The best MCU movies step out of the franchise’s comfort zone. That might be why origin stories usually aren’t the top-tier ones. The first Thor, Ant-Man, and Doctor Strange movies were all fun, but Iron Man laid out a basic backstory blueprint that we’ve been following for over a decade now. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings hits a few familiar beats while venturing into the experimental territory usually reserved for the sequel. Shang-Chi again defies the preconceived notion that every MCU movie is the same. Diving headfirst into the martial arts and Kung fu genres, Shang-Chi at times feels less like an MCU movie and more like a Jackie Chan or Jet Li picture. When Marvel’s signatures do crop out, though, they never feel out of place.
Simu Liu previously played a sexy garbage boy in Awkwafina Is Nora from Queens. Liu and Awkwafina reunite as Shaun and Katy, two best friends coasting through life in San Francisco. Shaun hasn’t been entirely honest with Katie, however. For starters, his name is actually Shang-Chi, a seasoned martial artist and son of the Mandarin. No, not Trevor Slattery, although Ben Kingsley does appear in one of the film’s funniest callbacks. Tony Leung is the Mandarin, Wenwu, who commands the mysterious Ten Rings organization with an iron fist… no, not that Iron Fist.
Defying his father’s desire to become an assassin, Shang-Chi fled to the U.S. at a young age. His past finally catches up to him in an expertly choreographed bus chase that combines elements of Speed and Police Story. Shang-Chi is forced to return home and confront his father. Katie, who’s high on wit but lacking in combat skills, insists on accompanying Shang-Chi. Their dynamic is perhaps the film’s most engaging element. Shang-Chi says early on that the two are just friends, and their relationship status doesn’t shift throughout the film. We rarely see opposite-sex friendships explored in mainstream films, but Shang-Chi refreshingly keeps things platonic. If Shang-Chi and Katie do get together down the line, though, it certainly wouldn’t be unwelcomed. Their chemistry is a two-way street.
The Mandarin is another breath of fresh air. Wenwu finally delivers the intimidating foe we were promised in Iron Man 3while also giving us something more. He’s a surprisingly sympathetic antagonist driven by love and grief. Like Darth Vader, you can see him going full dark side, but the possibility of redemption isn’t off the table. Wenwu stands out as one of the most complex MCU supervillains, and Tony Leung’s performance only adds more layers.
Liu is charming as Shang-Chi, playing him as a humble underdog who fights only went provoked. The film’s true badass, however, is Meng’er Zhang as Xialing, our hero’s estranged sister. In her film debut, Zhang hits the ground running as an underground fighter who builds an empire. Zhang plays the role with a no-nonsense demeanor, but still has a sense of humor. Hopefully, we won’t have to wait eleven years for her to get a solo movie.
Director Destin Daniel Cretton’s previous films include the indie triumph Short Term 12 and the legal drama Just Mercy. He makes an impressive foray into blockbusters with a mix of physical combat and atmospheric CGI. The only action sequence that’s kind of disappointing is the climax, which certainly has its awe-inspiring moments. For whatever reason, though, Cretton clouds much of the action in darkness. For a set piece that throws a lot at you, it’d be nice to see every spectacle on display. This isn’t an early DCEU film.
The occasional exposition dump can drag the pacing down. Unlike Jupiter Ascending, however, the characters are so appealing that you’ll accept a longwinded speech here and there. In an age where Hollywood is trying to seem more diverse, a lot of blockbusters enlist a diverse cast without giving them strong roles to work with. Shang-Chi is the first MCU movie to center on an Asian lead. That’s a milestone, but the strength of the characters is why people will remember Shang-Chi years from now.