The Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to expand in the realms of fantasy. It is with great relief, however, that Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is not a film that has to play in the same sandbox as Doctor Strange and Thor. Such a film can stand well enough on its own lore as those before it.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings Review: CONTAINS SPOILERS
More importantly, this is a film that has enough faith in its own drama. It’s an earnest enough adventure that it can stand high without mocking its own source material. Considering this picture even tries to weave The Mandarin into the narrative, it’s one of the sterner Marvel solo pictures.
Legends and Lore
As a major improvement over previous Marvel entries, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings doesn’t get too lost in its own lore. The titular ten rings are a source of mystical power and become a part of our hero’s abilities. The rings, however, are not given as much explanation as the family drama.
What’s more fascinating is who wields the rings. Wenwu (Tony Leung) runs a shadow operation known as the Ten Rings that has been around for centuries. Devoted to conquering all, he sets his sights on unearthing a hidden realm of magic and wonder.
He finds comfort in the mysterious guardian of Jiang Li (Fala Chen) and a romance blooms amid a dreamlike bout. That life seems so long ago as Wenwu has only grown cold and more insidious with time. He not only mistreated his children but abandoned them as well.
One of his two kids was Shang-Chi (Simu Liu). He was trained as a warrior in China but grew up to reside in San Francisco, California. He may only park cars as his job but, hey, at least he gets to do so with his partying pal Katy (Awkwafina).
Shang’s peaceful life is thrown out of balance when daddy comes knocking. Wenwu sends his henchmen after Shang to acquire a necklace from his mother. Realizing the dad’s probably up to something evil, Shang and Katy travel to China to figure out this mystery.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings — A Family Divided
Shang’s history is revealed in a non-linear fashion and it’s such an engaging tale. We slowly get to learn the nature of Wenwu’s obsession with the past. At the same time, we learn how Shang and his estranged sister Xialing try to flee from it. All of them need closure.
Grief plays a heavy role in Wenwu’s quest. He is bound not by the simplistic motives of previous Marvel villains for power. Instead, he favors a means of coping with loss by being hopelessly drawn in by darker forces.
I also really like the dynamic of Katy. Given that she’s being played by Awkwafina, I fully expected her to be the comic relief. While she does get in some good lines, she also has a meaningful arc about trying to prove herself to her friends and family.
Shang-Chi Has Fantastic Action
There’s little surprise that something like Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is loaded with action. This includes daring slugfests amid a towering skyscraper and a CGI-loaded finale of fantasy creature showdowns. However, it’s the more martial-arts-heavy fights that become the most engaging.
This aspect is best showcased in the early bus fight. Shang and Katy find themselves cornered by henchmen on a bus full of people. Saving their lives while preventing the bus from crashing is no small feat.
The entire bus sequence is just such a delight. It’s shot in a way that is not only thrilling but displays just how amazing Simu Liu is when it comes to fighting. The shot where he takes out two henchmen with his kicks and flips on his jacket is just such a genuinely cool moment.
As a bit of a break from the more frenetic and off-beat Marvel movies, this entry is surprisingly more heartfelt. There’s far less moral questioning when the tale of loss and worth is given not only seriousness but grace. Certain sequences are just so sublime for this balance of the human and fantastical elements.
The non-linear presentation also keeps the themes better in focus. By the time the film gets to the big fight of Shang-Chi versus Wenwu, it’s an emotional one. Even a giant dragon who eats souls and can’t suck the more compelling components out of this film.
Limited MCU References in Shang-Chi
Many coming into Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings movie may be keeping their eyes peeled for just how such a picture fits into the grander MCU timeline. While most audiences seem to have been trained to zero in on the relations, they may be dismayed by just how standalone this picture appears.
Sure, there are a few references that draw from side characters of Iron Man 3 and Doctor Strange in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. These inclusions, however, are more of a bonus than a requirement. You don’t need to be as up on your MCU timeline as Black Widow for this entry. It’s a fantasy with lore all its own.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings proves that there’s still plenty of room for Marvel to explore other realms without all the baggage of the extended universe. It’s a friendly reminder that just about any type of story is possible within this franchise. It’s a primary component of how this cinematic universe has existed as long as it has.
There are a few traces of the familiar Marvel formula that do make the film bound by certain mechanics of the Marvel world. That being said, it does make enough unique choice and tinkers with the structure enough to be more than just another superhero movie but with an all-Asian cast. This is a very welcome addition to this superhero saga and the best entry of Phase IV by far.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is now playing in theaters only.