Despite an impressive diversification of the 24 prior Marvel Cinematic Universe films, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings finds a way to pleasantly surprise its audience with MCU-formulaic entertainment and a heart that packs a punch.
The film follows the story of Shaun (Shang-Chi) attempting to live a normal life in San Francisco until he is coerced to confront his past as he delves deeper into his fractured family’s story. From the beginning, it is easy to identify the similarities it shares with Black Panther – complicated family issues, thematics of legacy with a hidden and culturally rich place hidden from the world. While there is a uniformity to MCU stories, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings ensures that the similarities with Black Panther stay on the surface. Simu Liu brings charisma and energy to the role, the enjoyment he has playing the role is perceivable. He hasn’t quite hit the ‘born to play this role’ mark quite yet, there will be plenty of time for him to sink deeper into his character especially in times where there are higher emotional stakes. Supported by Awkwafina who plays Shang-Chi’s best friend, Katy, provides a more grounded role than what we are accustomed to but it was a welcomed surprise. The all-star of the talented cast is Tony Leung, starring in his first Hollywood, who manages to turn a thousand sinful years into a sympathetic story.
I have mixed feelings when it comes to Marvel’s playbox of villains as it is an assorted bag of forgettables and memorables. For those angry at the Mandarin twist in Iron Man 3, Wenwu (who was referred to as The Mandarin in his many years on earth) certainly redeems this as we have a cognitively torn villain who found redemption in love and is now haunted by grief. It is not usually a great thing when a villain is more of a standout than the hero in their origin story but the complicated family entanglements only make these characters more absorbing as they hit each character note beat by beat. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is at its strongest when it lets itself get deep into the history of its characters and world. We come across Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley), who has zero reasons to be in the film and is crammed into this film to provide silly comedy – a quintessential piece of the MCU formula. Fortunately, Shang-Chi’s story here is grounded in a heartbreaking family tale and humour is rarely used to hinder any of that. Its message may get lost in translation but the one that resonates the most is that you cannot bury or outrun deep grief but that it is overcome through compassion and love.
On a technical front, the obvious standout would be the well-choreographed combat sequences. Using martial arts that is inspired by the Chinese wuxia genre where the fighting portrays certain characteristics and is used for the characters to be expressive. This is most notable in the opening fight sequence between Wenwu and Ying Li as there is a sense of intimacy and connection through their fight. Excellently executed by the cinematography to allow these hand-to-hand sequences truly settle as it holds its shots for longer. It certainly elevates the amount of appreciation towards the choreography and stuntwork on display here. CGI still has its place in the film and it is notably heavy with it in the third act – as usual, some easily identifiable blue screen moments and other CG effects – but overall, quite solid with its CGI quality.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe still brings in new worlds to get absorbed into with Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Destin Daniel Cretton brings the magical city of Ta Lo into the MCU. Cretton brings majesty and serenity into Ta Lo through the use of elaborate sets and injecting some rich history in it. Joel P. West was tasked with composing the score for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, with no asian ancestry he had to do some research into the sounds of chinese music. The result is a brilliant score which honours the asian culture and embodies both characters of Shang-Chi and Wenwu. Wenwu’s theme perfectly captures his character by having a dark and ominous style which fits his villainous characteristics. This is beautifully balanced with Shang-Chi’s theme with booming drums and loud brass pieces which capture the fun of the character. The rest of the core score is then composed with traditional chinese instruments which authenticates the asian culture this film is embodying.
Director Destin Daniel Cretton has a firm grasp on his vision for these characters and this world. I have full confidence in his ability to continue directing these films as he polishes some of the rough edges. If he can bring back the magnetic energy and beautiful choreography in another character-driven story, I’m in.