cars and their nights drinking in karaoke bars. But Shaun is more than he seems, on the run from his past, his progenitor, and all that plagues him.
Like Black Panther, Shang-Chi creates a pocket universe within the MCU that not only celebrates Asian culture, but tries to fix sins of the past. Shang-Chi feels like an effort to make good on previous fumbles such as the boring and racially awkward Iron First on Netflix and Iron-Man 3’s hot take on the Mandarin. And with Shang-Chi, Marvel performs a magic trick: retconning botched storylines and characters so that they not only work with new initiatives, but also make up for previous misfires.
In addition to bringing more Asian representation to the MCU, the film also channels the flavor and feel of traditional Hong Kong cinema, particularly in its fight scenes. Choreographed and coordinated by members of the Jackie Chan Stunt Team, Eastern fighting style is heavily emphasized in the film. It’s used with jaw-dropping perfection allowing the action and fight sequences to stand out from any other Marvel movie. (Brad Allen, the supervising stunt coordinator and former pupil of Jackie Chan, passed away prior to the film’s release and the film is dedicated to his memory.)
Shang-Chi is also chock full of surprises. Much like Fat Thor or Professor Hulk, Disney’s marketing team did a bang-up job when it came to keeping certain developments, characters, and storylines under wraps as a few familiar faces make an appearance. (There are two post-credit scenes you are going to want to stick around for.)
But the real highlights of the film are the characters – multifaceted individuals whose story arcs are as compelling as the movie itself, with Liu as the high point of the picture. In his first foray into blockbuster territory, the break-out star of Kim’s Convenience (a comedic import from our friends in the Great White North) is charismatic as Shaun/Shang-Chi, holding the attention of audiences even against the impressive special effects. His ability to juggle drama, action, and comedy creates an engaging figure that makes him approachable to audiences.
Hong Kong’s celebrated celluloid icon Tony Leung as Shaun’s estranged father Xu Wenwu is also a standout, with a backstory that makes him one of Marvel’s most complex and interesting villains. Awkwafina also takes center stage here, finally getting a part that requires more than delivering one-liners (aside from The Farewell, of course). Acting as the guide for the audience, the role of Katy helps clarify aspects of the story and the language to English-speaking audiences.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings isn’t just a great addition to the MCU, it is one of its tentpoles, offering a solid foundation in which to build new stories and create new heroes that fit perfectly within the ever-expanding Marvel universe. In addition to setting the stage for Phase Four, it shows that Marvel is trying to right past wrongs. So far so good.