Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is approximately the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s millionth origin story, and it’s also the freshest one in a long while.
Now I have to admit something: I got lazy last year. When it came to the MCU, I was burned out and bored with the content and both Shan- Chi and Eternals suffered because of that. I was so annoyed at being battered with MCU content that I didn’t even know the most basic of facts about Shang- Chi, that its director, Destin Daniel Cretton, made one of my favourite films of recent years. So, rest assured, if I realized that the director of the shatteringly brilliant Short Term 12 was making a superhero movie, I would have been there on opening night. It’s a lesson. I’ve learned it.
The first movie of a new character is rarely where the MCU shows its best work. While first stories like Iron Man, Thor, Doctor Strange, and Captain Marvel are solid, and the likes of Ant-Man and The First Avenger are actively bad, Shang-Chi belongs in the exulted company of Guardians of the Galaxy. Like Guardians, Shang-Chi needs to introduce us not just to a new character but to a new corner of the MCU, and it does so with style, class, and a suitably mythic story that makes you wonder why Iron Fist even tried before this.
I’m not saying that Shang-Chi is as good as Guardians (though it is surprisingly close) but it does feel simultaneously like both a product of the MCU while also being very much its own thing. There is also a Black Panther-like thrill of exploring the differences, connections, and overlaps of western and Asian culture inherent in Shang-Chi’s portrayal. In a superhero movie landscape that is so predominately white and homogenised, Shang-Chi stands out.
What really makes Shang-Chi stand out from the rest of the MCU is the action. The team behind these sequences have done a fantastic job in terms of choreography, geography, and most importantly, story-telling. For the predominant action genre currently ruling the world, most superhero movies are merely okay when it comes to action. A lot of the time, it’s just pretty people shooting energy at each other, when it’s not an entirely CGI scene with impossible camera angles.
But Shang-Chi does the work. Each set piece has its own personality: the contrast of styles in the romantic fight (not in a creepy way) in which Shang’s parents meet, the mythic merging of masculine and feminine energies with a big ol’ dragon, and the utterly unique (for the MCU) practical bus fight in which Shang Chi is properly introduced. Action scenes can often feel like a break from the story, like in Michael Bay movies (I know, what story?), or the point of the movie itself, such as the increasingly ridiculous and entertainingly inane Fast and Furious movies. Shang- Chi hits that sweet spot where action and story come together like a dragon and a finished analogy.
The Lack of a Villain Problem
If the key to a great MCU villain was great casting, then I wouldn’t have to do these sections, but the right pick for the villain in the casting department certainly helps. Tony Leung is a legend of Asian cinema, with a diverse filmography littered with classics such as Hero, Lust, Caution, and In the Mood for Love. Shang-Chi is his first English-language movie and instead of yet another great actor getting chewed up by the MCU machinery (watch literally anything else with Mads Mikkelsen or Christopher Eccelston in it and you’ll see how much they got screwed), Leung absolutely fucking kills it. Xu Wenwu is a complicated man with immense power who is driven by the loss of the only person who didn’t give a shit that he was the Mandarin. It’s a simple driving point, but it’s downright nuanced for a modern superhero movie, as he represents a walking cautionary tale of both the limits of heritage and the corruption of power to his children.
Ticking The Romance Box
There is no romance in this movie, and that’s why it is in my top tier of MCU movies. Less romance, more Wong karaoke please.
Shang Chi is a joy from start to finish. There is nothing in this movie that I don’t like. It’s like Big Trouble in Little China had a baby with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and that baby was a good version of the Last Airbender. Shang-Chi is a great hero, his father, the real Mandarin, is a great villain (they got Tony fucking Leung, people!), his little sister steals the entire movie, Akwafina somehow manages to be more endearing than annoying as an audience surrogate, and did I mention Michelle Yeoh? Do I really need to say anymore?
By Kevin Boyle
(header image via Men’s Health)