If you want to know what direction Marvel’s post-Avengers superhero films are going, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a pretty clear indicator—and it’s an optimistic one at that.
I had a blast watching Shang-Chi, which arrives exclusively in theaters on Friday, September 3, and I spent most of the time after my screening wishing for more. It could have been longer. Maybe there’s a director’s cut. Or, maybe this is the darned good launch of an entirely new film franchise, and this film is merely meant to set up the even more fully rounded sequel(s). Whatever the case, that’s a decidedly better way to leave theaters than being bored, annoyed, or otherwise shaken out of a good moviegoing experience by bad writing, acting, and directing decisions.
Shang-Chi seems driven by an apparent top-down directive to fortify a new class of mystical superheroes while sticking to Marvel’s guns of inclusion and fully rounded character development. The result is good news for anyone looking for a mix of refreshing surprises and comfort food in their superhero tentpole films. Plus, this superhero big screen debut delivers enough “holy whoa” moments to make any viewer feel like a kid again.
“I’m the Asian Jeff Gordon”
In terms of cinematic transformations from the comics, Shang-Chi‘s is more severe than other Marvel Cinematic Universe characters. Instead of loudly aping all things Bruce Lee, like the character’s original 1970s ink-and-paper version, today’s Shang-Chi (played by Simu Liu, Kim’s Convenience) dances between straightforward Chinese martial arts and the ancient, barely understood powers of a series of magical rings, meant to be worn five on each arm. (The film also punts much of the comic series’ Fu Manchu lineage, in ways that nobody new to the series would ever notice.)
The character Shang-Chi begins his film nowhere near said rings, thanks to his father controlling them. At the outset, Shang-Chi rejects his powerful origins, so much so that we get to know him as a mild-mannered car valet who does not sneak out at night to fight crime. It’s at this job in modern-day San Francisco that he pals around with party-loving Katy (played by Awkwafina, The Farewell), who catches flak from her family for falling short of high expectations.
A chance encounter pulls Shang-Chi right back into his family’s business, though. Katy, flabbergasted to find out that her valet buddy has been a secret martial arts dynamo the whole time, insists on being part of the ride. And that leads the duo across the world—and beyond.
A heroic performance for a villain
That brief, spoiler-free summary tiptoes around the family drama you can expect from Shang-Chi, but suffice it to say that the film’s heart beats its loudest and fullest when mother and father figure heavily into this hero’s story. In particular, Tommy Chiu-Wai Leung (Chungking Express, Ip Man) brings his legendary film career to bear in his turn as one of the most hypnotizing personalities ever seen in a modern Marvel film. “Villain” doesn’t do his performance justice.
There’s truly no greater kryptonite to a powerful hero than disenchantment with a parent—or a child, for that matter—and Leung is fascinating here as a brooding-yet-loyal father. Leung’s performance hums with the slow burn of a father for whom nothing is ever good enough, and he radiates an unforgettably condescending aura, off which his co-stars feed ravenously.
Sometimes, a film can drag while trying to reflect characters’ cultural origins, yet Shang-Chi benefits from its own emphasis. Katy, Shang-Chi, and his sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) each grapple with Chinese family expectations that run counter to how they live their lives, whether in America or abroad. Yet director and co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton (The Glass Castle) is careful not to tie those issues up with cute, family-friendly bows. Shang-Chi in particular takes his conflict with his father to the very end of the film, stumbling and revolting at all turns, and it adds a rare heft to a Marvel film’s central conflict. Awkwafina is clearly here to chew scenery with comic relief, yet even her workload is tasteful here—and her character gets a development payoff by film’s end, to boot.
Cast nitpicks, action-scene acclaim
Sadly, the film misses a few opportunities to buttress its characters’ inspirations and origin stories. I would have savored another 5-10 minutes of Wenwu and Shang-Chi’s fraught relationship on the screen, if only because we only begin to see Simu Liu come into his own as a titular star at the very end of this duo’s screen time. And the family matriarch (Fala Chen, The Undoing) seems to have her on-screen time cut a bit too short, mostly because of how handily her performance neutralizes the character of Wenwu. Also, if you’re forcing me to keep score, Zhang’s turn as Xialing is shortchanged by the script, as the character has little to do beyond brood in her brother’s shadow—not a dealbreaker, but worth noting.
Still, the overall quality of the film’s plot and human connections is quite high, and from that foundation, Shang-Chi launches some seriously memorable action sequences.
At their best, Shang-Chi’s fight scenes toy with visual expectations in ways that emulate some of modern Chinese cinema’s finest. One character commands the wind in sync with their motions—giddily recalling and building upon the aerial wonder of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. Another trades brutal blows inside of a high-speed bus, and the resulting brutality feels like a PG-13, Disney version of Police Story. Still another sequence decides that the construction catwalks on the edge of a skyscraper are a good place to flip between wooden planks on multiple levels and kick the crap out of anything that moves; it’s a scene paying homage in both humor and bombast to the directorial likes of Stephen Chow.
That list doesn’t even touch upon the film’s massive, climactic fight, which explodes thanks to a frantic ring-on-ring melee light show. It only gets bigger from there.
Good butt-kickings with a strong family foundation, whether that family is unified or dysfunctional: Shang-Chi nails this idea in ways that are truly unique to the superhero film canon. Quite frankly, I can’t think of other Chinese martial arts films that mix family chaos, beautifully staged action, and a new hero’s fantastical origin story this impeccably, either. Shang-Chi is exactly the blast I was hoping for ahead of next year’s massive Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Dare I let one good Marvel film make me optimistic about next year’s oft-hyped, cameo-filled series-synergy extravaganza?