With over 13 years of practice making movies, none of us expect Marvel movies to be bad. However, that doesn’t eliminate the pressure of being the first movie of its kind. Shang-Chi and The Legend Of The Ten Rings not only met our expectations as the MCU’s first Asian-led movie. But it also exceeded them!
From the jump, Shang-Chi captivates your attention with the voice of Jiang Li, played by Fala Chen. Telling baby Shang about how she met his father, Wenwu, aka Tony Leung. It is reminiscent of Black Panther’s intro with Prince N’Jobu telling baby Eric of home. It’s clear to see why director Destin Daniel Cretton would use this storytelling tool. There’s something magnetic and enchanting about it; like a bedtime story, it pulls you into this fantasy world. Making you care deeply for what’s happening between Wenwu and Jiang Li, their first meeting and their blossoming romance.
It doesn’t hurt that their first interaction has Wenwu, a battle-hardened warlord wielding the ten rings, dressed in a crisp white suit. Getting his ass handed to him in a fight by his soon-to-be wife. The fight is playful and seductive, displaying the difference in Wenwu and Jiang Li’s fighting styles beautifully. For every forceful and rigid move Wenwu makes, Jiang Li has fluid and graceful reactions. Leaving him stunned and amused, and you as the viewer completely enthralled.
The film only continues this as we quickly move through the years to the present day. In a post Blip world, we meet Shang-Chi (Simu Liu). He’s run away from his father and become a valet attendant, along with his friend Katy (Awkwafina). From the jump, it’s clear that Katy is the wild child, and Shang goes in tow with her impulsive schemes. Simu and Awkwafina’s chemistry is easy to see, giving their on-screen relationship a level of ease and familiarity, almost familial even. Making the scene where Katy’s grandmother asks Shang, “When will you two get married?” even more hilarious.
It’s that chemistry that keeps the story grounded in reality when things really kick off. As the story speeds up, our dynamic duo is faced with a barrage of baddies. Here the action sequences by coordinator Andy Cheng and supervising stunt coordinator, the late Brad Allan, get their chance to shine. Shang’s fancy moves have your eyes glued to the screen, and Katy’s reactions to seeing her friend kick several asses have you bursting out with laughter.
But despite all of that. The stellar performances by the pair and by Tony Leung, none of them are the true scene-stealers, in my opinion. That honour belongs to Meng’er Zhang, who plays Xialing, Shang-Chi’s younger sister.
In the Shang-Chi press junket, Zhang shared that this is her first on-screen role and let me tell y’all; it didn’t show. From the second she stepped on the scene, she ate it up and left nary a crumb to be found.
Xialing backstory in Shang’s flashbacks set her up to be a powerful and independent person. Teaching herself martial arts in secret at night after watching her brother quickly graduated to beating his ass. Also, like her brother, she runs away from home. But being the Girlboss she is, she’s running a criminal enterprise out of Macau, and we have to stan.
Xialing doesn’t get nearly enough screentime for me, but the time she gets is just spectacular. Zhang brings real depth and personality to the role. Making her more than just a little sister. More than the girl who was left behind. More than the businesswoman in the suit. She’s got wit, cunning and an odd sense of humour that shine whenever whether she’s alone or sharing the screen. The same is true for her and Shang’s father, Wenwu.
Tony Leung’s Wenwu isn’t just the Big Bad; he is a whole person. He’s aware that he didn’t have much going on outside of his conquering ways before meeting his wife and that his actions weren’t righteous or good. A refreshing change of pace from the MCU’s obsession with moralistic antagonists.
Even his motivations in the movie aren’t for some higher cause or capitalistic gain. It’s simply because he’s a man who lost the love of his life. And as someone who’s got an unhealthy obsession with murderous men with good hearts, I cannot help but feel for him.
Earlier in the movie, Katy’s mother says that moving on from a loved one is a Western ideal, and she is right. Asian identity is very family and collective-centric, making Wenwu’s grief and yearning to unite his family more authentic, endearing and infuriating. You empathize with his desire for happiness. But his willingness to put the world and his kids at risk because of his inability to move on leaves you conflicted.
It’s not selfish per se but, there’s a possessive and vindictive quality there that really makes him a great antagonist. That being said, Wenwu isn’t the movie’s Final Boss. That title goes to The Soul Eater, which is underwhelming, to say the least.
The last act of the movie overall falls a little flat compared to the initial build-up. However, it has its high points, like the introduction of Michelle Yeoh’s Ying Nan, Shang-Chi and Xialing’s maternal aunt. Her martial arts lesson with Shang mirror his mother and father’s first encounter. Ying Nan is the picture of grace and wisdom; like his father, Shang is rigid, trying to bulldoze his way to victory. Once again, highlighting the work and care that went into the choreography of the fight scenes in the movie.
But in the final fight, it’s once again Xialing who stands out. Partially because she rides a dragon into battle, but mostly because of Simu’s performance as Shang-Chi seems to get lost in the sauce. The movie relies heavily on “know who you are, you are both good and bad, both your mother and father” to push Shang over the hill to make him the hero he has to be. Even then, it’s Xialing and Katy who get him there. It’s not necessarily bad because the movie and end credit scenes make it clear all three will play a major role in the MCU, but still.
The little things like that stop me from giving the movie a perfect score because I genuinely love it. The cinnamontography, the storytelling, the score are all beautiful. But, in the end, it floundered a little. It definitely redeems itself with the end credit scenes, though! They masterfully tie in Doctor Strange: Multiverse of Madness, The Marvels, and the Widows’ future. But I’m not about to give y’all spoilers! The Mouse might take me out for it, but make sure you stay in your seats till the very end.
I am upset that we aren’t getting some streaming release, though. Because many people, including myself, don’t feel safe going to theatres. This means the movie will be impacted but have no fear y’all. I have no doubts that Marvel sees the value in telling more stories like Shang-Chi. After all, BIPoC, especially Asian Americans, are the largest growing consumer market in North America, and they’re in the business of making money.
All in all, I give Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings a solid 8.5/10. It was a visually stunning and compelling film that took me for a fun ride into the future of the MCU. A future, which I’m happy to report, is embracing authenticity and more mature, substantial conversations.