Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings has a lot of expectations to meet as it takes its place within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Not only is it the first Marvel film to receive an exclusive theatrical release since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it is also the first Marvel film to feature an Asian lead—well, actually a mostly Asian cast. Yes, that’s right, there’s hardly a caucasian in sight.
Shang-Chi takes on this pressure with grace, resulting in a beautiful film, a dedication to Asian and Asian-American culture. This film isn’t even recognizable as a Marvel film in some ways. Other than its post-credit scene and the appearance of Wong (Benedict Wong), there aren’t many MCU tie-ins that affect the environment, plot, or character arcs. This film doesn’t rely on cameos or gags to succeed. It stands tall and proud on its own.
Only a few small issues cause to pause, and not all problems are simple enough to fix with one film.
Warning! Spoilers for Shang Chi follow!
When it comes to the story, the strongest aspect of Shang-Chi is its relationships, both familial and platonic.
Tony Leung and Fala Chen’s chemistry is radiant, particularly in their first meeting. One of the strengths of this film is its visuals—it’s clear that Shang-Chi takes inspiration from the same predecessors that its original comic did in the 80s.
In fact, this film is grounded by the different characters’ connections to Jiang Li (Chen), even in her death. Her children, her sister, and her husband all act in ways that they believe honor her, even if contorted by pain and manipulation.
When it comes to the siblings’ relationship to each other, this film mostly serves as a tease and introduction to a possibly contentious relationship in future MCU movies. However, when it comes down to it, these two can and will work together as a family, which is still a driving force in the values of both Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) and Xialing (Meng’er Zhang).
Shang-Chi rolls the dice with its platonic pairing of Katy (Awkwafina) and ‘Sean’ Chi, and their friendship is relatable. It’s silly, devoted, and intimate. Katy and Shang-Chi are an acknowledgment of people who find partners but without sexuality attached. At the same time, it’s weird that the only protagonists in Marvel who don’t have a romantic plot are a (subjectively) queer woman and a man of color.
Sure, having the central non-familial male/female relationship exist as purely platonic is interesting to watch and still satisfying throughout the film, but the question is if this was the movie to introduce this concept. Shang-Chi already has so much to tackle, and taking out a normal ingredient of a Marvel film is a risk that’s easily noticed.
Shang-Chi is probably one of the standout Marvel films, even without exactly feeling connected to the universe, save for the first post-credit scene. Shang-Chi actually manages to celebrate a unique experience in an authentic way, while still falling into a new genre that Marvel manages to hit the mark with every attempt: the hidden antagonist movie.
With titles such as Captain America and the Winter Solider and Avengers: Infinity War, Marvel has found a way to deeply tell the stories of antagonists in an empathetic way without sacrificing the narrative of the protagonist. This new film proves that all Marvel needs to create a successful movie is a story that looks a little bit more like its audience with characters and relationships that today’s fans can more easily relate to.
While Shang-Chi acts like the protagonist and has his name on the title of the film, the story of Wenwu (Leung) takes dominance. Wenwu’s character is expanded upon further than Shang-Chi’s, and much of the movie puts the pieces together of who this villain really is. Even Katy’s character is explored a bit more than Shang-Chi’s once they reach Ta Lo. His relationships don’t deepen his character, so far, though they are his character.
That doesn’t take away from this movie, however. Simu Liu plays the role with heroism thrust upon him using charm and humor, and Leung as Wenwu is engrossing. He’s a scene stealer throughout the highs and lows of his emotional rollercoaster—from meeting Jiang Li to losing her to hopelessly trying to avenge her.
Shang-Chi bolsters this specific character due to the range that Leung exhibits and his Vader-esque sacrifice in the end. Even if Wenwu was a notorious gang leader throughout his life, you could feel his enlightenment and soon after, his heartbreak. The audience is just as helpless as Shang-Chi as he is forced to watch his father’s slow demise.
The creative elements of Shang-Chi find cohesion with the thematic elements, thus elevating the entire film. This story preaches about the destruction that can come with ignoring balance. On the other hand, it also tells of the power that comes with obtaining harmony. Shang-Chi also shows the importance of balance within the character dynamics, choosing to put them in these metaphorical roles as well.
While Wenwu pushed past a natural lifespan and used the rings for world domination, that power corrupted him and led to his own downfall. Shang-Chi was able to harness balance, both from his mother and father, in order to save Ta Lo from the Dweller in Darkness. Beyond these important statements that Shang-Chi makes via the juxtaposition of father and son, it also balances those with the visual and audio elements of the film.
Shang-Chi comprises an array of settings: the peaceful, traditional Ta Lo and the more urban vibe of San Francisco. It even shows balance in the opposite fighting styles of Shang-Chi’s parents. And the fights in this movie were visually interesting and dynamic—a bus barreling down the hilly streets of San Francisco was certainly my favorite—and the fight choreography knew how to incorporate the world around them. As someone who usually prefers character to aesthetic, I found myself invested in every detail of the fight scenes.
Overall, Shang-Chi is fun. With only minimal cameos from Wong and Abomination, which aren’t relevant to the story at all, and an opening weekend indicating theatrical success amidst ongoing COVID-19 precautions, this film proves that all Marvel needs to create a successful movie is an authentic story with characters and relationships that today’s audience will find incredibly relatable. A little less Steve Rogers and a lot more Sean Chi.
Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is now in theaters and will stream on Disney+ 45 days after its theatrical release. You can watch the full trailer here.