Written by Dave Callaham, Andrew Lanham, and Destin Daniel Cretton, and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, “Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings” is Marvel Studio’s first foray into the world of Martial Arts, Wuxia, and all the Kung Fu you can handle. After the conclusion of “Avengers: Endgame” Marvel needed to wow us with their latest new Superhero- and Shang-Chi more than accomplishes that. By leaning into every possible Chinese and Asian-American inspirational genre and medium of culture the filmmakers could conjure up, it really sets this film apart from the rest of the Cinematic Universe. Though while there were several tie-ins to the broader world, it never felt too encroaching or out of place in this film. Throughout the runtime I had moments during which I thought to myself, “Wow, this is like a live-action side-scroller beat ’em up video game” or “Wow, they really went for the gold with the Wuxia stuff” or “Oh My god, what is that? A Pokemon?!” and finally “Am I just straight up watching a Live-action Studio Ghibli movie right now?“. Now, granted, I’m not saying that this film transcends any of those inspirations mentioned, but it does do an excellent job of making itself unique enough, while visually referencing those well known touchstones. The most exciting aspect of this film is that while you can still see the formulaic structure of the MCU at times- it’s the moments, beats, and scenes that break away from the mold that feel fresh and electric. The best thing I can say about a movie where the lead character is a Master of Martial Arts, is that the fights, and star Simu Liu himself, are outstanding!
So, what’s the story about anyways? Mostly, it’s the tale of a strained Father-Son relationship, though that does leave out a lot of the details. We pick up the tale in San Francisco, where Shang-Chi has been living for a decade after an escape from the grasp of his father’s reach. He works as Valet Driver with his friend Katy (Awkwafina), and they actually really seem to enjoy their job. In fact, during the first act these two showcase a friendship and lifestyle that’s easily the most relatable and realistic in perhaps all of the MCU so far. After a few long nights fueled by alcohol and Karaoke, they’re rudely awakened by the plot when Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung), better known to comic-book readers as The Mandarin, sends a strike team of Ten Rings assassins to San Francisco. This kickstarts the most memorable fight scene of the movie in which Shang-Chi takes on all fighters on a city bus. The choreography is slick, kinetic, and every punch, counter, and kick feels powerful when they land and equally nerve wracking when death blows are nearly missed. This is the energy that fuels the newness of this film, and future filmmakers that utilize Simu Liu would do well to remember what worked in this film, and why. While that aspect of the film is exciting and entertaining, the character work done with Shang-Chi, and Wenwu specifically, are a step above your average superhero flick. Yes, it’s the age old theme of the cruel Father and wayward Son- but the layers given to both make the spectacle of the third act a backseat to the emotionally resonant dynamic relationship between Hero and Villain. It’s no surprise that an actor of Tony Leung’s caliber could inhabit such a good villain- what is a surprise is just how comic-book accurate the Mandarin is, and how the filmmakers utilized him.
Xu Wenwu is the driving force of the plot. Which rings true based on the opening sequence of the film detailing his thousand year past and how the Ten Rings organization have changed the course of history from behind the shadows for a millennia. Here The Mandarin, isn’t just a villain that makes good on his threats- he’s also someone that fell in love and tried to challenge his own past for the sake of his family borne out of that love. It’s a kernel of the greater world that’s built upon in this film. I won’t ruin all the secrets this film has to offer, but trust me, they crafted an excellent version of the Mandarin with this film, and it’s all the greater for all the nuances and depth they gave him. In fact this is one of the most well-rounded casts of the MCU so far, the legendary Michelle Yeoh even graces the film as Shang-Chi’s Aunt Ying Nan! Everyone is on point, there’s no cringe factor in sight, and we even get a couple of fun cameos. Though, admittedly, speaking of being on point- I have to mention that Bill Pope is the cinematographer for this film. If you don’t know the name, you likely know at least one of the movies he’s worked on. Bill Pope has been the cinematographer for such films as “The World’s End”, “Baby Driver”, All three “Matrix” movies, “Army of Darkness”, “Spider-Man 2”, and “Team America: World Police” to name a few. There were many moments during the film where the camera movements, angles, and sense of movement all felt fresh and unique to the cinematic universe, and I have a feeling Bill Pope was intimately involved in a lot of those sensory scenes. There’s definitely some time in the film where it has “The Marvel look” and I get that they want to keep things somewhat similar across all films, but I’m glad they gave Pope room to breath and explore more so than maybe some of the other cinematographers in the past were allowed? They would do well to hire big name cinematographers like Pope, and let them experiment with the look of these films. If there’s ever going to be the much ballyhooed “Superhero Fatigue” we keep hearing about, the visual drudgery of the MCU will probably be part of that process.
“Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings” was the shot of adrenaline that the Marvel Cinematic Universe needed, and will continue to need in the future. If the Superhero monolith continues to takes risks and invest in new characters and stories with this level of detail and fun, then it’ll be a future worth going to the movies to see. Obviously, highly recommended.
Final Score: 1 Morris