Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
- Directed by: Destin Daniel Cretton
- Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Sci-Fi | PG-13 | 2 hr 12 min
- In Theaters
By Reed Ripley
An immortal crime lord, flying dragon guardians, soul-sucking demons from another dimension, and a henchman with a penchant for electro-sword appendages; these all appear prominently in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, but so too do complicated familial relationships and a strong emphasis on cultural heritage, and the film works primarily thanks to the latter group.
Shang-Chi tells the story of its titular hero played by Simu Liu in a star-making performance. Shang-Chi and his sister, Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) were raised by their father, Wenwu (Tony Leung), the 1000-year-old leader of international crime syndicate the Ten Rings, and his mother, Ying Li (Fala Chen), a member of an ancient village guarding a sealed door to a world-ending threat. After Li’s tragic death, Shang-Chi leaves his father and his quest for vengeance behind and settles down to a comfortable life in San Francisco. However, when Wenwu’s forces find Shang-Chi and his best friend, Katy (Awkwafina), Shang-Chi is forced to reckon with his past, reunite with the estranged Xialing, and stop his father from destroying not only the world, but also the family he once thought lost.
The most apparent and important aspect of this film is its Asian and Asian-American DNA, which is organically woven throughout, from the bumping soundtrack produced by Asian arts collective 88rising to its casting of legendary players from historical Hong Kong cinema (here’s looking at you, Yuen Wah). Pointedly, the film begins with nearly 15 straight minutes of dialogue exclusively in Mandarin Chinese, a strong move that places a significant amount of trust in its story and characters to convince American audiences it is worth reading subtitles. And it certainly is.
Highlighting an under-represented group in a major blockbuster is important alone, but it is even more impactful if it is done well, and Shang-Chi more than hits the mark. Essential to any well-crafted story is world-building, and not in the “mystical legendary rings” sense. Rather, it simply involves establishing the characters and the world they inhabit. An illustrative example: adorning the walls of Shang-Chi’s room in San Francisco are three movie posters, The Godfather, The Warriors, and Kung Fu Hustle. The characters don’t explicitly reference these because they don’t have to; the posters’ presence alone gives the audience background as to Shang-Chi’s cultural experience coming to America at a young age, establishes what kind of person he fashions himself as, and nods to films from which Shang-Chi draws direct inspiration. Likewise, later in the film, in Xialing’s room at her father’s compound, we see a collage of Asian pop culture art with an AC/DC poster sprinkled in the mix. Again, this tells us about Xialing’s cultural upbringing and hints at a subversive streak, all without dialogue. There’s a good chance most will not notice these details the first time around, but that’s not the point. The point is this kind of detail inhabits every scene and demonstrates the level of thought and intentionality necessary to elevate a film above the average Marvel entry.
World-building aside, Shang-Chi does not work without its core themes of coping with grief, managing parental expectations, and navigating complicated family dynamics, and all three flow through an excellent performance from Leung. Almost all the emotional weight of the film (the loss of Li and a family breaking apart in the aftermath) rests on his shoulders, and he nails it. That’s not to say any of these themes run particularly deep; for example, twice Awkwafina’s Katy attempts to directly confront Shang-Chi about these issues to no true resolution, and the only direct conversations Shang-Chi and his father have come amid a whirlwind of CGI and kicks. This being a Marvel movie, and an origin story at that, there’s simply not enough room in the script. However, the writing and Leung’s performance are enough to carry the through lines, and it helps keep the film grounded.
This film would also not work nearly as well without its fight scenes’ execution, primarily those grounded in close quarters martial arts combat, which is not surprising given the film is centered on ostensibly the greatest martial arts master in the Marvel universe. This is where the decision to cast Liu truly shines; although some of his line-reading is decidedly stiff, his fighting leaps off the screen, especially in a one-on-four bus fight scene within the first handful of scenes. Liu performed most of his own stunts, and his physicality imbues the film’s action sequences with a grace and intensity that shares much more in common with classic kung fu cinema than prior Marvel entries.
To be sure, the film suffers from many of the same issues traditionally plaguing Marvel movies. The second half drags, as it sacrifices much of the wonderful earlier character work and intimate fighting choreography at the altar of comic-booky plot development and CGI punch-‘em-up fights (although, for those who care about such things, those sequences work, too). Additionally, there are several character appearances and specific callbacks to other Marvel properties that may be distracting to audiences unfamiliar with established canon. That’s the nature of the beast, and very few films escape the hallmark trappings of the Marvel machine.
Limitations aside, this film is a wonderful addition not only to the Marvel line, but also to film in general. It’s an example of an under told story in the hands of capable filmmakers, and the industry would do well to take note.