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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

In its 25th film, the Marvel Cinematic Universe introduces a new superhero — and adds a supremely well-cast martial arts movie to the sprawling franchise.
By Sarah Ward
September 02, 2021
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By Sarah Ward
September 02, 2021
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Social media can get you anywhere, or so the story behind Marvel's latest movie and the actor playing its eponymous character demonstrates. Back in 2014, Simu Liu tweeted at the comic book company-turned-filmmaking powerhouse, asking "how about an Asian American hero?". In 2018, after Black Panther's success, he tweeted again — querying "are we gonna talk or what?" with the #ShangChi hashtag. Now, the Kim's Convenience star leads the Marvel Cinematic Universe's 25th feature, and the first to focus on a hero of Asian descent in its 13-year run to-date. He's the face of the franchise's latest step forward, both in terms of inclusion and representation, and in keeping the MCU's ongoing narrative forever hurtling onwards. Liu anchors a film about history and destiny, too — one that's about breaking free from the past and committing to the future — and he heartily embraces the occasion. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings itself flits between offering up a lively picture that strives to carve out its own space in the series, and simply serving up more of the usual Marvel template but in enticing packaging, however.

Liu first graces the screen as Shaun, a San Francisco valet who's happy parking cars with his best pal Katy (Awkwafina, Breaking News in Yuba County), even though they both know they could follow other paths. While the film shows Katy's family decrying her lack of ambition, Shaun has a keener awareness of what he isn't doing — because he's really Shang-Chi, the son of centuries-old warlord Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung, The Grandmaster), who leads the shadowy Ten Rings criminal organisation and wears the mystical bracelets it's named after. Shang-Chi also has the otherworldly Jiang Li (Fala Chen, The Undoing), the former guardian of an enchanted village filled with dutiful warriors and mythical creatures, for a mother. But when she died when he was a child, his life changed. After the grief-stricken Wenwu obsessively trained him to become an assassin and see vengeance, Shang-Chi fled for the US, where he's lived since. Then, initially via a postcard from his Macau-based, underground fight club-running sister Xu Xialing (debutant Meng'er Zhang), and then thanks a violent visit from his dad's henchmen, he's forced into a family reunion that puts the fate of the universe at stake.

It's telling that Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings actually begins by honing in on Wenwu, laying out his backstory and pushing glorious Hong Kong cinema legend Leung — a star with seven Wong Kar-wai films, such as In the Mood for Love and 2046, to his name — firmly to the fore. Marvel has loved daddy issues since Iron Man launched the MCU in 2008. It also adores complicated histories, and stressing the idea that heroes are forged from such complexity. And, it likes anchoring its sprawling on-screen world in as much lore and as many links to the past as it can. That's all accounted for in Shang-Chi's opening move, but so is pure movie-star physics. Leung is never less than magnetic in every feature he's in, including here. He's an actor with breathtaking presence, which has seen him prove one of cinema's most commanding figures for four-plus decades. The power and texture he brings to conflicted characters improves any film and, even with Liu handling his leading role with all the charisma and energy demanded, Leung is always the biggest highlight of every scene he's in.

In other words, writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton (Just Mercy, Short Term 12) has cast two essential roles devastatingly well — and maybe better than he intended in one case. Liu remains the star of the show, and the movie sets him up for more MCU appearances, of course. He crosses paths with other faces from the franchise, there's zero doubt that he'll be a key part of the saga moving forward and, based on this likeable-enough debut outing, audiences will want to spend more time in his company. But watching Leung constantly leads to yearning for more of Leung. The same applies when the great Michelle Yeoh (Gunpowder Milkshake) also pops up after Shang-Chi openly nods towards Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Marvel's decision to add a martial arts movie to its roster, and to populate it with Asian cinema superstars, can just remind viewers of all the exceptional works that the genre and those talents already made long before Hollywood blockbusters paid them notice, in fact.

Shang-Chi brings other films to mind repeatedly, including via valet hijinks that ride in Ferris Bueller's Day Off's tyre treads, and a phenomenal bus scene — the movie's standout, and the beneficiary of dazzling fight choreography — that's more than a little like Speed-meets-Nobody. When a franchise spans 25 instalments and shows no signs of stopping, seeing echoes of past flicks comes with the territory as well, with Shang-Chi boasting the focus on character that makes the better MCU entries stand out, but also remaining happy to descend into the overblown CGI that's always been one of the series' worst impulses. It doesn't quite possess Black Panther's world-building flair, but it wants to. It can't exactly make its genre fit as well as Black Widow did with the spy realm, either. And, sometimes it feels like it's doing the bare minimum that Marvel thinks is necessary with this titular figure, and with committing to an Asian hero, as Captain Marvel illustrated before it with the saga's first solo female lead.

When Shang-Chi soars — when Liu and especially Leung shine, the wuxia-inspired action choreography does the same and building engaging characters is the film's main motivation — it makes for vivid viewing. When it finds genuine emotion in Shang-Chi and Wenwu's thorny relationship, and celebrates the MCU's latest otherwise-overlooked sister (with Xialing joining Black Panther's Shuri and Black Widow's Yelena), it beats with heart, too. When it breaks out a sense of humour, which happens often in Cretton, Dave Callaham (Mortal Kombat) and Andrew Lanham's (Just Mercy) screenplay, it mostly mines an entertainingly goofy vibe (although it does lean a little too heavily on Awkwafina doing her Crazy Rich Asians sidekick schtick). That's the film's first two-thirds. When Shang-Chi regurgitates the standard formula, complete with a special-effects onslaught of a finale that favours pixels more than the fantasy flicks it's trying to ape, it surrenders a better movie to an average one. Here's hoping that Liu's tweets ultimately give rise to something more as the MCU keeps on keeping on.

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