Review: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)

Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Screenwriters: Dave Callaham, Destin Daniel Cretton, Andrea Lanham
Starring: Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Tony Leung, Meng’er Zhang, Fala Chen
Genres: Action/Adventure, Sci-fi/Fantasy
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and language
Release Date: 9/2
Runtime: 2:12
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 92%
Where to Watch: Theatres
Oscar nomination(s): Likely–Visual Effects; Possible–Production Design, Supporting Actor (Leung), Costume Design; Long-Shot–Original Score

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings — which is a mouthful of a title — is the latest film in phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, following Black Widow, and before to-be-released films like Spider-Man: No Way Home and The Eternals (both releasing later this year). It’s also the first time in the MCU when we’ve seen a predominately Asian cast, led by Canadian actor Simu Liu, who once tweeted at Marvel to give him a call; it turns out, they listened to him, and Marvel mastermind Kevin Feige was smart to introduce this new character (Shang-Chi) when he did. Phase 4 needed a bit of a boost and some new energy after the good but not great Widow, which followed a character we already knew very well. Shang-Chi has the difficult task of introducing a completely new character who was never seen in any previous iteration (unlike, for example, Black Panther‘s T’Challa, who we saw in Captain America: Civil War). I’d say that it succeeds, despite not being a truly flawless film. 

Director Destin Daniel Cretton — who also co-wrote the script — is best known for making films with much smaller budgets, such as Short Term 12 and Just Mercy, and obviously, a big-budget MCU film such as this (with its plentiful visual effects and star cameos) is truly different and a challenge. Cretton’s filmmaking is at its best in the quieter scenes that focus on character development and that showcase the characters’ relationships to one another, whereas he seems to struggle a bit in the CGI- and VFX-heavy scenes and moments (especially later in the film). That’s not to say that the visual effects aren’t impressive, which they most certainly are, and I’m hoping to see the film receive an Oscar nomination in this area (assuming it doesn’t have too much competition from Spider-Man and The Eternals). How wonderful, too, for an Asian director to be directing a predominantly Asian cast. 

Liu, best known for Netflix comedy Kim’s Convenience, shines in the leading role, even if his performance appears stilted at subdued at times; this is most likely due to the writing of his character, who is meant to appear closed-off and relatively introverted. His fight scenes are the most exciting, as he apparently performed most (if not all) of his own stunts; the hand-to-hand combat and martial arts-style choreography is among the most interesting elements of the film, which presents a new MCU way of fighting that is its own thing. The bus scene, which is unfortunately spoiled in the trailer, is one of the best fight sequences in the entire MCU thus far; it’s an amazing way to introduce Shang-Chi’s fighting style and to show off Liu’s physicality. However, this scene does set the bar high, so when the climax doesn’t quite impress nearly as much — thanks to an overuse of visual effects, and the inability to know when to stop.

While Shang-Chi is unique enough to stand out among the MCU line-up, it still contains some formulaic Marvel material, which is not always a bad thing (especially for an MCU diehard like myself). We’ve come to expect unexpected cameos (of which there are a few, a couple that have already been spoiled), explosive moments the climax, the heroes triumphing in the end (with the exception of Avengers: Infinity War), among other things. I wish that the writers had trimmed the ending a bit, primarily because the final battle goes on for far too long. I will, of course, commend them on some excellent character development, and not just when it comes to the main character(s).

Through a series of revealing flashbacks, we see what led Shang-Chi to become the person he is for the present day — which would most likely be 2023 — as well as his complicated relationship with his father, played by renowned Chinese actor Tony Leung, in his American film debut. As who is essentially the real-life Mandarin, Leung has crafted one of the best villain in the MCU, even up there with Avengers‘ Loki and Black Panther‘s Killmonger. Leung is acting circles around the rest of the cast, who are hardly phoning it in, yet Leung is just so darn good that he elevates the material  in a way that prevents him from becoming a one-note MCU villain. His motivations are understandable, even if his actions are not, and in an ideal world he might even be in contention for Best Supporting Actor. Awkwafina, as Shang-Chi’s long-time [platonic] friend, is hilarious, as always, although it seemed that the writers didn’t always know what to do with her character. 

Overall, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a solid solo film that manages to be entertaining, funny, and heartfelt. The emotional core of the movie was the most surprising element for me, and I’m excited to include it in my yearly MCU rewatch, and for Shang-Chi (and Awkwafina’s Kate) to appear in future installments.