Marvel Studios may have taken 2020 off due to the pandemic, but its 2021 has proven bigger than ever. Just two months after this summer’s espionage-themed Black Widow, the MCU is ready with another solo project: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, Shang-Chi introduces a brand new hero to the franchise, and it’s already clear he will appear in several more projects down the line. Non-comics fans might not be as familiar with Shang-Chi, so it’s a good thing that his first movie is unique, compelling, and emotional. It also just might be one of the best origin stories in the MCU. Bolstered by a star-making performance from Simu Liu, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings gets the MCU’s newest hero off to a promising start.
Shang-Chi starts not with the titular hero, but with the other part of the lengthy title: The Ten Rings, an infamous criminal organization previously mentioned in various Iron Man installments. The group is led by Wenwu (Tony Leung), AKA the Mandarin, the power-hungry wielder of an actual set of ten rings that bestow him with incredible abilities. Wenwu is especially important to this story, because he’s Shang-Chi’s (Liu) father. In the present day, Shang-Chi has spent the past several years living in America well outside of his father’s vicious grasp. However, an attack on a San Francisco bus leads Shang-Chi to realize his past isn’t as far behind him as he hoped, sending him on an adventure with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina) to reunite with his estranged family members and confront everything he’s been running from.
On the surface, Shang-Chi holds most of Marvel’s biggest trademarks: quippy one-liners, references to the broader universe, and pulse-pounding action. At the same time, there are plenty of beats that feel like they could fit into a standard domestic drama. Cretton, along with fellow screenwriters Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham, has structured a good chunk of Shang-Chi to be a family saga wrapped up in a superhero movie. Flashbacks are woven into the present-day storyline, offering deeper shades to Shang-Chi, Wenwu, and Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), the badass sister of the title hero. It’s a unique structure for a Marvel movie, but it serves the story well. Shang-Chi’s family history runs deep, and by actually exploring it through the flashbacks, Cretton, Callaham, and Lanham give the impression that all of these characters have always been a part of the MCU.
By starting Shang-Chi with Wenwu, Cretton immediately sends the message that he won’t be like past Marvel villains. The franchise is known for churning out underwhelming bad guys, but Wenwu manages to be among the very best. With a deeply personal goal that resonates with his entire family, the Mandarin is chilling and cruel, yet retains just enough humanity that audiences can feel some sympathy. It helps that Hong Kong icon Leung is the one playing him; with his steely gaze and physicality, he makes Wenwu even more compelling. And yet, Shang-Chi truly does belong to Liu and his new hero. Carrying a heavier backstory than most Marvel heroes, Shang-Chi balances the typical humor of the franchise with his inner demons, and Liu skillfully portrays his conflicted nature. There’s no question: Liu is a star, and it’ll be quite exciting to see him continue to flourish in the MCU. Shang-Chi features an impressive cast all around, with Zhang and Awkwafina both getting their own moments to shine, be it via action sequences or deeper character moments, these women are far from one-dimensional. Cretton treats both of their personal conflicts with equal respect. Michelle Yeoh, though arriving later in the film, is a welcome presence as a key figure for Shang-Chi and Xialing.
Shang-Chi has a lot of things working in its favor, from the gorgeous locations (beautifully rendered by production designers Sue Chan and Clint Wallace) to the epic score from Joel P. West. At the same time, it falls into a few traps Marvel movies are often susceptible to. After giving so much time to a conflict rooted in family and grief, Shang-Chi’s final battle becomes another CGI fest with world-ending stakes. The movie is far stronger when it keeps the focus on its themes of identity and loyalty, which sometimes get lost in the bombastic action. Make no mistake, Shang-Chi’s action scenes truly are the best in the MCU, with the early bus fight and a precarious battle on spindly scaffolding in Macau being standouts. The final fight is thrilling, too, but it loses some of the movie’s overall emotional weight. Additionally, while the women are all fierce and well-developed, Shang-Chi’s handling of the hero’s mother (Fala Chen) presents mixed results. Her story ultimately follows a tired trope, but she has more dimension than some previous Marvel moms, which helps.
Ultimately, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a great origin story in a franchise that has more origins than any other. Liu is destined for Marvel greatness, and the two post-credits scenes offer some hints about what lies ahead. MCU fans will find much to enjoy about this new offering, while casual viewers who prefer more personal stories might find themselves drawn to Shang-Chi’s struggles. There’s been much discussion over whether Shang-Chi should’ve been made available on Disney+, and indeed that would’ve ensured more people could see it. However, there’s no denying it will make for a thrilling watch on the big screen, so hopefully, those who feel safe enough to do so will venture out to see it. After all the delays, this is a movie well worth the wait.