There are two identity crises at the heart of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. One is written into the narrative: Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) is the son of an immortal crime lord (Tony Leung), who’s rejected his father’s empire for a simpler and less murderous life parking cars for a ritzy San Francisco hotel. His journey will be toward making himself whole again, reconciling his dark past with his good heart to forge a new way forward.
The other lies with the film itself. Shang-Chi, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, attempts to shake up the Marvel formula by infusing it with martial-arts action and fairy-tale fantasy and grounding it in Chinese and Asian American culture. And while its disparate elements don’t meld together as smoothly as they should, they do, in the end, add up to a superhero movie fresh and fun enough to feel worth a spin.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
A flawed but fresh spin on the superhero formula.
It doesn’t take long for Shang-Chi to lay down its terms. The initial scenes of the film are set in China, with the opening narration and dialogue entirely in Mandarin (with subtitles). It’s not until the action moves to San Francisco, several minutes in, that we hear a single word of English. Even in 2021, when subtitles are hardly an exotic experience for most moviegoers, the choice to use them in the opening scenes of an American blockbuster sends a message. Shang-Chi may be Marvel’s first Asian lead character, 23 films into the franchise, but he and his family won’t be treated as novelties in their own movie.
From there, Shang-Chi quickly distinguishes itself with its action, which emphasizes precision and agility over brute-force strength or weightless CG trickery (though there’s plenty of those as well, thanks to the Ten Rings that grant its wearers godlike power). The film’s most thrilling set piece is essentially a hallway fight scene set on a speeding bus, and Liu looks the very picture of cool as he twists and swings and kicks his way through half a dozen henchmen, the camera breathlessly tracking his every move. But the characters’ martial arts training informs softer moments, too, like a wuxia-inspired meet-cute between Shang-Chi’s parents (Tony Leung and Fala Chen) that takes on the flirty symmetry of a dance.
In scenes like the latter, which is set in a magical forest outside a hidden kingdom and involves the use of mysterious ancient artifacts, Shang-Chi barely feels like a superhero movie at all. If anything, it veers closer to the wistful grandeur of Disney’s live-action fairy tale adaptations. Alas, not even a warrior as gifted as Shang-Chi is capable of breaking the Marvel mold completely. The franchise’s quippy, self-deprecating sense of humor, which does so much to bring its characters back down to earth no matter how extravagant their powers become, kicks in any time Shang-Chi threatens to feel too epic. The jokes keep Shang-Chi from tipping over into self-importance, but they also rob it of some of its wonder.
Elsewhere, the Marvel Cinematic Universe makes its presence even more pointedly known by way of cameos, references to the Blip (i.e., the events of Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame) and an exhaustive explanation of what the Ten Rings of this title has to do with the Ten Rings from Iron Man 3. Then, of course, there’s the requisite third-act sky battle with shooting CG lights — predictably the least interesting part of nearly every Marvel movie, including this one. Oh, and don’t forget the two end-credits scenes, which offer a tease of just how Shang-Chi might fit into future MCU sequels.
Like the characters keep saying to one another, it’s a lot to take in. And that’s on top of an already overstuffed plot involving not just Shang-Chi’s complicated relationship with his father, which is detailed via extensive flashbacks, but also an elaborate mythology delivered through a breathless exposition dump late in the movie. There’s a low-simmer subplot about Shang-Chi’s possibly romantic interest in his free-spirited best friend, Katy (Awkwafina), and a slightly more high-simmer one about his sister (Meng’er Zhang), who’s sick of being sidelined — which itself keeps getting sidelined, since Shang-Chi additionally needs to make room for a slew of characters who don’t even show up till after the halfway mark.
Amid all this frantic plotting, Shang-Chi himself tends to get lost. As magnetic as Liu is in action, he struggles in quieter moments with a script (by Cretton, Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham) that gives the character more backstory than personality. But he has a lifesaver in Leung, whose character, Wenwu, is the rare supervillain with a soul. Leung’s sincerity lights up the love underlying Shang-Chi’s convoluted origins and helps to ground the film’s kookier flights of fancy — and he does all this without stealing the show from under Liu’s Shang-Chi.
It’s in their scenes together that Shang-Chi‘s core ideas feel most fully realized. Strip away all that glossy superhero magic, and the film reveals itself to be the achingly familiar tale of a child figuring out how to bridge the gap between his parents’ values and expectations and his own — in the same way that Shang-Chi itself tries to remix old tropes with new perspectives. It doesn’t always succeed with flying colors. But as with a young hero still finding his footing, its valiant efforts feel worth cheering all the same.