REVIEW: Shang-Chi Marks A Unique & Refreshing Origin Story

SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS

Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings is not to be missed, flipping the usual origin story tropes on their head and instead capitalizing on the unique life experiences of its protagonist. A promising start to the next Phase of the MCU, it heralds an era of memorable heroes ready to make their mark on the universe.

It is a true shame that Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings is coming to us in the midst of a global pandemic, with profits and impact sure to fall short of what it deserves. But on the other hand, it is exactly the kind of action-packed shout of joy viewers need after a year and a half of slogging through what life has chosen to offer.

Those who watched the trailers and behind-the-scenes of the next big MCU film already know that this isn’t your average origin story, starting with a hero who already knows his identity and abilities but has chosen to eschew them. But Shang-Chi‘s exceptional nature goes far beyond that, everything from its dialogue to its character trajectories helps it to stand out in the best way possible from the MCU Standard – which is already in and of itself a tried and true formula that rarely misses.

SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGSJasin Boland

(L-R): Katy (Awkwafina) and Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) in Marvel Studios’ SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS.

First, there is our hero Shang-Chi himself, played by the effervescent Simu Liu. He already proved his comedic chops in Kim’s Convenience – which reminds me that there is a fun inside joke about someone mistaking him as Korean in the film that should go over well with Netflix fans while also making us ponder the nature of ethnicity and identity – and this film allows him to explore his action here side and his dramatic range as well. When his story starts, he and his best friend Katy (the always charming Awkwafina, so long as you leave the intersectional race conversation for later) represent the quintessential Millennials. And once again, this is meant in the best way possible.

See, Shaun (Shang-Chi’s American name, and the subject of another great joke later) and Katy have been given the tools they need to survive by their parents – albeit in very different ways – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that following in their footsteps is going to allow them to thrive. And so, for now they park cars as hotel valets and don’t live up to their potential, according to everyone they know. But they’re happy with themselves and each other – until Shaun’s father Wenwu (played by the incredible Tony Chiu-Wai Leung, who commands the screen at every turn) shows up to disrupt their lives in the most dramatic way possible.

From there, the film goes from family dramedy – and some might argue romantic comedy, depending on how susceptible you are to shipping any two characters with chemistry – to high-powered action. But Destin Daniel Cretton’s seamless directing ensures you don’t miss a beat, and both Liu and Awkwafina are more than adaptable when it comes to matching the tone of any particular scene. There are plenty of gotcha moments and typical Marvel comedy sequences, but they are artfully placed and feel true to the protagonists as presented.

SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGSJasin Boland

(L-R): Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) and Katy (Awkwafina) in Marvel Studios’ SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS.

Which brings me to the dialogue, because much of it is in Mandarin. Katy and Shaun speak English to each other, as the children of immigrants are wont to do, but they – or at least he, because she claims her Chinese is terrible – speak Mandarin with their families most of the time. Sometimes one person will speak in Chinese, while another responds in English; sometimes they switch mid-sentence. This mixing of one’s mother tongue with English is reminiscent of last year’s Minari, and is a realistic aspect of any immigrant experience. Gone are the days of purposely heavy accents while speaking complex English sentences smack dab in the middle of China (I’m looking at you, Mulan), and I for one couldn’t be more grateful.

One main character I haven’t mentioned yet is Xialing (Meng’er Zhang, whom I was literally blown away to discover was strictly a theater kid and a newcomer to film). But fear not, she is essential to the plot, to Shang-Chi’s character development, and to balancing out the family drama at the very heart of the film. Because The Legend of The Ten Rings is very much about family above all else. Of course Wenwu, who is the fearsome leader of the Ten Rings and the “true” Mandarin, has a plan that is detrimental to the stability of the world. And of course Shang-Chi and his merry band of misfits – no spoilers, but let’s just say this is where one of my favorite cameos and even more favorite creatures meant to sell merchandise come in – must stop him. But what really matters is Shang-Chi and Xialing making peace with their past, with their father, and with each other.

The movie helps this along by starting with an extended flashback sequence, introducing us to their mother and father before they became mother and father. Some might feel this section drags, but it lays the groundwork for how we meet Shaun, and succeeds in making Jiang Li (played by the ethereal Fala Chen) feel like more of a person than a concept and thus allows the twist in the latter half of the story hit harder. It also plays a large part in mythologizing and humanizing Wenwu in equal measure, a balancing act that is by no means easy to achieve.

SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGSjasinboland@gmail.com

(L-R): Jiang Li (Fala Chen) and Shang-Chi (Jayden Tianyi Zhang) in Marvel Studios’ SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS.

Perhaps one character who doesn’t quite stick the landing when it comes to humanity is the mysterious Jiang Nian – though that is through no fault of Michelle Yeoh, who very capably handles her exposition, emotion, and action. In fact, it’s rather purposeful and adds to the mythology of the Ten Rings as well as opens the door to future Shang-Chi plots. It’s just that the transition to the final act of the film isn’t quite as seamless as the rest of the story was. But that doesn’t detract from the overall enjoyment of the film or its satisfying conclusion in the least.

The only thing that might detract, ironically enough, is the second after-credits scene. Again, not about to reveal spoilers, but it presents a new twist in the plot and makes a sequel immediately necessary to expand on how we got there and where we’re going with it. But that’s not a negative thing, either; it’s merely going to make the audience impatient.

Other than that, Shang-Chi is filled with love for their characters and respect for their individual backstories. There is no weak link in the cast, and all the plot threads in the main chunk of the film tie together while still leaving room for surprises down the line. The action scenes are also creatively directed and filmed – although there are a few seconds of slo-mo that are laughable for the wrong reasons. The CG is majestic as well, but all of that pales in comparison to how desperately the MCU needed a hero like Shang-Chi to fill the void of the ones who have graduated or left us, and how magnificently Simu Liu steps up to the task.

What did you think of Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings? Where does it rank among other MCU films? Let us know in the comments below.

Tags: ,