Movie Review: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Marvel enters new genres, while maintaining its superhero roots, in this thrilling new chapter.
Having few worlds left to conquer in the traditional comic-book style, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is starting to experiment with other genres. The mega-franchise — now basically a studio unto itself, albeit one under the watchful, murine eye of Disney — is eager to absorb, remix and generally play.
“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” the series’ 25th overall installment, certainly contains hallmarks of Marvel’s traditional superhero-romp style. There are low-stakes fight scenes in exotic locales; there are somber, family-driven flashbacks; there are symbolic moments wrapped entirely around cool superhero suits.
That’s just the broth of this stew, however. The larger ingredients are recontextualized pieces of wuxia and high fantasy; there are masterfully choreographed fight sequences, and there are journeys to magical places inhabited by fantastic beasts.
There have been glimpses of such influence in Marvel’s past, but this is new. Now, the brand seems dedicated not just to inserting new characters into the old stories, but to finding new ways to tell those tales.
Does it work? Of course. Marvel hasn’t truly missed in a long time.
Protagonist Shaun (Simu Liu), née Shang-Chi, had a tragic childhood as the son of millenia-old warrior Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung). Xu has spent centuries pulling the strings on world affairs as the head of a clandestine army, the Ten Rings, named for the mystical weapons he wears around his forearms. He settled down when he met Shang Chi’s mother, Ying Li (Fala Chen); her disappearance sent him back to his violent ways.
He prepares his children — Shang-Chi and his sister, Xu Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) — for life as assassins. When the young man is sent on his first mission, though, he flees, starting a quiet life in San Francisco, working as a valet and palling around with best friend Katy (Awkwafina).
The past rarely stays there in such stories, so when a hulking mercenary with a blade for an arm turns up on a city bus, the trail leads home. It seems Xu has reason to believe Ying Li is still alive, launching a journey that moves the film from Marvel’s earthly milieu into a lush fantasy world that makes the “Lord of the Rings” series look like a quaint relic.
If that sounds like a lot, it certainly is. Director Destin Daniel Cretton (“Short Term 12,” “Just Mercy”) is also credited for the story, with David Callaham (“Wonder Woman 1984,” “Mortal Kombat”); the two also co-wrote the screenplay, with Andrew Lanham. The trio spares no moment of fleshing out the backstory, from the meet-cute between Xu and Ying Li to Katy’s family life. It covers a lot of ground — and that’s before it begins weaving in Marvel’s existing storylines, including an extended thread from a little-seen entry in Marvel’s “One Shot” short film lineup.
While some of the exposition may feel tedious, it’s forgivable when “Shang-Chi” gets back to business. Its set pieces are captivating, its battles are thrilling and its humor and imagination are real. While it stumbles into some of the series’ exhausted tropes here and there, the overall project is so fresh that it hardly matters.
My Rating: 8/10
“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is now playing in theaters.