This past weekend, Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings led the domestic box office for the fourth straight week with $13.3 million. It is the first movie to achieve such a feat since Christopher Nolan’s Tenet last year. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings has also surpassed Black Widow for the highest grossing film of 2021. It is expected Shang-Chi will cross the $200 million threshold this week, making it the first movie to do so since the Covid-19 outbreak. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings has been nothing short of outstanding at the box office. But making money isn’t the only thing the recent Marvel picture is great at. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a refreshingly stripped-down superhero flick, with cultural infusion reminiscent of Black Panther. Coming from me, a typically biased DC fanboy, my praise does not come lightly – Shang-Chi is very good.
Marvel movies have a track record of being formulaic and having a bland color palette. The action is often stuffed with CGI and character development is typically sacrificed for a few jokes Disney audiences can appreciate. On the rare occasion, a film of the Marvel Cinematic Universe impresses. Disney will never allow its creative minds to veer too off course from the standard, but sometimes the director leaves an imprint of individuality. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is one of these exceptions. Director Destin Daniel Cretton (Just Mercy) successfully breaks new ground in his introduction of the first Asian superhero lead of the cinematic universe.
The film’s best scene is a beautifully choreographed fight sequence set on a San Francisco bus. This is the first time in the movie where Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) displays his exceptional martial arts capabilities and reveals his royal lineage to his best friend and fellow valet, Katy (Awkwafina). Liu moves swiftly and gracefully, and his strikes are muscular. When the film transitions to Macau, Liu swings his way through a scaffold along a skyscraper. The high-rise scene sports the colorful illumination of the city in its backdrop as enemy ninjas are kicked off to their death. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings proves there doesn’t have to be explosive superpowers involved for the action in a superhero film to be fun and exciting.
It isn’t until the film reaches the hidden village of Ta Lo that it fully capitalizes on its cultural ties to China. The village itself is surrounded by grassy greens and nature and is host to various mythical beasts, including a faceless furball with wings named Morris. The outfits of the villagers are woven in red and gold, and the suit Shang-Chi is given before his final fight is made of dragon scales. During the film’s climax, a Chinese dragon emerges from the water to help Shang-Chi save the day. By weaving African culture into his film, Ryan Coogler was able to craft a more unique identity separate from other Marvel movies for Black Panther. Daniel Cretton similarly does this for Shang-Chi.
Aside from the visual aspect, Shang-Chi implements the theme of family, a common motif across all cultures. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a story about the complications of family nature, from grief to abandonment and neglect. Shang-Chi’s father, Wenwu (Tony Leung), has lived for thousands of years thanks to the magic of the ten rings which grant him immortality and power. Seeking to expand his power, Wenwu conquers everywhere in sight but the village of Ta Lo. It is during his trespass of Ta Lo that he meets Shang-Chi’s mother, Jiang Li (Fala Chen). The two fall in love and bore two children: Shang-Chi and his sister, Xialing (Meng’er Zhang). Now a father, Wenwu puts away the ten rings as he has found peace. However, this doesn’t last long, and Jiang Li is murdered by Wenwu’s enemies, the Iron Gang. Wenwu takes up the rings once more and brings a young Shang-Chi with him to watch as he kills those responsible for Jiang Li’s death (another impressive scene where you watch Wenwu’s destruction in the reflection of mirrors, keeping the frightened face of Shang-Chi in the frame). Shang-Chi then undergoes brutal training in martial arts to become an assassin.
Tony Leung’s Wenwu is cold and cruel, yet also sympathetic. The Hong Kong actor, of Wong Kar-Wai fame, adds another dimension to the authoritarian patriarch as a man in mourning. Wenwu is willing to bring his wife back no matter the sacrifice, and it is Tony Leung’s performance that makes the film’s familial bickering compelling.
Earlier this year, fellow Marvel peer Black Widow had a comparable focus on a dysfunctional family. Shang-Chi continues this trend as Disney progresses through MCU: Phase Four.
After a promising first half, if not two-thirds, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings regresses into the prototypical Marvel movie as described earlier in my review. The action scenes turn into blurry clusters of CG battles with little memorability or impact. Wenwu is sidelined for a bigger and forgettable villain: a giant, soul-eating monster, and its minions. Gone are the more restrained martial arts sequences that I admired earlier in the film. I cannot say I was surprised by this transition, but a man is allowed to hope.
For most of its runtime, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is something special. It is one of the better films of the MCU in recent memory. Of course, as can be inferred based on the box office numbers, by the time of me writing this review you have likely already seen the movie and know this. Next time around, I’ll try to be more on top of things.