Back in 2018, Marvel Studios’ Black Panther proved that a superhero blockbuster headlined by a Black cast and celebrating Black culture could succeed, both critically and commercially. With new release Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Marvel head honcho Kevin Feige and director Destin Daniel Cretton are hoping to pull off a similar feat, delivering a film that embraces the heritage of its Asian protagonist, the first in Marvel Cinematic Universe history.
For the most part, they succeed: Shang-Chi is a worthy addition to the MCU canon that marries a disarmingly affecting story with brilliantly staged martial arts set pieces and knock-out visuals. Yet for everything it gets right and despite its good intentions, Shang-Chi ultimately does frustratingly little to reinvent the established Marvel Studios formula – making it something of a missed opportunity, too.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings introduces us to Shaun (Simu Liu), a San Francisco hotel valet working alongside his best friend, Katy (Awkwafina). Despite their obvious potential, Shaun and Katy are content to coast through life – until a team of assassins comes calling for Shaun, and his secret past is revealed.
It turns out Shaun’s real name is Shang-Chi, and he’s a former assassin and the son of Wenwu (Tony Leung), the head of a global crime syndicate who wields ancient mystic rings of near-limitless power. Realising that the attempt on his life is part of a bigger plot involving his estranged sister, Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), Shang-Chi races to protect her and foil a plot that could spell disaster for more worlds than just our own.
Without doubt Shang-Chi and the Ten Rings’ biggest strength lies in just how well it handles Asian culture. The engaging, heartfelt story eschews familiar tropes in favour of a more nuanced take on Chinese customs and mythology, and touches on the Asian-American experience in ways I suspect will resonate strongly with viewers from similar immigrant backgrounds.
It’s also the most visually inventive Marvel Studios flick since 2016’s Doctor Strange. Production designer Sue Chan and the visual effects artists at ILM, Digital Domain, and Weta Digital do a stellar job bringing the otherworldly creatures and exotic landscapes to life, and the fight choreography is creatively staged and shot by stunt coordinator Brad Allan and cinematographer William Pope.
Liu acquits himself well in these action scenes and makes for a likable lead overall. For her part, Awkwafina is predictably solid in a comic relief role that doesn’t demand more than her usual fast-talking schtick, while Zhang is effective (if underutilised) as Xialing.
It’s Leung who ultimately steals the show, though. Through the film, Leung deftly shifts gears from love and longing to icy fury so well that Wenwu surely rates alongside Loki and Thanos as one of the MCU’s most nuanced villains.
A decent trio of lead characters, a memorable baddie, and well-executed fight choreography and stunt work – in many ways, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings ticks all the boxes. Yet the film also has several shortcomings that prevent it from being everything you want it to be.
Fittingly enough for a movie about a hero struggling with an identity crisis, Shang-Chi never seems completely sure how to blend its various plot threads and tonal shifts into a cohesive whole. There’s so much going on – family drama, archetypal superhero origin beats, epic fantasy, trademark Marvel humour – and it all feels so disjointed that it’s hard to really process what Cretton is trying to say about the characters and their journey.
Part of the blame for this can be attributed to Cretton and screenwriters Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham sticking so closely to the existing MCU playbook. Because of this, Shang-Chi has inherited many familiar elements, and more importantly, familiar flaws from other recent Marvel Studios’ efforts.
Just like Black Widow, WandaVision, or The Falcon and the Winter Soldier before it, Shang-Chi bites off more than it can chew thematically speaking. Creton and co set up compelling concepts – like what it means to grow up Asian-American and how hard it can be to face up to your potential – only to squander them, not just undermining Shang-Chi and Katy’s character arcs, but also leading to a less powerful story overall.
Then there’s the overuse of CGI, which (like so many other MCU blockbusters) fully rears its head in the overstuffed, undercooked mess of a third act, where a cathartic showdown between father and son inexplicably devolves into a hollow extended visual effects showcase. This whole sequence runs on far too long and quickly loses its narrative and emotional focus – a classic case of everyone involved mistaking spectacle for storytelling.
But maybe my biggest gripe with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is how same-samey it feels. Virtually everything in the movie has been recycled from other Marvel Studios movies: the fish-out-of-water antics of Thor, the mysticism meets the modern world bent of Doctor Strange, the family dynamics of Black Panther, the self-doubt of Spider-Man: Far From Home… the list goes on.
It’s all good stuff, but surely the MCU’s first Asian lead deserved a bit better than a composite do-over of other Marvel superheroes’ stories? But hey – maybe most people who see Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings won’t care about any of this stuff. Maybe they like the MCU formula the way it is, and maybe just having a non-white lead is as much representation as they expect. And who can blame them? After all, Shang-Chi is an undeniably entertaining way to kill a couple of hours – even if it fails to meaningfully raise the bar for future Marvel Studios films.