“You can’t outrun who you really are.”
It’s hard to ignore the fact that Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is coming out at… a funny time. As Marvel tries to decipher what the streaming success of Loki and WandaVision means for their feature titles, it seems their return to theaters hasn’t been the smoothest. Sure, Black Widow made money, but there’s no denying its lengthy delays, Scarlett Johansson’s lawsuit, and a demand that audiences find interest in watching a whole movie about a character they’ve already put behind them prevented it from being as profitable as it could have been. Throw in the fears surrounding the Delta Variant and the threat of theaters closing again, and the timing couldn’t be worse for a Marvel character’s debut. At the same time though, the landscape seems just dreary enough that the timing might be perfect for a new hero to come in and save everyone from the current bout of Marvel blues. Fortunately, Shang-Chi is just that hero.
In Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, a San Francisco valet named Shaun (Simu Liu) finds himself summoned back to China where he reconnects with his sister Jiang Li (Fala Chen) and their father Wenwu (Tony Leung), with whom they both share a painful past. With his best friend Katy (Awkwafina) in tow, Shaun is forced to confront his past self, a warrior named Shang-Chi who was trained by his father from a young age to be a fearless leader. As Wenwu commands his son to help him avenge his wife’s death, he is soon forced to take his place within the mystical organization known as the Ten Rings.
I’m happy to report that Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a technically impressive experience that keeps up the kind of buoyant energy we’ve come to expect from Marvel. Each action sequence is as thrilling and bombastic as can be and all are executed with such exacting precision while maintaining their own individual flavors. The bus sequence along a busy San Francisco street may seem like a centerpiece, but is really just the warm up, while the fight scene between Shang-Chi, Jiang Li and their father’s henchmen is truly pulsating, thanks in large part to the fact that it takes place against the side of a giant skyscraper in Macao. Of course it’s the movie’s final battle sequence which will seal the deal for audiences as father battles son using the power of the titular rings in an brawl that feels wonderfully intimate when compared to the two dueling sides of Chinese warriors fighting down on the ground. With some of the most stunning fight choreography of the year, an appropriately muted color palate, physical environments rich in character and design and effects which prove even more impressive than past MCU entries, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is Marvel spectacle of the highest order.
The one aspect of Marvel films which has remained the most consistent for me time after time (at least within the solo efforts) has been the symbolism contained in each movie. In the midst of all the chaos, action, effects, and laughs, there have always been very real themes at the heart of every hero’s story that’s been told. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is certainly no exception. There are the kinds of themes one would expect to be at play here such as a celebration of culture as well as family, legacy, tradition, and the ties that bind them together. The movie does an incredibly admirable job in both showing the universality of these elements, while also illustrating how much Chinese culture is defined by them. But it’s the theme of identity and the way its main character wrestles with his that stands as the boldest and most telling throughout the film. From the minute we meet Shang-Chi, we see him wrestle with the past, specifically the family he was born into and what the world he comes from expects of him. It’s no surprise he would choose to carve out his own identity and sense of self far away from the world that created him, which he loves but refuses to let define him. Seeing Shang-Chi come face to face with everything he left behind and reconcile himself with it all in its own way remains far more compelling than any well-constructed action set piece.
Everyone in the cast is amazing. Liu makes for an instantly compelling protagonist, totally honing in on his character’s unresolved feelings about his past and proving a worthy edition to the MCU. Awkwafina is unsurprisingly hilarious as Katy, naturally fitting into the role of comic relief, while also showing the kind of soulfulness she does so well. Chen is a hypnotic force and Michelle Yeoh as Jiang Li and Shang-Chi’s aunt lends a true radiance to the proceedings. Finally, Leung (who eerily never ages) commands the screen as he brings to life the kind of tortured antagonist the MCU needs more of.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is not without its issues. What Marvel movie isn’t? The reveal of what will be the final climactic battle has a bit of a “Oh, so it’s this?” feeling to it. Additionally, the movie’s midpoint sees the return of a previous MCU character in what starts out as a throwaway cameo before quickly escalating into a useless supporting role. At this point, I’m not sure how many people know of this character’s presence in the film so I’ll refrain from further comment except to say that this is a return that no one (least of all, yours truly) asked for. None of this stops the movie from being a worthwhile introduction to an intriguing character and embodying the overall beauty and strength of the stand-alone Marvel film. I’m sure that by the time the next Spider-Man comes around at Christmastime, the current case of Marvel fatigue will have passed. Until then, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is just the right kind of pick-me-up fans need.