NOTE: “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is currently available to view in theatres here in North America, and elsewhere in the world wherever theatres are permitted to be open. When possible, we recommend that anyone without a full COVID-19 vaccination watch movies at home for the duration of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, for the safety of yourself and others. In the event that you do attend a movie theatre over the course of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic however, please consult and follow public health guidelines in your region, and do not attend movie theatres if you feel unwell, or have been potentially exposed to COVID-19 through a known positive case.
FOR REFERENCE: This review of, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is based on a theatrical viewing.
A little known fact about the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that its earliest movies were originally supposed to include another, lesser-known superhero franchise. Martial arts-themed superhero, Shang-Chi, despite formerly being rather obscure in the public consciousness, was originally being kicked around as a ‘Phase One’ MCU project in the lead-up to 2012’s The Avengers, supposedly being a particular passion project of Marvel’s CCO and Marvel Studios boss, Kevin Feige. Even before the MCU manifested, failed Shang-Chi movie pitches were a frequent occurrence out of Marvel, dating all the way back to a Brandon Lee-fronted live-action Shang-Chi adaptation pitched by Stan Lee himself during the 1980’s! Dreamworks also tried their hand at a standalone Shang-Chi movie during the early 2000’s to boot, one that almost joined the early standalone Marvel movie catalogue of Wesley Snipes’ Blade and Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man, though this project also fell apart, eventually resulting in Shang-Chi’s movie rights returning to Marvel.
It may have taken several decades of development hell, but thanks to the MCU’s latest movie, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the eponymous Shang-Chi is finally being given a chance to shine in the live-action movie space, and shine he has! Despite shirking an opportunity to simultaneously debut on home viewing via Disney+, like the MCU’s previous movie, Black Widow ultimately did, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings has shattered theatrical box office records in the post-COVID-19 era, topping the global box office throughout all of September, pandemic be damned. It’s no wonder why as well, considering that the movie is a flashy, fast-paced action blockbuster headlined by a promising new MCU hero, one that presents a tighter, more rewarding storyline that stands as an improvement over the good-but-not-great Black Widow.
Better still is that Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is built around an almost entirely Asian cast, complete with a heavy focus on AAPI sensibilities and culture. That’s an especially important endeavour when you consider that the MCU has not really done right by AAPI characters during its early years especially. Sure, some of Marvel’s established Asian personalities, such as Benedict Wong’s Wong and Randall Park’s Jimmy Woo, have managed to find significant, empowered roles in the MCU so far, but it’s nonetheless apparent that AAPI representation is pretty lacking throughout the MCU’s current history. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings takes great strides when it comes to rectifying that, even though it also feels apparent that the movie is blatantly chasing the massive success of Black Panther, another minority-headlined MCU blockbuster that was so culturally significant and well-realized that it won multiple Oscars!
To be frank, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings isn’t quite as good as Black Panther. It doesn’t manage to achieve that same level of power or novelty that made Black Panther such a groundbreaking production. That being said however, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is still a great MCU blockbuster on its own merits, and it still manages to leverage its AAPI-fronted cast and direction very well, with polish to spare!
Though audiences outside of the Marvel fandom probably won’t recognize Shang-Chi from his Marvel Comics legacy, Shang-Chi’s backstory is certainly one that’s not unusual to modern blockbusters. Living in San Francisco under the assumed identity of Shaun Xu, not long after the events of ‘The Blip’ from Avengers: Endgame’s climax, Shang-Chi, played by Asian-Canadian actor, Simu Liu (you may recognize him from popular Canadian sitcom, Kim’s Convenience), is trying to figure out an independent existence as a valet, free of his domineering father, Wenwu, played by highly celebrated Hong Kong actor, Tony Leung. The story of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings fully kicks into motion when Wenwu finally intrudes on Shang-Chi’s adult life in his mid-20’s, having granted him ten years to live a life of Shang-Chi’s own accord, before Shang-Chi is expected to return and become the heir to Wenwu’s group of warriors, The Ten Rings, a familiar faction for longtime MCU followers.
Liu’s Shang-Chi may be a lovable lead presence, balancing an affectionate awkwardness with a surprisingly lethal fighting ability, but predictably, it’s Leung that often steals Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings with his outstanding performance as Wenwu, another surprisingly awesome MCU villain. Wenwu is a bit of a walk to explain, so bear with me. He’s a heavily re-tooled MCU pastiche between Shang-Chi’s father figures from Marvel Comics lore, the original, not-so-comfortable 1960’s sorcerer, Fu Manchu (obviously, that openly racist character is not going to fly with modern audiences!), and his more appropriate modern rendition, Zheng Zu, considered to be the true arch-nemesis of Shang-Chi in the printed panels. Most importantly to Marvel fans and MCU enthusiasts however is that Wenwu is also the legendary ‘Mandarin’ of the MCU, the mythical figure that Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian exploited the legacy of and ‘faked’ as a terrorist threat to cover up his failed experiments in Iron Man 3, in one of the MCU’s most controversial plot twists, even years later.
The Mandarin’s legacy at Marvel is a complicated one, and bringing the character to the MCU in earnest has proven to be a huge challenge for Disney and Marvel Studios, one that Tony Leung has somehow made to appear easy. Despite being the arch-nemesis of Marvel Comics’ Iron Man since the character’s origins in the 1960’s, with the MCU’s former Iron Man movies instead opting to make the Mandarin’s forces a more indirect obstacle to the late Tony Stark, rather than featuring the arch-villain in the flesh, it’s tough to escape the Mandarin’s own problematic Asian character history. The villain is very beloved among Marvel fans, and he’s one of the most influential and powerful baddies in the Marvel Universe, even beyond Iron Man’s affairs, though he’s also an obvious caricature of 1960’s-era Communist panic. Portraying the character of the Mandarin faithfully to his comic book counterpart means creating a very unflattering portrayal of an Asian personality, which is no doubt why the MCU has previously tried to skirt around a ‘proper’ Mandarin appearance in the Iron Man movies, despite the outcry from Marvel fans.
Surprisingly though, Iron Man being killed off in Avengers: Endgame ironically opened the door for the Mandarin to finally arrive in the MCU, without the smoke and mirrors. Now that the character can cast off any obligation to square off against Iron Man, a connection that can’t be logically established in MCU lore, he can instead be re-tooled as a more believable and appropriate enemy of Shang-Chi. The Mandarin may not be Shang-Chi’s father in other Marvel media, but the new immediate family connection between these characters fits like a glove in the MCU, with Wenwu able to slot into the role of both the MCU’s Mandarin and Zheng Zu pretty much perfectly.
This strained father/son dynamic between Shang-Chi and Wenwu runs at the core of the drama throughout Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Liu’s affable, directionless slacker plays wonderfully off of Leung’s steely, hyper-imposing immortal, a man that’s lived for thousands of years while shaping the perfect empire of assassins and terrorists, including the very same terrorists that originally abducted Tony Stark, and catalyzed his transformation into Iron Man during the very beginning of the MCU in 2008’s Iron Man. Yes, Wenwu’s hidden MCU legacy runs that deep, and where it will catch you off-guard is through how surprisingly complex and sympathetic the character truly is. Leung’s ‘true’ Mandarin is many things; An immortal warrior, a father, a grieving lover, a ruthless killer, and a purveyor of mystical secrets, among other roles. Somehow, Leung embodies all of these roles with aplomb, creating an unpredictable, yet coldly honourable warlord that quickly takes his place alongside Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger and Josh Brolin’s Thanos as one of the best villains featured in Marvel’s shared live-action universe to date!
The other major personalities of note in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings are the women that are eventually caught in the compelling orbit of Shang-Chi’s and Wenwu’s conflicts. These include Shang-Chi’s estranged sister, Xialing, played by Meng’er Zhang, Shang-Chi’s best friend and fellow valet, Katy, played by Awkwafina, and Michelle Yeoh’s mysterious mentor character, Ying Nan (interestingly, Yeoh previously portrayed a separate MCU character, Aleta Ogord in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2), who bears her own complicated backstory with Wenwu. The female parts in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings aren’t nearly as fleshed out as those carried by Liu and Leung though, which will probably rub some people the wrong way, even if some unexpected twists are at least attempted with Katy and Xialing in the third act.
In the end though, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is very much a showcase for Liu and Leung most of all. Even some of the established Shang-Chi villains of Marvel Comics lore that are on Wenwu’s payroll, including Florian Munteanu’s Razor Fist and Andy Le’s Death Dealer, mostly function as quiet muscle for a character that effortlessly carries the villainous heavy lifting on his own. Razor Fist and Death Dealer do at least help boost some impressive fight sequences though, with Razor Fist in particular punctuating the best San Francisco chase sequence since the MCU’s last best San Francisco chase sequence in Ant-Man and the Wasp. One can’t help but hope for slightly more balanced characterization in the inevitable sequel, but the initial character foundation that’s established in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings still manages to both wonderfully pay off a longstanding MCU Mandarin tease, and help Shang-Chi find the perfect opponent for his grand live-action debut.
Like many MCU movies, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings keeps the majority of its plot details close to the vest throughout its marketing, and thrives on viewers not initially having much of an idea about how it will progress. At its heart, the movie is a father/son story with a fantastical MCU flavour, and a distinct new martial arts-themed direction. Said story takes its eponymous character from the mundane to the magical, on a quest to unearth a millennia-spanning legacy about where he comes from, and where his destiny is meant to take him. In layman’s terms, yes, it’s a franchise starter and a superhero origin story, the latest ever-faithful building block for the MCU, but its unique Asian influences still help Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings stand out, albeit just barely from a narrative standpoint.
I can’t speak much about the plot behind Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings without some significant spoilers, because it really is a thrill-a-minute action spectacle. I will say that the movie is well-paced, adventurous and goes to many interesting places though, continuing to flesh out new corners of the MCU that present yet more exciting and unpredictable threats for the present and the future. In that respect, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings sticks to that evergreen MCU origin story formula, but that formula does still work, and it does still manage to be a lot of fun. There really is a solid amount of imagination put into the wilder locations and lore behind Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings as well, and while the story never manages to climb to Black Panther levels of experimental and cool, it comes within spitting distance, and that’s pretty damn respectable.
(NOTE: The ‘Spoiler’ section, when clicked, discusses whether Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings has any post-credits scenes, whether it features any additional Marvel character roles of note, and whether it ties into any known future projects in the MCU.)
The second post-credits scene meanwhile is simpler in nature. This scene depicts Shang-Chi’s sister, Xialing taking control of Wenwu’s Ten Rings organization, before another ominous warning confirms that, “The Ten Rings Will Return.” At this point, it’s unknown where or how The Ten Rings will resurface again, but the faction will nonetheless remain an active force in the MCU by the look of things. Whether The Ten Rings ultimately become a force for good or evil under Xialing’s leadership remains to be seen though.
Beyond the brief cameos by Bruce Banner and Captain Marvel during the first post-credits scene, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings also features a few unexpected familiar faces from MCU lore and Marvel lore in general, including the aforementioned Wong. Wong actually shows up in the movie proper at one point, being revealed as a fight club trainer for Emil Blonsky/Abomination, the long-lost surviving villain from 2008’s The Incredible Hulk! At long last, Abomination has re-appeared in the MCU after over a decade of being AWOL, and he’s apparently become part of a fight club that Xialing is affiliated with. Perhaps most interesting for Marvel Comics fans however is that the climax of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings features an eldritch Marvel villain, the Dweller-in-Darkness, a demon and ‘Fear Lord’ that normally serves as an enemy of Doctor Strange. While Doctor Strange himself doesn’t appear in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the presence of a Fear Lord that tempts Wenwu through his rings could be a subtle tease for next year’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, which is rumoured to feature another Fear Lord, Nightmare, as its main antagonist.
Destin Daniel Cretton, best known for his dramatic work helming 2017’s The Glass Castle and 2019’s Just Mercy, becomes the latest indie-minded director to graduate to the big leagues of MCU blockbusters with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. As is common with the MCU’s frequently experimental, but almost universally successful director hiring as well, Cretton’s direction is absolutely sublime, especially on the visual end!
Cretton stretches the MCU’s style to yet more interesting new territory by helming Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings in the style of an Asian martial arts blockbuster, as if it were a Marvel-licensed Bruce Lee or Donnie Yen vehicle. This leads to a lot of blisteringly fast choreography with no quick cuts, and an astonishing amount of smoothness and polish. The direction throughout Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings absolutely explodes with energy, and it can often feel very breathless, in a good way! Even so, Cretton manages just as skillful a directing hand during the quieter, character-driven moments, easily hitting another MCU mandate of balancing surprisingly cheeky humour with nonetheless potent character drama. Even as it deliberately evokes directing sensibilities from the East, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings still carries that recognizable MCU flavour, making it really shine as a union between the best of Western blockbuster filmmaking and the best of Eastern blockbuster filmmaking.
The only notable shortcoming in Cretton’s direction here is that his obvious ambitions to create an AAPI-oriented answer to Black Panther do come up a little bit shy at times. This isn’t entirely Cretton’s fault, in fairness, since Hollywood’s recent obsession with chasing the Chinese box office means that there’s less inherent novelty to Asian filmmaking tropes, in contrast to the groundbreaking afrofuturist tropes that had Black Panther turning so many heads in 2018. Cretton also appears to somewhat lose his careful directing hand by Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ climax to boot, which becomes a scattered, CGI-laden mess that would have been better off functioning on a slightly smaller scale.
Of course, this isn’t to say that Cretton fails when it comes to strengthening AAPI representation in the MCU. Cretton undoes a lot of the MCU’s former failings against the AAPI community thanks to Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ rich characterization and polished, highly exciting presentation. As much as some Asian filmmaking tropes do feel a bit familiar here, the less ideal, more harmful stereotypes that can sometimes pervade other Hollywood movies when it comes to AAPI characters are not at all present. That’s one way that Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings does manage to mostly stand with Black Panther in fact; Its ability to reframe a frequently misunderstood minority culture under a more progressive and inclusive lens. The novelty behind these progressive ideas may not be on the level of Black Panther, but Cretton nonetheless sets the foundation for a very promising, AAPI-fueled MCU franchise with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and it’s easy to get excited about what’s next for it.
The musical suite of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is composed by frequent Destin Daniel Cretton collaborator, Joel P. West. West may be a rather obscure composer at this point, but his soundtracks have frequently managed to stand out throughout Cretton’s filmography, with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings representing some of West’s best work to date. Unsurprisingly, the movie’s soundtrack is packed to the gills with authentic AAPI-inspired instrumentation, which is paired with a modern, hip-hop-esque flavour, nicely reflecting the story’s overall plight of Shang-Chi being torn between two very different worlds. Even beyond thematic examination though, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings packs in a standout musical score that kicks ass on its own merits, complete with not one but four tie-in singles to call its own, even if the instrumental scoring tends to be where the movie’s music is at its strongest.
It should also come as no surprise that Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a highly-energized audio powerhouse throughout its fight scenes especially, something that’s very important within a movie that blends martial arts and fantasy elements. The outstanding visual direction behind every action scene in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is complemented further by its hard-hitting sound mixing, sound mixing that also happens to be surprisingly gentle during more ethereal, fantasy-driven sequences. The entire movie presents an ambitious cocktail of audio templates that could have very easily become unbalanced in lesser hands, though fortunately, its blend between old-world charm and modern, youthful brashness positively soars throughout its runtime!
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a visually ambitious, frequently gorgeous MCU spectacle, but that should hardly be news by this point. As much as the movie’s more colourful, fantastical elements crackle with plenty of MCU-flavoured flash as well, it’s the handmade visual choreography that really manages to impress here. Oh sure, there are plenty of sequences that incorporate magic and mystical creatures, sequences that give Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings a potent air of exotic fantasy, but they’re merely window dressing over a movie that’s nonetheless loaded with surprisingly speedy, close-quarters action scenes.
Even when some of the shakier CGI can stretch the bounds of believability to a fault, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ outstanding choreography and presentation consistently redeems it. Many action blockbusters of this ilk are filled with visual cheats, but Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings goes all in on tight, blistering action, featuring lengthy, uninterrupted fight scenes that will constantly have your heart racing. The fact that everything is so easy to follow and make out is all the better, with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings somehow never losing audiences in all of its hard-hitting mayhem, while still trusting viewers to keep up with some of the finest action choreography that the MCU has delivered to date, and that’s saying a lot!
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings isn’t the next Black Panther, and it probably won’t take home any Oscars. It is however a very worthy addition to the MCU that kicks off a very promising new franchise, one that’s finally set to rectify the MCU’s previously problematic AAPI representation.
Fortunately, even putting aside its cultural reverence toward Asian communities, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings still thrives as an action-packed, beautifully-directed martial arts spectacle. It features some of the best stunts and action choreography that the MCU has delivered to date, while also somehow managing to satisfyingly pay off over a decade of foreshadowing surrounding its extraordinary antagonist. Indeed, as much as this movie merely marks the beginning of Shang-Chi’s epic story in the MCU, it’s Tony Leung’s main antagonist, Wenwu that really steals the show here, bringing an astonishing amount of depth, menace and love in equal measure to another of the MCU’s best villains.
Not all of its outstanding ambitions may be fully realized, but Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings still achieves more than enough to stand as one of the most enjoyable and impressive movies of 2021. It’s scheduled to premiere on Disney+ in November, but the experience really is best on the big screen if you can safely make the trip, especially when it feels like this first Shang-Chi movie is barely scratching the surface of the exotic martial arts fantasy realm that it’s newly uncovered.
- Excellently frenetic action choreography
- Tony Leung's outstanding villain portrayal
- Imaginative scenarios that vastly improve the MCU's Asian representation
- CGI-heavy climax can be a bit clumsy
- Female parts could have used more fleshing out