Review | Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings | 2021

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has become such an ubiquitous, monocultural institution that, for me anyway, it's beginning to feel more like a chore than escapism - each new entry representing a piece of a corporate puzzle that only serves as connective tissue to still more product we are expected to consume. The series has become such a hydra at this point, spinning off both movies and television shows (not to mention the comics on which they're based), that the constantly expanding, overlapping, and self-referencing has worn out its welcome. 

Clearly this hasn't dampened its popularity with general audiences, who continue to show up in droves, making each new film an event unto itself - but ever since the story essentially came to an end after a decade's worth of world building in Avengers: Endgame, the sense of fatigue has felt all the more pronounced. That's why Destin Daniel Cretton's Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is such an unexpected pleasure. After having all but written off the MCU, I found myself drawn into the refreshingly standalone world of Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) and his sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang). Both products of a union between Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung), the leader of an ancient crime syndicate called the Ten Rings, and Li (Fala Chen), a member of an elite fighting force sworn to protect the one earthly realm that Xu was unable to conquer. 

Having renounced their birthrights and escaped to separate lives on opposite sides of the world, Shang-Chi and Xialing find themselves reunited by their father's quest to at last conquer their mother's homeland. Convinced that she is still alive and being held captive, he is determined to set her free at all costs, but an ancient evil awaits behind the gates, and his arrogance threatens to destroy everything.

Shang-Chi himself is not a particularly interesting hero, but the supporting cast is aces; Tony Leung and Michelle Yeoh are in a class by themselves and they own every scene they're in. Ben Kingsley is also great fun reprising his role as Trevor the actor from Iron Man  3 (Xu Wenwu, it turns out, is the real Mandarin, and is none-too-pleased with Trevor's appropriation of his image), and Awkwafina and Meng'er Zhang's journeys are both more interesting than anything involving Shang-Chi.  The martial arts fight sequences are also much more kinetic and tactile than the usual CGI superhero hammering (again, Yeoh and Leung are best in show here). The whole thing has the feel of a wuxia epic. And no, we're not working on the level of a King Hu, Ang Lee, or Zhang Yimou here, but it's easy to become swept up in its story because Cretton is a smart enough filmmaker to fill what could have been throwaway roles with tremendous actors. The choreography is more engaging, the emotional beats more resonant, the stakes are more personal and tangible, and there's a hint of a soul here that has been largely missing from the MCU. It's certainly taking from bigger and better sources, but it's nice not feeling like I've got to remember minute details of 20 other movies and 50 years of comics to understand the characters and the plot.

Shang-Chi is the first Marvel movie in a very long time that really made me feel something, and not just like I was doing homework for the next inevitable entry. It is thrilling and transporting in a way the MCU hasn't been in a while; and while it naturally connects to the cinematic universe at large in the credit scenes, overall it feels like a self-contained fantasy adventure, which is such a breath of fresh air for the series. One hopes that Phase 4 will focus less on crafting interweaving stories and more on developing films that stand on their own merits - and while I'm not holding my breath on that front, not since Black Panther has the world of a Marvel film felt so vibrantly alive.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS | Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton | Stars Simu Liu, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Awkwafina, Meng'er Zhang, Fala Chen, Michelle Yeoh, Yuen Wah, Ben Kingsley | Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and language | Now playing in theaters nationwide.


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