On the surface, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a superhero origin story about Shang-Chi. But it is just as much a story about love, family and identity — just one that happens to be packed with thrilling action and adventure.
The Marvel Studios film details the journey of Shang–Chi, played by Simu Liu. Wenwu/The Mandarin (Tony Leung), Shang-Chi‘s father, trains his son to be a killer, starting during his youth. But Shang-Chi never wanted that life, so he tries to move forward — or rather, runs away — from his past and be his own self.
Now a young adult settled in San Francisco, Shang-Chi goes by the name “Shaun.” He has been living his own life alongside his best friend, Katy (Awkwafina). The two work as valets and enjoy late-night karaoke bars. He even frequents Katy’s family’s residence and eats meals with them. But his past catches up with him thanks to his father, the leader of the Ten Rings terrorist organization.
Central to Shang-Chi’s narrative is the idea of how people deal with love and grief and how that, in turn, affects those close to you. Shang-Chi, Wenwu and his sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) all deal with this. Each of them makes a significant decision driven by those emotions that carry their stories to where they are in the movie. They also each have their moments where they address their sense of identity.
Beyond escaping his past as a trained assassin, Shang-Chi faces the struggle of adapting to American society. He immigrates to the United States as a teenager and briefly details the adjustment in an early scene. Meanwhile, Wenwu struggles with his identity as a terrorist killer, whereas Xialing’s neglected upbringing shapes her identity.
That idea of identity extends even to Katy. It’s one of the things she and Shang-Chi bond over. Katy faces continuous criticism from her mother about pursuing more with her life as a Berkley graduate.
With a cast of interesting characters, the film doesn’t always feel like it’s Shang-Chi’s origin story. But that’s a testament to the importance of family for the titular character. Because there is no Shang-Chi the superhero without his loved ones. He needs to make peace with his past and embrace his mother’s side of the family to become his true self.
Shang-Chi has everything you could want from a movie. There is a great balance of action, adventure, drama and humor without trying too hard to achieve any.
In a film that centers around Marvel’s Master of King Fu, the action was an especially crucial element. Director Destin Daniel Cretton did a tremendous job of showcasing the elegance, artistry and precision of fighting — a must when the action is primarily martial arts-based. The action all felt purposeful. It didn’t feel like it was thrown in for the sake of providing a “wow” factor. That said, the recently deceased stunt coordinator Brad Allan, whom the film was dedicated to, deserves a shoutout for the stellar choreography showcased.
The film also showcases the strength and power of women from Xialing to Jiang Li (Fala Chen) to Ying Nan (Michelle Yeoh) — all of whom are crucial in helping Shang-Chi become the hero he becomes. Even Katy makes great strides. But Xialing, in particular, is sure to become a fan favorite.
There’s no denying this is a film about Asians, made by Asians, with Asians in mind. Small things showed how a narrative could legitimately be about Asians without relying on stereotypes or doing too much.
The moment dedicated to showcasing Shang-Chi’s removing his Jordans, various pairs of other shoes lined up on shelving and on the floor in the background, was a nice nod to the Asian at-home lifestyle. The line about “ABC,” or American-born Chinese, was one that was simultaneously funny and sad, a sting to those Asian Americans who aren’t native Asians. Not to mention the idea of American versus Chinese names had its moment, too.
The film is well-balanced and created with great care in mind. The cast gives strong performances all-around, so it’s tough to find flaws.
The movie isn’t completely without its tropes, and the amount of exposition could be too much for some.
Character-wise, Death Dealer, played by the talented martial artist/actor Andy Le, was cool. But a line or two about why he was special amongst others in the Ten Rings and got to mentor Shang-Chi would have been interesting. Similarly, getting context for where Razor Fist’s loyalty to Wenwu stemmed from would be nice. However, these sentiments come from a nitpicky place.
Whether a dedicated Marvel fan or someone with minimal knowledge of the franchise, Shang-Chi is a movie that can entertain any movie lover. It stands well on its own and has great themes. But it still caters to and expands the MCU in a satisfying manner. The mid-credits and post-credits scenes make for an intriguing conclusion to the film.
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Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is in theaters now.