Review: ‘Shang-Chi’ and the Legend of the Perfect Origin Movie
Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings moves across the thin ledges of the superhero origin movie and intricately-placed MCU entry as nimbly as its main character does sky-high scaffolding, giving fans something brand-new and comfortably familiar at the same time.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings isn’t a perfect movie, but it is a near-perfect example of the superhero origin story. Origin stories have proven a challenge to master in just about every superhero cinematic universe from Marvel to DC. Turns out, a lack of familiarity with Shang-Chi as a superhero probably benefits this movie.
He first appeared in Special Marvel Edition #15 back in 1973, and while he’s been part of the Marvel Comics universe ever since, he has never risen to the level of say Captain America or Spider-Man. His backstory is pretty fungible as result, and the results are extraordinary. SPOILERS follow.
With an outstanding story, cast, and kinetic action, it’s one of the best Marvel movies ever made. Shang-Chi will evoke memories of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as well as wuxia movies like Hero and House of Flying Daggers thanks to its breathtaking action sequences. Simu Liu not only creates a relatable, empathetic main character but an instant action star as well.
The movie takes place after the events of Avengers: Endgame, but save for a few key references — and some major cameos, more on that later — you wouldn’t know it’s an MCU movie at all. It’s a martial arts feature fused with Chinese mythology and the mystical arts, and it’s wholly unique in the pantheon of the MCU.
The movie begins with flashbacks to the origin of Shang-Chi’s father, Wenwu. His iconography is a clear echo of that established for The Mandarin in Iron Man 3. That divisive sequel plays an unlikely role in this movie, but the focus is on the mystical power of the Ten Rings, ancient Wenwu, and a realm called Ta Lo.
The mystical realm of Ta Lo plays a prominent role in the mythology of the movie, written by Dave Callaham, Destin Daniel Cretton, and Andrew Lanham, and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton. The opening takes its time in detailing the unlikely romance between the evil Wenwu and Ta Lo’s sentry, Shang Chi’s mother, Ying Li (Fala Chen).
Some might shift in their seats as the Lord of the Rings prologue-like opening plays out, but the patient pace of the movie pays off major dividends as the movie unfolds. The flashbacks become an integral part of the narrative, deepening the understanding of both Shang-Chi and his complex father, played with a quiet gravity by Tony Leung.
Cut to the present day and Shang-Chi is Shaun, living in San Francisco and working as a valet. His best friend is Katy, played by an absolutely electric Awkwafina, and they’re bristling at any criticism of how moribund their lives are. Liu and Awkwafina are great together and the source of a lot of laughs. A romantic angle is teased, but never really explored. Though some fans may welcome a platonic friendship between a man and a woman in a movie, raising it and then dropping it makes the romance seem like an afterthought.
At times it might feel like Shang-Chi himself is an afterthought in a global and eventually extradimensional story, but the scope and depth afforded to other characters, particularly his parents, gives the movie an identity unique in the MCU. Family is everything in this movie: good, bad, and ugly.
The action starts early and never lets up as a group of thugs accost Shang-Chi on a city bus. They’re seeking a jade pendant his mother left him, a mystery that binds the major players into the deeper lore of the movie. This bus-set melee is one of the best action sequences in the MCU, showing off the very athletic Liu as he becomes Internet famous by wrecking house.
The plot has twists and turns that visit unanticipated places, and are best experienced watching the movie for the first time. The trailers have spoiled the appearance of both Wong (Benedict Wong) and Abomination from the 2008 Hulk movie, which is a shame, because they’re so great.
Wong in particular plays a major role in the post-credits scene. This scene opens up a major MCU mystery linking Shang-Chi and the Ten Rings into the greatest cosmic multiverse of the franchise. It also features other surprising cameos — one maybe not so surprising given that abominable character in this movie — and another one that is completely unexpected.
Fans of the current What If..? animated series may also recognize certain elements in the movie, especially from the fourth episode featuring Doctor Strange. The movie will certainly inspire a lot of theories and takes, and clearly is part of a larger puzzle the MCU is building in Phase 4.
The action builds as Shang-Chi and Katy go to Macao to find his sister and another identical pendant. The quest for the relics of their mother leads them into direct conflict with their father, whose ambitions are surprisingly human given his power. Still, his relentless pursuit of Ta Lo threatens true disaster.
The movie escalates into a massive martial arts version of Lord of the Rings by the end, with stunning visuals, an outstanding score, and clean direction that lets the action do its thing. The only major wrinkle in the climax is some dodgy CGI near the end, especially on the many CGI creatures.
Another disappointment is the Death Dealer. This visually iconic lieutenant of Wenwu comes to nothing in the movie and is dispatched without any real ceremony. The true secondary baddie is Razor Fist, who is okay, but not as interesting or menacing as Death Dealer, especially after Shang-Chi schools him early in the movie.
The movie is mostly positive, with a clear, compelling story populated by engaging characters. It’s an enormous showcase for Asian-American representation, and proof of how diverse the MCU is not just in people, but also in types of genre. This movie is functionally a Hong Kong 80s action flick that just happens to fit inside a superhero universe.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a true popcorn movie that doesn’t take any shortcuts or ever confuses itself for another movie. A lesser creative team might have flinched at making a superhero movie spoken as much in English as Chinese; without any obvious superhero movie markers like the discovery of powers or costumes; a narrative as patient and powerful as the martial artistry of its mythic heroes.
The Legend of the Easter Eggs:
- Post-Blip anxiety is a major thing, as evidenced by posters throughout San Francisco.
- Abomination is clearly evolved from his first appearance in the MCU, but no details as to how or why.
- He also seems kind of buddies with Wong, which begs some questions.
- One of the fighters inside the pens at Xialing’s fighting club is one of the Widows from Black Widow.
- Razor Fist is a character from the comics, introduced in 1975.
- There are dragons in this movie, but don’t seem to correlate to any Marvel Comics dragons.
- There is also a Big Bad and that is worth discussing in the context of a certain creature in What If..? — though the demonic creature beyond the Dark Gate in Ta Lo and the squid monster in What If..? seem different, they share physical characteristics that might suggest a similar origin.
- The Ten Rings are not of Earthly origin and contain some kind of beacon. One possibility — the golden energy of the rings does share some similarities with that of the power displayed in The Eternals trailer. There might be a connection, especially as no one recognizes it.
- The demonic entity in the movie uses a dark magic purple in color, the same as Agatha Harkness and Dormammu. In fact, the creature appears very much like Dormammu when its neck is rippling with purple energy.
- Captain Marvel always has to boost.
- “Fixing” Iron Man 3 was not necessary at all, but Trevor Slattery makes a welcome return to explain the discrepancy between the real Ten Rings and the fake organization. He also gives the story of how he chose acting as a profession, which is just as looney as he is.
Darby Harn is a contributor for Screenrant, CBR.com, Star Wars News Net, and Movie News Net. He is the author of the sci-fi superhero novel EVER THE HERO. His short fiction appears in Strange Horizons, Interzone, Shimmer, and other venues.