The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a film canon cluttered with familiar formulas and diminishing returns. So it’s genuinely exciting to see the newest MCU film, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, bucking expectations with viscerally engaging fight choreography and trope reversals of other origin stories (mainly Doctor Strange). But then it’s all the more disappointing to see Shang-Chi subsequently revert to some of the most glaring and gaudy Marvel missteps.
Let’s start with the subversions. This isn’t a “regular guy becomes a superhero” type film, thank Dormammu. Instead, the titular Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) has an expedited backstory with roots to the film’s central conflict, plus a direct, familial tie-in with his baddie daddy, the MCU’s new canonical Mandarin (Tony Leung).
So forget everything you saw in Shane Black’s Iron Man 3, but actually don’t, because Shang-Chi‘s screenwriters (which include director Destin Daniel Cretton) certainly want that film’s depiction of the Mandarin to swallow all the backlash and spit out an explanation that might feel more at home in a CinemaSins writer’s room. There is a respectable willingness here to own the MCU’s previous shortcomings with a convenient retcon, as this is a comic book movie, after all.
The actual plot of Shang-Chi is something of a Hong Kong action road trip movie sprinkled with Wuxia-inspired flashbacks and light doses of gritty, Chinese underworld gangland intrigue, certainly befitting Marvel’s first Chinese-led film. That said, the mixing of all three is an unsettling brew, even though these separate pieces have more than enough flavor on their own.
We meet Shang-Chi as Shaun, an Asian-American living a content existence in Ant-Man’s San Francisco backyard (he’s never mentioned, thankfully) with platonic BFF Katy (Awkwafina). The wayward pals have an immediate chemistry that further develops once a bus fight scene reveals Shaun’s mythical past and Katy invites herself to his coming-of-age party.
The bus fight scene in question is easily the film’s best, which is regrettable considering how early it happens in the film. It’s a payoff to a moment with built-up tension after an extended prologue, but it’s also a rewarding surprise through the revelation of Shang-Chi’s fighting mastery. It’s a masterclass in the values of showing not telling, right before the film proceeds to tell more than show for most of the remaining film.
True, there are more epic bouts to be had, many of them involving the superpowered “ten rings” wielded by the Mandarin to terrifying effect. There are more powerful characters to enter this hero’s journey’s fray, of course, from an underground fight club owner (Meng’er Zhang) to Michelle Yeoh essentially reprising her legacy role in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, albeit in small, mentorship doses.
Shang-Chi consistently adds more and more layers to its expansive world-building, saving its grand slam for what should’ve been a triumphant third act climax with enough emotional energy to power the ten rings themselves. Instead, this is where the film jarringly mimics the worst tendencies of the lesser Marvel films. The action devolves into computer-generated mayhem with rubbery smooth textures, washed out colors, and an overall production design bearing an odd resemblance to a Power Rangers episode.
Its humor and heart is in the right place, and some of its clip-worthy action sequences are just that. But by the end of Shang-Chi, it’s clear that Marvel’s machinery has grander plans in mind for how this character, brought to life impressively by Liu, will fit into the larger, interconnected narrative. So it’s sad to see what could’ve been a rousing standalone finish its journey as little more than a pitstop to something much better.