Courtesy of Marvel Studios
As the Marvel Cinematic Universe pushes forward with their Phase 4 lineup, starting off with the more familiar in the recently released Black Widow movie, fans – both old and new – will see the MCU diving into comic-book content from the Bronze Age era of comics. This time period in the ’70s brought a boom of minority superheroes, many of which were thought to be Marvel Comics’ attempts to cash in on the popularity of Kung Fu movies at the time. This, of course, led to the creation of the character Shang-Chi, who is now the latest character to get the MCU treatment. While the character is not as well known to comic book readers, SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS serves as a strong, memorable origin story for the character. It should not be missed by fans of the MCU.

The film stars Simu Liu as Shang-Chi/Shawn also stars Tony Leung as Wenwu, Awkwafina as Shang-Chi’s friend Katy and Michelle Yeoh as Jiang Nan, as well as Fala Chen, Meng’er Zhang, Florian Munteanu, and Ronny Chieng. SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS is directed by Destin Daniel Cretton. Cretton co-wrote the script with Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham, based on characters created by Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin.

SHANG-CHI starts off with the introduction to the legend of the titular ten rings and Wenwu Xu (Tony Leung), a powerful ageless warrior bent on conquering everything in his wake. With the ten rings in his possession, he builds a giant criminal empire. But something is missing for Wenwu. Sometime during the ’90s, Wenwu goes on a search for the elusive village of Ta Lo to gain further knowledge and power. However, he is defeated soundly by the mysterious Ying Li (Fala Chen) in a beautifully choreographed wuxia sequence. Of course, Wenwu falls in love with Ying Li, and it is not long before they are married and have children – Shang-Chi and Xialing.

Jumping forward, we are taken to a post-blip San Francisco, where the events from End Game are touched upon subtly. Here we are introduced to a grown-up Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), now referring to himself as Shawn (which brings its own level of humor later on in the film), working as a valet alongside his friend, Katy (Awkwafina). Both are muddling through life until one day, on their way to work, Shang-Chi has to defend himself from his father’s henchmen, with the memorable Razor Fist (Florian Munteanu) taking the lead. This fight, and its subsequence conclusion, sets the ball rolling for Shang-Chi’s journey of self-discovery as he now must find his estranged sister (Meng’er Zhang) to protect her from whatever his father might have planned. But, what starts off as one simple mission turns into multiple, and throughout the course of all of this, Shang-Chi must step up and decide whether or not he will continue to reject all parts of his true self or finally come to terms with his demons.

Wenwu (Tony Leung) and Ying Li (Fala Chen)

SHANG-CHI is arguably one of the strongest MCU origin films to date. It combines everything that has been learned over the past decade in the MCU in terms of the formula, and finds new ways to inject something memorable to make it feel fresh. Storywise, it’s a deconstruction of the hero’s journey, shifting the narrative around to provide breadcrumbs for the audience. Of particular note is the fact that the character of Shang-Chi created for the screen is multi-layered and, as we continue to move forward in the story, so much is gained with each peeled layer. Not the typical hero audiences have come to get used to in the MCU, it’ll be difficult for viewers not to get invested in Shang-Chi by film’s end.

While the reformatted structure of the hero’s journey plays a huge part in hooking viewers in, Simu Liu’s portrayal of Shang-Chi will keep the viewer glued. Some may argue he lacks the overt charisma required of a superhero character, but I’d argue his natural likability and ease with comedic timing shine onscreen. Seriously, his pairing with Awkwafina is like lightning in a bottle. They flow so well together. The investment he has made in executing the action sequences onscreen is apparent as well. While Liu’s Shang-Chi is lighter in tone in the first half of the film, there’s a subtlety of darkness that flickers as we learn more about the character’s upbringing. It’s in these moments of vulnerability as well as darkness that ultimately sells the full package. And, ultimately, it will leave viewers wondering what he’ll deliver next.

For Western viewers unfamiliar with Tony Leung’s work (which his work is amazing and I have to recommend In The Mood for Love as a starting point), they’ll hopefully fall in love with his skill in SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS. His turn as Wenwu is full of subtleties, crafting a villain that both lures you in and terrifies. Wenwu is a man crumbling under the weight of grief, knowing he has everything to lose and Leung plays every single note of this arc to perfection. Speaking of arcs, one major player that I hope viewers will take away with them is Meng’er Zhang. Her portrayal of Xialing is dynamic and will capture the hearts of fans everywhere. She easily commands the screen, making much use of her time. With her character’s arc, there is plenty for Zhang to capture emotionally and she does so quite successfully.

Michelle Yeoh, who is a legend separate from Tony Leung, isn’t given as much to do as Shang-Chi’s aunt. However, the quiet strength and knowledge that oozes from her presence onscreen is palatable. Ronnie Chieng’s presence in the film may also be brief, but he is absolutely hilarious. Again, highlighting how easily Simu Liu and Awkwafina work well together with comedic back-and-forths, they too work well with Chieng. Ben Kingsley returns as the hilarious Trevor Slattery, bringing The Mandarin arc full circle with his character’s inclusion in the film.  An unexpected surprise when watching, his comedic moments provided a nice distraction from the more serious second half of the film.

(L-R): Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) and Katy (Awkwafina)

The character of Shang-Chi is known for being the Master of Kung Fu in the comics so, of course, the action sequences have to be top-notch. And, let me tell you, the fights don’t disappoint. Homages to Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan can be found in some of the fight sequences. Fight Coordinator Andy Cheng and supervising stunt coordinator, the late Brad Allen, both collaborated and worked with Jackie Chan on various films previously, so the influence of Jackie Chan’s stunts can be picked up in several scenes. There’s a moment that has since gone viral, where Shang-Chi uses his coat as a weapon before putting it back on that reminds me of a similar sequence in Rumble in the Bronx. While there may be some who find the fights themselves to be longer than required, I’d argue that it showcases the fighting prowess of Shang-Chi, Xialing, and Wenwu respectfully. Much needed given what viewers learn about their background in the film.

The VFX used in SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS reads smoother than what was seen in Black Widow, but the third act does suffer a bit from the overuse of CGI. Granted, once again MCU viewers will be transported to another realm known as Ta Lo, which features creatures that require CGI to bring them to life (some terrifyingly to life). Seriously, these creatures will mostly win over your heart. Parents with small children, though, be warned. There are major creatures introduced that will provide scary moments for your kids. Think Eldritch in nature. As has become the staple for Marvel movies, the final showdown features heavy usage of CGI and other VFX which, at times during the sequence, doesn’t transition as well as needed for the scene. However, it should be noted how far this tech has come since the beginning of the MCU, especially given the devil’s load required for providing VFX for something of this ambition and scale.

Props do need to go out to Sarah Finn for the impeccable casting of the film. Of the core cast, everyone meshes well together in terms of performance and flow. For a film like this and the stakes presented against it, something like casting could make or break it. Great job! The production design from Sue Chan and Clint Wallace help provide that global reach that SHANG-CHI requires, especially with the far insidious reach of the Ten Rings organization featured in the film.  The transition from San Francisco to Macau to the Ten Rings stronghold and, ultimately, Ta Lo is smooth, yet each location rings out distinctly in look, feel, and texture. Kim Barrett’s costume designs are a highlight, but of particular note is the continuity of the MCU design aesthetic being most apparent once viewers get to Ta Lo.

Given Director Destin Daniel Cretton’s earlier work, SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS is a pleasant surprise. There’s a lot riding on this film and – honestly – it’s a strong MCU film. Simi Liu’s portrayal of Shang-Chi is likable, relatable, and complex. Viewers will want more as the credits roll. No matter the scene partner, his natural skill and connection shine onscreen. The way the story is constructed, there’s a mystery to unfold that will provide much for the viewer to chew on. For an MCU origin story, that’s the kind of freshness and curiosity needed to keep breathing life and interest into this Cinematic Universe. Overall, SHANG-CHI is fresh and exciting, with an incredibly likable, yet complex hero. It’ll keep viewers on their toes, and will spark interest for many to see what all is in store as we keep pushing forward into this next phase of the MCU.

Experience the mystery of SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS when it arrives only in theaters on September 3.

Sarah Musnicky
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