In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there is a pretty good track record of firsts. Iron Man was the first Marvel Studios movie and set the template for the MCU. Guardians of the Galaxy was the first space-based movie with characters few in the audience had ever heard of before. Black Panther was the first movie celebrating Black and African culture. Captain Marvel was the first movie in the MCU with a woman as the lead. Now, we have the first Asian-led superhero MCU movie, Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings.
Shang-Chi opens with an incredible love story. A fierce fight that turns into unexpected love. A family is begun. Starting a movie with the backstory of the villain is different and a fresh approach.
The movie quickly shifts our point of view to the son as we see Shang-Chi reject his father’s criminal enterprise and make his way to San Francisco where he endeavors to have a normal life. After changing his name to “Shawn,” he works as a valet, sings karaoke, and has fun with his best friend Katy. As the story goes, his past catches up to him when he’s attacked by assassins on a bus. An enthralling fight scene follows, and “Shawn” ultimately reveals his real name and his destiny.
It is at this point the story follows a somewhat predictable Marvel movie pattern. Shang-Chi returns to China to find his sister and confront his father. Of course, there are a few surprises and a few Marvel movie characters show up, but much like Black Panther, it works best when not totally tied into the greater MCU.
Semu Liu, as Shang-Chi, carries the action and is the heart of the movie. As you might guess from the trailer, Awkwafina’s Katy is the comedic sidekick, but I love the “friends as family” vibe she and Liu have. Aside from Liu and Awkwafina, it’s Tony Leung as Shang-Chi’s father, Wenwu, who stands out. As Wenwu, he is more than just the bad guy in a superhero movie. He’s a tragic, lonely figure. A grieving man clinging to hope. He is as sympathetic a villain as Killmonger in Black Panther, a movie Shang-Chi is emulating on several levels.
Many years ago, I went to a Hong Kong film festival and stumbled into Hard Boiled. It starred Chow Yun-Fat and Tony Leung and was easily one of the best action films I had ever seen. Both leads were mesmerizing on screen. Chow caught my eye again in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but Leung did not make the transition to Hollywood until Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Thank goodness he did.
Director Destin Daniel Cretton, his co-writers Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham, and his stunt team deliver the best martial arts and fight choreography I’ve seen in a long time. For me, this movie showcases the best MCU fights since Captain America: The Winter Soldier which I think is a high mark. It is obvious Cretton was influenced and inspired by Chinese wuxia (like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and the oeuvre of Jackie Chan.
Still, there is more to this movie than just a series of fight scenes. Phase 4 of the MCU is focused on the traumatic aftermath of the Thanos snap removing half the universe’s population and Tony Stark sacrificing himself to return everyone. From Spider-Man Far From Home to WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, grief and how to move on in this new world order is a central theme. Dealing with grief in a deconstructive, near-sighted way drives Shang-Chi and infuses this superhero origin action-adventure into something a bit more.
I am understandably curious how this theme will be instilled in the known films on the horizon including Eternals, Spider-Man: No Way Home, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Thor: Love and Thunder, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, The Marvels, and Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.
Most importantly, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a remarkable achievement regarding representation in the MCU. Credit goes to Kevin Feige who has managed to keep the MCU exciting and expanding. With this film, we have an Asian-American director and writers, and a positive representation of the Asian community.
Shang-Chi sets up even more diversity which can only mean a bigger more inclusive collection of super-heroes moving forward. Shang-Chi needs to succeed to show that committing to this kind of progress is worthy.
I think it will succeed beyond anyone’s expectations.