by Christian Asdourian
December 17, 2021
Back in April when the first Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) trailer was released, my initial impression was that the movie was being set up to fail. How could a street-level martial arts movie compare to the massive scale of Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Endgame (2019)? Fast forward five months, and I’m walking out of the cinema thinking, “Wow, I’ve never been so wrong in my life.” After rewatching it recently, my love for this film was only reaffirmed. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a masterpiece that beautifully melds action, comedy, and a genuine sense of adventure. More importantly than that, however, it manages to cultivate a unique identity in the vast and ever-growing Marvel mythos.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, who is credited with pioneering Asian representation in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). He draws on the rich history of Chinese culture to tell a compelling story about family. Our leading character is Shaun, or more accurately Shang-Chi, who is played by Simu Liu. I remember that in the weeks leading up to the film’s release in theatres, the press surrounding the movie wasn’t very strong. Liu saw this oversight and decided to raise awareness and excitement for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings himself using his platform on social media. You could tell that he was very passionate about this film, and you can see that throughout all of his scenes. The supporting cast also brought their A-game to provide captivating performances. Awkwafina plays Katy, who is the comedic heart of the movie. She gets dragged into Shang-Chi’s past life as a human weapon and learns about his complicated family drama. Speaking of family, Meng’er Zhang plays Xialing, Shang-Chi’s younger sister, who makes a life for herself out of nothing after she was abandoned. I won’t go any deeper into her character because of spoilers, but her unique fighting style and cool presence makes a terrific foil to Shang-Chi’s warmness. And of course, I absolutely have to mention Xu Wenwu, known as the Mandarin, who is played by veteran actor Tony Leung Chiu-wai. Personally, I think that Wenwu is the strongest character in this movie and definitely one of the best villains we’ve seen in the MCU.
The plot begins when Wenwu forces his children, Shang-Chi and Xialing, to return home with him. From there, we learn about how the relationships between family members fell apart, which contextualizes the inevitable confrontation between father and child. From there on is spoiler territory, so I have to be vague with my descriptions. The final act takes place in a visually unique and stunning setting, where the true colors of every major character are revealed.
Here I’ll cover the few dislikes I had with the movie, and I’ll be using details that might spoil key parts about the plot. I think more could have been done with Xialing’s arc over the course of the movie. She had a strong introduction, but that momentum sort of falters in the second act, where she should have had more character moments to show the deeper parts of her character. I’m glad she’s able to reconcile with Shang-Chi in the climax of the movie, which completes her arc. The film also leaves the door open for Xialing’s next major phase, which will hopefully be explored more thoroughly in a confirmed spin-off series. My other major grievance is that in the final act of the movie, the unique identity of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings falters and feels like just another Marvel movie. I won’t get into too much detail, but another world-ending threat with a large-scale but impersonal battle feels out of place in this film. It doesn’t bother me too much, however, since the filmmakers and actors are able to masterfully weave the theme of family into the finale while still giving a satisfying resolution to the dysfunctional dynamic of Shang-Chi’s family.
There is a lot to love about this film, and I doubt I can get into all of it with the amount of detail that it deserves, so I’ll stick to the major points. The action in this movie is so well-choreographed and put together that it makes me question how it is even possible. In the months between my first watch and my rewatch, I could recall how every major action sequence played out in great detail, because they were simply that memorable. And don’t even get me started on the soundtrack. The artists from 88rising really put their hearts into these songs, and it shows. I highly recommend everyone to give the soundtrack a listen. Shang-Chi is a very strong leading character, and I’m excited to see Simu return to play him in future projects. However, my favorite character is definitely Wenwu. In no small part is it due to Leung’s amazing performance as a vicious warlord, a loving husband and father, and an empty husk of his former self. He demands attention in every scene he is present in, and thankfully he’s given enough time in the spotlight to develop his character. I also appreciate how complete the film felt as a whole. Of course, there are post-credit scenes setting up sequels and spin-offs, not to mention the build-up toward another, bigger threat. But none of that impedes the story this film is trying to tell. The goal of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is simply to tell a story about a family, and even if all of these characters are newcomers to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it really feels like they’ve been here since the beginning.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings may have been the kick-off to the next phase of Marvel’s machinations, but I don’t really have anything to say about the future of the MCU. I mean, if this is the starting point, I can’t imagine what heights will be reached in the future. Not only that, but I’m happy to say that the Shang-Chi franchise won’t be falling by the wayside anytime soon when big names such as the Avengers inevitably return. The overwhelming success of this movie shows that household names aren’t required to break the box office. I hope we can see more unique and diverse stories like Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings carved into the MCU in the future. Until then, I’m more than happy to experience this movie over and over again.