Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is finally here and it marks the Marvel Cinematic Universe's first origin story in many years to feature an all-new cast of characters. While Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is similar to Black Panther in its approach to storytelling, even T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) made his debut in Captain America: Civil War, and while Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) was introduced in her own solo film, the movie had the familiarity of strong Marvel presences such as Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). Simu Liu's entrance into the MCU as Shang-Chi features very few nods to the movies that came before, which makes his debut bold yet rewarding. In fact, you're bound to fall in love with all of the film's new characters. Shang-Chi is an action-packed origin story by director Destin Daniel Cretton, who has officially delivered Phase Four's first standalone gem.
When we first meet Shang-Chi, he's living in San Francisco under the name Shawn, parking cars and living an easygoing life alongside his best friend, Katy (Awkwafina). However, when the two are attacked by assassins sent by Shang-Chi's own father, played by Tony Leung, the truth of his identity is revealed and he must team up with Katy in order to find and protect his estranged sister, Xialing, played by newcomer Meng'er Zhang. When it comes to all of the characters' backstories, some moments feel a bit overexplained, but Shang-Chi still manages to feature some of the best pacing of an origin story since 2005's Batman Begins.
The first hour of Shang-Chi is filled with lore, action, and excitement that will surely thrill fans who are here to see Marvel's first martial arts film. Liu shines best in the moments of action, and even without any superpowers, you believe he would stand a chance against some of the toughest Avengers. The movie's early hand-to-hand combat sequences mark some of the MCU's best, and while the film eventually switches gears and focuses more on the magical side of the mythology, Shang-Chi never stops being an engaging ride.
For a movie with a lot of promised action, you'll be surprised to learn that it shines brightest when it comes to heart and humor. Awkwafina not only gives one of the best comedic performances in the entire MCU but her character development is surprisingly layered. Katy's comedy was easily the highlight of the movie, but she's also someone who could have an important future in the franchise. While Shang-Chi is ultimately Liu's movie, it also feels like an ensemble piece, and the women are showcased with extreme nuance. Zhang's Xialing could not be more different from Katy; she's fierce, courageous, and dealing with some deep trauma. Allowing characters the ability to struggle emotionally is an important recurring theme in Phase Four that we've been seeing in the Disney+ shows, as well as Black Widow, bringing the franchise to new depths.
However, the real heart of the film comes from Leung's complicated performance as Shang-Chi's father. We've seen villainous dads in Marvel in the past with characters like Ego (Kurt Russell) and Thanos (Josh Brolin), but Leung's portrayal is the first that allows you to truly feel the character's struggle between loving his family and his lust for power. The entangled family dynamics make for a compelling throughline and a tense final battle.
Speaking of the movie's third act, the switch from a martial arts focus to a magical one feels a bit disjointed, but the payoff is still incredibly earned. There are lots of neat creatures at the end of the film which are created using some top-notch CGI. The dragons might be the best ever seen on-screen (or at least on par with Game of Thrones) and everything else feels refreshingly realistic, especially coming off of the distractingly bad CGI seen in Disney's last film, Jungle Cruise.
When it comes to the disappointments of Shang-Chi, the biggest is actually the fault of the movie's premiere, which featured the announcement that Ben Kingsley would be returning as Iron Man 3's Trevor Slattery AKA the fake Mandarin. If you hated Kingsley's twist in Iron Man 3, you will be incredibly pleased by how Shang-Chi rights the wrong. If you, like me, loved the Iron Man 3 twist, you'll just be delighted to have goofy Trevor back on your screen. I only wish it would have been left as a surprise, but alas, it's getting harder and harder to keep Marvel secrets. My only other real complaint about the movie is the underuse of Michelle Yeoh, who doesn't appear until late in the film. When you have such an iconic martial arts star in your martial arts movie, you should give her more to do.
The most important thing about Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is its representation. From an outside perspective, the movie appears to showcase Chinese culture in a respectful way. However, this observation comes from a white person who is not an expert in Chinese lore. I highly recommend seeking out reviews by Asian critics, including this thread started by William Yu.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe's best origin stories to date, filled with stunningly choreographed action, unexpected laughs, and a whole lot of heart. Even if you're unfamiliar with the Shang-Chi comics, this film is worth seeing on the big screen. And be sure to stick around for both the mid-credits and post-credits scenes, which are guaranteed to please any Marvel fan. With the addition of Simu Liu, Awkwafina, and Meng'er Zhang, the future of the MCU is looking bright.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings releases exclusively in theaters on September 3rd.