By Leroy Dee
Jackson Advocate Entertainment Writer
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Writers: Dave Callaham, and Destin Daniel Cretton
Cast: Simu Liu, Tony Chiu-Wai Leung, Awkwafina, Ben Kingsley, and Meng’er Zhang
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures, Marvel Studios
Raised as an assassin and heir apparent to the Ten Rings criminal empire, Shang-Chi escapes to America to start a new life. However, when his father calls him back home, Shang-Chi must stop his father from unleashing a scheme that could threaten the entire planet.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is Marvel Studios first Asian led superhero entry into its franchise. Based on Marvel’s The Master of Kung Fu comic series which ran from 1974-1983, he’s been nicknamed “Marvel’s Bruce Lee” by fans for decades. The movie shares the basic premise of Shang-Chi being raised by his father to become the greatest martial artist on the planet, only to fight him as an adult. Besides that, the movie ignores everything else from the source material and creates its own story.
While Shang-Chi may not be faithful to the original Marvel comics, it does seem to be a love letter to Hong Kong cinema. There are nods to Jet Li’s Hero, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and several Jackie Chan movies, among others. There are even Anime and video game references throughout the movie (I swear I thought I saw a Pokémon). With so many references, calling this “Marvel’s Kung-Fu movie” may be accurate, but also misses the big picture of what they’re trying to accomplish with this film.
As with every Marvel movie, the action is the main attraction. Compared to actual Chinese martial arts movies, the fight scenes here are middle of the road. Having said that, even mid-tier Hong Kong martial art fight scenes make it hands down the best MCU fight scenes ever. The bus scene alone had everyone at my theater viewing holding their breaths, followed up with a scaffolding action scene in Macau.
However, this movie is a tale of two halves. While the first half is filled with stylish hand-to-hand action, the second half seems to have more in common with Dragonball Z than Enter the Dragon. The CGI budget kicks in, and although I was less engaged by the shift in tone, I still enjoyed it. This is where we get world building and mythological creatures from Chinese culture introduced into the MCU (one in particular that will absolutely be a stocking stuffer plush doll for Christmas).
In most martial arts movies, you either get a martial arts master with limited acting ability or an actor with limited fight training hiding behind editing and stuntmen. Luckily with Simu Liu this movie has a lead that can do both. Starring in his first leading role, Simu’s only other notable role is not even from any action movie, but a Canadian family sitcom called Kim’s Convenience (currently on Netflix, which I highly recommend). He’s also able to switch from a charming millennial effortlessly into a deadly Kung-Fu master even within the same scene. It helps that, unlike other Marvel movies, the camera doesn’t cut away as much or shoot far away from his face, so you know it’s him pulling off these moves and not a stuntman.
Simu rarely does any heavy lifting acting-wise, and he’s almost joined at the hip in every scene by Awkwafina, who plays his co-worker/best friend Katy. Awkwafina, in general, has drawn controversy outside of the movie, but she’s very likeable in this movie. You really believe Katy and Shang-Chi’s 10-year bond. Plus, she does all the sidekick tropes you’d expect for superhero movies: wide-eyed commenting on how awesome the hero looks while hero-ing and being a sounding board during the hero’s emotional conflict.
A hero is only as good as his villain, and WenWu/The Mandarin is one of their best villains yet, standing right along Thanos and Killmonger. Played by Hong Kong cinema legend Tony Leung in his first American role, he may even be Marvel’s most charismatic villain yet. While I doubt there will be any #Mandarinwasright hashtags, you clearly understand why he’s doing the things he’s done.
Fans of the MCU will recognize this isn’t the franchise’s first crack at the Mandarin, and yes, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings does at times feel like an apology for Iron Man 3. The movie also doesn’t stop there with Easter eggs and nods to previous movies in the franchise. Most of it feels like fanservice, since the majority of this movie gives off the vibe that it operates outside of the MCU. Even the events of Avengers: Endgame are mentioned in just a passing sentence.
With the best action scenes in the MCU, likeable leads, and a charismatic villain, this is a top 10 movie in the MCU. If we’re just counting solo origin entries, it’s top 5. There are some that will like the first half’s more practical hand-to-hand action over the CGI heavy finale, but if you’re willing to accept it for what it is – high concept Chinese fantasy finally realized with a Disney budget – you will enjoy yourself. Also, at this point, I shouldn’t have to say this, but stay after the credits.