Marvel’s latest starts with a bang but settles into the usual groove

Film | Jorge Ignacio Castillo | Sept. 9, 2021

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
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Up to Avengers: Endgame, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was a model of consistency. You could believe these characters shared the same existential plane (even Asgard seemed to fit in). This is no longer the case. Much like the comic books’ eternal but doomed struggle to rein in an ever-expanding narrative, the MCU has so much going on it no longer feels interconnected.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings opens yet another setting: the netherworld (not the official description).

After years of living undercover in San Francisco, Shang-Chi (Simu Liu, Kim’s Convenience) is forced out of hiding by his father Wenwu (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), the leader of the Ten Rings, a secretive terrorist organization last heard of in Iron Man 3. Wenwu is also the wielder of said rings — all-purpose sonic bracelets that make him immortal and a force to reckon with.

Shang-Chi was trained to succeed his father as the head of the criminal syndicate, but his mother’s influence made him renounce the shadowy path. Faced with a “just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in” kind of situation, the hero must decide whether to continue antagonizing his dad or stick around and figure out what Wenwu’s up to. Along for the ride is his sister Xialing (newcomer Meng’er Zhang), who resents him for abandoning her, and his friend Katy (Awkwafina) because… she’s funny?

Two elements set Shang-Chi apart. Director Destin Daniel Cretton (Just Mercy) breaks with traditional Marvel storytelling and uses flashbacks to propel the narrative forward. The approach emotionally charges an otherwise standard superhero origin story.

The second thing that elevates the movie is the meat-and-potatoes fight choreography, courtesy of Jackie Chan’s stunt team (it shows) and the late stunt coordinator Brad Allan. The first half of the film sees Shang-Chi face Wenwu’s minions inside a bus and up a skyscraper scaffolding. Both fights dwarf everything that follows. As exciting as later battles are, they underline the MCU’s overreliance on CGI, particularly during the film’s climax. Cretton still manages to make the blue screen-heavy conclusion culturally fitting, if not particularly thrilling.

Shang-Chi profits greatly from giving Asian superstar Tony Leung Chiu-Wai his first proper starring role in a Hollywood movie. Leung, phenomenal in neo-classics like Infernal Affairs, Hard Boiled and In the Mood for Love, is the proverbial thousand-pound gorilla in the room. His command of any scene is undeniable and his younger co-stars Liu, Awkwafina and Zhang have no chance to shine in his presence.

Speaking of Simu Liu, he’s fine as the lead. Somewhat by accident, Shang-Chi is the closest Marvel has got to an everyman as a superhero. Liu’s pleasant, unassuming demeanor is far cry from a Robert Downey Jr. or a Mark Ruffalo, actors that infuse their characters with gravitas. It shouldn’t work but it does, probably because he’s the most relatable person in a sea of heavy hitters (Leung, Michelle Yeoh and a surprise returning Marvel MVP).