What’s new, everyone? The last time that the Marvel Cinematic Universe released a movie starring an all-new superhero was 2019’s Captain Marvel. Now we’ve got Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which debuts another superhero in the form of Shaun/Shang-Chi himself (Simu Liu, Netflix’s Kim’s Convenience). Starting out as a San Francisco parking valet, he ends up embarking on a journey to reckon with the darkness of his past, grasp his identity, and confront Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung, In the Mood for Love), his immortal father and the commander of the Ten Rings organization. Shang Chi is directed by Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12, The Glass Castle, and Just Mercy, all of which included Brie Larson in the cast) and written by Cretton, Dave Callaham (The Expendables, Wonder Woman 1984, and 2021’s Mortal Kombat) and Andrew Lanham (The Glass Castle, The Kid, and The Shack, the last for which Cretton has a co-writer credit).
Shang-Chi has so much going for it: deceptively simple and emotionally enthralling storytelling, a well-picked cast, top-notch action scenes, and much-needed representation that proves we don’t need white saviors raking in heaps of dough at the box office. Other than a few cameos (I can’t discuss them fully without spoiling them, but I will say that one cameo was a blast, the second was decent, and the third felt shoehorned in as extraneous setup for an upcoming part of the MCU), this is pretty much a self-contained narrative that doesn’t concern itself with linking heavily to other segments of the franchise.
I’m amazed by the effortless flow of the non-chronological plotting, what with its numerous flashbacks. Sometimes, flashbacks can hamper the pacing with exposition dumps or come off as manipulating the audience by withholding info until the moment comes along to unveil it for the sake of a contrived twist. This movie doesn’t fall into those pitfalls. It builds up a clear and intelligent plot structure that drops its flashbacks at the appropriate beats to reveal just enough of the exposition that we need to understand what’s going on and effect the most emotional impact for the saga of Shang-Chi’s family.
As usual, the talent is fantastic. Liu is spot-on as the eponymous superhero (but I just want to make it clear that I don’t condone the actor’s Reddit posts, which I guess aren’t damning enough somehow to prevent him from hosting SNL), Awkwafina provides the right amount of comedic relief as Shang-Chi’s longtime friend Katy without leaving me feeling like the humor is forced, Leung infuses Wenwu with layered gravitas, and Meng’er Zhang exudes a compelling presence in her onscreen acting debut as Shang-Chi’s estranged sister and underground fighting club manager Xialing, although I wish the character had been written more deeply.
Countering the dullness of many of the MCU black hats is Wenwu, who is as capable of being a devoted and loving family man as he is of being a merciless and power-hungry conqueror. Written with deep complexity and believability, he joins the likes of Killmonger, Adrian Toomes/Vulture, Loki, and Thanos (more specifically, the Thanos we follow in Avengers: Infinity War, since Avengers: Endgame virtually commits character assassination against him). It helps that Leung, as an international star who has been in plenty of martial arts movies and brings a high level of eminence to the MCU, humanizes the role so much that he could be the antiheroic protagonist of his own tale.
As much of an MCU devotee as I am, most of its action sequences don’t stand out to me as being memorable—the claustrophobic elevator melee in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the car chase in Black Panther, and the Air Force One rescue in Iron Man 3 being some of the few exceptions. That’s why I was thrilled to get wrapped up in Shang-Chi’s superbly choreographed action set-pieces, ranging from the prologue’s elegant dance-fight to the energetic and smoothly paced San Francisco bus fight (the latter which is reminiscent of The Winter Soldier’s elevator sequence). Granted, the scenes do lose their palpable physicality once the CGI amps up in the flashy and run-of-the-mill third act à la most Superhero Movie Climaxes.
It goes without saying that Shang-Chi, the first MCU film to feature both an Asian lead and a prominently Asian cast, is a significant step forward for East Asian representation in Hollywood. It’s nice to watch something where the Asian characters aren’t being depicted as submissive sidekicks. Speaking from my personal hapa viewpoint, I’ve rarely been able to see Asian leads onscreen, especially when I was a kid, and I had certainly never seen an Asian superhero in a mainstream flick before. In recent years, the situation has improved somewhat with examples like Crazy Rich Asians, Raya and The Last Dragon, and the Netflix adaptation of Shadow and Bone, although even those instances suffer from their own weaknesses. I’ll admit that Shang-Chi isn’t completely flawless, either. It’s arguable that the mysticism and the visual motifs it involves fall into East Asian stereotypes that appeal to white viewers. I also wish the movie could have dedicated more time to Asian-American culture. It gives sly nods to the subject here and there that would probably fly over the heads of non-Asian audiences, but much more material could have been mined from the struggle that Asian-Americans face in reconciling both sides of their heritage. This would have especially made sense when you consider the themes of identity and legacy with which the movie tackles. I want to make it clear that my criticisms aren’t meant to detract from the positive cultural impact of Shang-Chi. We just need to be able to constructively evaluate its shortcomings, no matter how much we love it. We also need to prioritize fighting for more of this content and refusing to let Hollywood go, “Well, they got their one Asian superhero movie, so let’s move on to checking off the next diversity box.”
When it comes to the box office profits, Shang-Chi hauled in $94 million over Labor Day weekend after premiering exclusively in theaters on September 3. As of this writing, it has grossed $224 million domestic and $430 million worldwide, marking it as the first movie to earn over $200 million during COVID-19. It accomplished all of this on a budget of, according to conflicting sources, somewhere between $150 million and $200 million. Whatever the actual amount is, Disney would have had to approximately double it to account for the money that they paid for the marketing, then give a cut to the movie theaters. It doesn’t leave behind that much of a return, but this “interesting experiment” is still pocketing more pandemic moolah than most, if not all, of its competition. So take that, Bob.
Life has left me stuck in the middle of my MCU rewatch, so I haven’t completed my ranking yet. But I’m tempted to grade Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings in my Top 5. I also cover the movie in the newest episode of the 2 Cents Critic podcast, so make sure you tune into it.
Until next time, stay healthy and stay strong!
Windup score: 90/100