Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is in full swing this year. With four Disney plus shows, the long overdue Black Widow film, and two more films and shows left to go this year, Marvel is more than making up for lost time after last year’s spell of delays. While some are becoming somewhat fatigued by the seemingly endless barrage of new comic book media, one thing that is still very refreshing to see is superhero stories told from non-white, non-male, and non-western perspectives. Enter Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
Set after Avengers: Endgame, we meet Shaun (Simu Liu), a young man who lives in San Francisco and spends his time hanging out with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina). But after a frightening encounter, Shaun is forced to reveal his true identity. His real name is Shang-Chi, and he is the son of Wenwu (Tony Leung), the leader of the clandestine Ten Rings organisation. Sometimes called The Mandarin, Wenwu has spread terror across the world with the power of his ten mystical rings. But now he wants his son back, forcing Shang-Chi to confront the past that he has long tried to repress.
The film features a predominantly Asian cast and is enamoured with eastern culture. Whether its narrative, visuals or themes, Shang-Chi surrounds itself in Asian identity and philosophy. This is a brilliant choice in terms of storytelling, and especially in terms of representation. Many of the MCU films are predominantly western set with white characters and subjects. Not only does this change in perspective give non-white groups a fair chance at representation, but it enhances the world of the MCU to tell fresh stories. Perhaps it could even introduce audiences to the cinema and customs of other countries and communities, a welcome prospect even if you disregard the rich tapestry that is eastern cinema.
Family is the key theme of Shang-Chi, something that director Destin Daniel Cretton has explored before in Short Term 12 and Just Mercy, both excellent films of his. Not only is family an important aspect of Asian culture, but it wisely informs the character arcs and motivations throughout the film. This includes the side characters. Awkwafina’s Katy is a welcome presence, delivering some of the biggest laughs of the film, and having a touching platonic friendship with Shang-Chi. But she feels much familial pressure and wishes to discover what she wants to do with life. Meanwhile, Shang-Chi’s sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) has spent her childhood in the shadows of her male counterparts and is driven to be seen as an equal.
This creates a world that feels as lived in as it is mysterious. But family informs the journeys of the hero and villain most of all. Shang-Chi feels immense guilt over how his choices have affected his family, especially his sister and mother (Fala Chen). Yet his arc is one of forgiveness and responsibility, creating a fulfilling, relatable hero backed up by Simi Liu’s infinitely charismatic performance. Wenwu is a similarly compelling character. He may be one of the most terrifying presences of any MCU villain; yet underneath the hard exterior is a man driven by anguish as much as a sense of divine supremacy. MCU villains have always been a bit rusty, minus a few exceptions (namely Killmonger), but Wenwu is one of the best thus far, with Tony Leung’s equally melancholic and brutal performance amounting to the greatest in the film. I’m hoping his stellar appearance will open the door for others to seek out many of the brilliant Hong Kong films Leung has acted in such as In the Mood for Love and Chungking Express.
The visuals and action have always been a staple of MCU films, but they truly are breath-taking in Shang-Chi. Inspired by eastern mythos and martial arts, there is an authenticity and wonder to the choreography and imagery. Reminiscent of classic Jackie Chan films or the more contemporary Ip Man series, close quarters choreography feel visceral and grand magical demonstrations feel gargantuan. Even some of the fights that look more dance-like have an integral purpose and generate an emotion suitable for the moment. When we enter more mystical territory within the film, the creatures mesmerise (many inspired by Asian folktales such as kitsune foxes), and the cinematography by William Pope captures environments and culture with such raw naturalism that it feels like a Miyazaki storyboard transformed into live action.
Add it all up and what we get is another solid addition within the MCU, with many of the franchise’s most recognisable qualities. Thrilling action and effects, and some very solid comedy. I’d argue this is one of the funnier MCU films between Katy and a surprise returning character whose identity I dare not spoil. Yet at its core is a genuinely heartfelt story on guilt, grief, and the importance of family and community. Basking so proudly in the culture it is representing, much like how Black Panther did with African culture, we have a film that serves as an important step in terms of improved global representation, but also serves as a spectacular rollercoaster ride full of enchantment and sentimentality. Whatever pacing issues it may suffer from are more than made up for by the creative imagery, wonderful performances, and confident direction from Cretton, who is truly proving himself to be one of the best, and most underrated, filmmakers working today.
It’s fantastic that we’re living in a time where non-white, non-western stories feel more accessible than ever. Between Crazy Rich Asians, The Farewell, and now this, I can imagine how great it must feel to see Asian and Asian-American tales becoming more mainstream, all showcasing how eastern and western traditions and values can co-exist. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is one of the MCU’s better origin stories, with excitement and heart to boot. I’m excited to see how this character, and this world, influence this franchise going forward.
Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings hits cinemas on 3rd September.
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton; Dave Callahan and Andrew Lanham (co-screenwriters)
Stars: Simi Liu, Awkwafina, Meng’er Zhang, Fala Chen, Florian Munteanu, Benedict Wong, Michelle Yeoh, Tony Leung
Runtime: 132 minutes