The latest entry in the long-running MCU, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, introduces us to the character of Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) and a whole corner of the universe that has been unexplored, until now. The film follows Shang-Chi, who must confront the past he’s been running from when the mysterious Ten Rings organisation catches up to him.
The best praise I can give this film right off the bat is that it feels like the freshest entry in the MCU in quite a while. There’s no doubting the fact that the vast majority of the MCU’s films follow a pretty familiar narrative structure. They may have a different tone, setting, characters and genre, but they tend to hit the same beats – meaning it’s easy to predict the narrative’s outcome before it begins. Shang-Chi isn’t completely void of familiarities, but it largely does away with the typical Marvel formula for something that feels refreshingly new. There’s an interesting take on the villain and how they factor into the film, along with a number of other minor narrative surprises that I didn’t expect to see in what is effectively an origin story.
Not only is the narrative something different, it’s an effectively entertaining ride the entire way through. Learning about the backstory of our main character, the rich history behind his family and the various mystical elements made for a deeply engaging journey that greatly expanded the depth of the MCU. There’s a really solid balance of martial arts action sequences, comedic beats and character-centric storytelling that’s all bought together really well by director Destin Daniel Cretton. It’s an adventure that isn’t always going heavy on the action, but certainly feels like it’s constantly moving along. It never really slows down to a stagnant point, with the writers having crammed plenty of crucial information, character development and action sequences to make sure every scene has something interesting to pull from it.
What I love about this film is the level of attention given to some of the supporting characters, what would have otherwise ended up being one-dimensional in the end. A great deal of backstory and/or intriguing moments of character development are given to Xu Wenwu (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung), Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) and Katy (Awkwafina) to make them feel more than just cliche shells of a character. Awkwafina’s Katy is the one who benefits most from this, as she transcends being limited strictly to the comedic relief character. There’s a bit of depth and drive to her character, which was quite cool to see – especially in a Marvel film, where there are typically characters put in just for the jokes.
In terms of the action, this film has the benefit of of feeling unique in that area too, with the vast majority of action sequences focused on the use of martial arts combat. It’s exciting and fast-paced, with great choreography, and makes for some great kick-ass sequences that up the thrill-factor. There’s a good deal of well-timed comedic beats throughout the movie, mostly delivered by Awkwafina, whose comedic timing is on point. What’s great is that even with all the comedy in the film, it doesn’t overpower the more serious tone that the film adopts. It has funny moments without feeling overly jokey.
Prior to this film, I was unaware of Simu Liu, but Marvel hasn’t really put a foot wrong when it comes to casting its heroes. With his performance here as Shang-Chi, Simu has put his name on the map when it comes to his ability to deliver an engaging and believable lead performance. He’s charismatic, funny, kicks ass and is able to also take it down a notch to sell us the more emotional moments within the story. I’d say he has further to go before he can really cement himself as a fan-favourite within the MCU, but he’s on the right track. I already mentioned Awkwafina, but I’ll mention her again, because she’s a scene-stealer in here. As I said, her character is more than just the comedic relief here, and it gives her room to show off just a little glimpse of some acting range.
I do want to also mention Meng’er Zhang, who plays Xialing, marking her first ever on-screen role – having previously only performed on stage. It’s a subtle performance, but she’s great across a number of key action scenes and smaller character-centric moments – to the point where you wouldn’t know it’s her debut feature film role. The rest of the supporting cast are all great in their respective roles, with absolutely no-one missing the mark.
In the end, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is without a doubt one of the most distinct projects in the MCU’s extensive lineup of films. It reaches into a new, previously unexplored corner of the universe and delivers a narrative that does its best to flip the script and bring some new storytelling techniques to the forefront. It’s an engaging story with kick-ass action sequences and interesting characters across the board. There’s great character-centric moments, plenty of humour and enough secrets and surprises to get the die-hard Marvel fans excited. Whether you’re up to date with the MCU or just in the market for an entertaining martial arts movie, then you’ve come to the right place.