Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings Review: A refreshing start to Phase 4 and a bright future for the MCU
It’s crazy to think that before the MCU, the news of Marvel releasing a film based on Shang-Chi, a true no-name in their hero catalogue, would’ve been seen as “dead on arrival,” but now it’s a pretty standard move by Marvel that speaks to how far they’ve come.
To be honest, before Iron Man, it was rare to see Marvel even touch on their more notable heroes and even when they tried to, they only saw success and acclaim with Spider-Man every now and again. Once the MCU became so popular though, Marvel started to expand their roster to include some of their lesser-known characters and it’s paid off well for them. Ant-Man was just a low-tier Avenger before the MCU and now he’s a favorite among some fans. Guardians of the Galaxy was originally written off as “risky” to bring into the MCU because of their obscurity and have now become one of the most beloved parts of the MCU and blown away everyone’s expectations – maybe outside of true believers. The MCU has given Marvel the opportunity to swing big with the heroes it introduces, and its latest swing is a big hit.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ sheer existence leaves such an impact on the MCU and beyond. Obviously, Marvel delivering its first Asian-led superhero movie has an immense impact on representation and gives one of their lesser-known heroes of color a modern introduction – something that would be great to see continued going forward. However, Shang-Chi’s (Simu Liu) introduction does so much more by leaving some of the MCU’s tiresome tech-based elements behind for a more grounded, yet mystical adventure.
Most of the combat and action we’ve seen throughout the MCU has primarily been tech-based, so seeing Shang-Chi introduce some of the more hand-to-hand martial arts combat is a breath of fresh air. The camera movement is just astounding and it’s the type of combat that benefits from excellent choreography and technique rather than visual effects. With this in mind, Shang-Chi delivers some of the most captivating combat in the MCU as its full of energy and endlessly epic. The way it blends with the mysticism of its world is really unique with how it subtly displays the different attitudes and beliefs within different factions. While Shang-Chi’s mother Li (Fala Chen) and her home village Ta-Lo show a more calm-minded approach that blends their fighting technique with the natural elements that surround them, Shang-Chi’s father, Xu-Wenwu (Tony Leung)/The Mandarin, is much more aggressive and power-hungry.
These distinctions are elevated through the greater use of visual effects that enhance the combat rather than consume it. Li and the people of Ta-Lo have wind and leaves move with the flow of their fighting to reflect their calm mindset and connection with their world while Xu-Wenwu and the warriors of his Ten Rings clan have more powerful blasts of energy and a tense presence that comes from the titular ten rings. At first, I was a pretty big hater on the rings becoming armbands as it felt like a weird change that took away the most iconic elements of the rings and their key wearer. However, after seeing them in action, I totally see where Marvel’s head was at with it, and they totally proved me wrong. The rings are one of the film’s strongest action elements as their movement is so fluid and adds that extra layer of power to the Xu-Wenwu’s persona. When watching them in action, it really feels like they can do anything and the rich history behind them makes them one of the most compelling artifacts in the MCU.
They also carry a deep personal meaning for Shang-Chi and his family lineage that he’s attempted to leave behind. Initially meeting Shang-Chi under his American name Shaun, there’s something really special with how relatable he is. Although we know that there’s this dormant power within him that makes him a physical threat, he’s really shown to embrace this new domestic life of drunk karaoke and valet driving alongside his bestie Katy (Awkwafina). It’s these more down to earth elements that make Shang-Chi more human and its great that these elements don’t become lost once Shang-Chi’s fighting ability comes out in full-force. Sure, there’s no doubt that Shang-Chi’s physical ability makes him one of the strongest technical fighters in the MCU, but there’s so much more to the character that’s greatly fleshed out here.
There are a lot of personal conflicts swirling within him that stem from him abandoning his past that he’s forced to face and overcome as he attempts to stop his father from destroying Ta-Lo. There’s unresolved tension between him and his sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), who was only able to survive by silently learning teachings that weren’t available to her and creating an underground criminal empire of her own after he never returned from a mission. Shang-Chi holds immense resentment towards his father for the pain he put him through and the killer he made him into. There are lot of big personal stakes for Shang-Chi that resonate strongly throughout the film as he reenters a life he left behind and there’s a surprising moment that reflects the dark trauma that still resides within him from his upbringing. Liu’s performance has an excellent mix of lovable charisma and this intense battle of personal demons that makes Shang-Chi’s story so engaging from start to finish.
Pretty much all the performances here are great and add in their own arc or personal purpose within the story. Xialing’s story is incredibly empowering, and she could easily become an instant fan favorite. Zhang makes her strong and personable with how she grows in reuniting with Shang-Chi and learning from the people of Ta-Lo. It’s also going to be interesting to see her impact in the MCU going forward as a post-credit scene signifies her and the Ten Rings’ return. Katy is also a good addition to the group as she constantly helps keep Shang-Chi grounded and Awkwafina provides some great comic relief.
The return of Benedict Wong as Wong is also excellent as it provides some good laughs and hints that the character will have more to do outside of working with Dr. Strange. Wong’s presence actually provides a lot of interesting questions surrounding him possibly mentoring Abomination and working closely with Shang-Chi in discovering the real power behind the rings. With Shang-Chi charting a new path for the MCU and adding in some stronger representation for Asian characters, it’s great that a fan-favorite like Wong gets more to do going forward. The real stand out star is undoubtedly Leung as Xu-Wenwu as he provides the redemption for the Mandarin fans desperately wanted.
That twist in Iron Man 3 involving a fake Mandarin really caught the ire of fans because he’s such a fan-favorite and sadly that twist is acknowledged here in unfortunate ways. Look, the mention of Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley) was fine, and it was pretty fated that we were going to see him again here, but there’s too much of him. He’s just an okay comic relief here that’s make a big return for plot purposes in getting Shang-Chi and company to Ta-Lo and it unnecessarily robs this film of having an all-Asian main cast. However, the reappearance of a fake Mandarin doesn’t ruin the redemption of Xu-Wenwu reclaiming his narrative.
Shang-Chi offers a much deeper lore for Xu-Wenwu as his dark history as a warlord of many names is told and creates a mystical intrigue in the power of these mysterious rings. Oddly enough though, it’s not Xu-Wenwu’s silent brooding persona that makes him such a compelling Marvel villain as his lasting grief over Li’s death is what really drives him and makes his story so compelling. The aspects of Xu-Wenwu actually stepping down from his warlord persona to become a family man adds a lot of personal emotion to character that makes the moments of him becoming a monster again in the hopes of fulfilling a fantasy of seeing Li again really impactful. It’s an emotional motivation that’s played out well with his conflicts with Shang-Chi and brought out excellently through Leung’s performance. From the first second you see Leung, it’s easy to see him nailing the great balance of brutal strength and mental prowess that are iconic staples to the character, but it’s the way he adds in some human shades to his character that make this depiction stand out so strong. This mixture of great character building and Leung’s performance easily make Xu-Wenwu one of the more compelling villains of the MCU, but it’s a shame that his arc is robbed in the film’s final act.
Throughout the film, there’s this great build-up to Shang-Chi and Xu-Wenwu having this big, personal battle and there are moments that stick the landing. Their final battle is undeniably epic, and the choice Shang-Chi makes with his father and vice versa are emotionally satisfying. However, it feels like this conflict, Xu-Wenwu’s story, and the best elements of director Destin Daniel Cretin’s storytelling are robbed because of a sudden threat that appears in the film’s final battle. The idea of this mystical, demonic threat is interesting and the visuals in the final battle are amazing but this addition is totally out of left field for no reason and unfortunately consumes everything surrounding Shang-Chi and Xu-Wenwu having this personal confrontation. Anyone that’s seen Cretin’s work, films like Just Mercy and Short Term 12, knows that deeply personal stories and confrontation are something that he’s an expert at and its hard not to feel like this film was completely taken out of his hands in the final battle leading to a confusing and messy conclusion.
Regardless of its finale’s missed opportunities and unfortunate choices, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a testament to how far the MCU has come. It’s an excellent showcasing of a formerly undervalued hero making the most of their time in the spotlight by creating a modernized origin that presents a personable and loveable hero whose story is full of engaging personal strife while also delving into the more mystical elements of the Marvel universe. Shang-Chi has a bright future in the MCU and delivers one of the strongest origin films for the franchise yet.