Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings (2021) Review
Although the reassuringly sure-footed BLACK WIDOW returned the franchise to its natural big-screen home after the Thanos-like effects of Covid-19 on cinema release schedules, it didn’t stray too far from the established Marvel formula, lending credence to the snarky internet scuttlebutt that the world’s foremost movie franchise of the moment was content to deliver business as usual – theatrically at least. Well, worry no more because SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS diversifies the MCU in more ways than one.
Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) is living a low-key life of contentment as a parking valet with his best friend Katy (Akwafina) when his world is turned upside down as his past – and that of his family – comes crashing into the present beginning a hero’s journey which will take Shang-Chi from San Francisco to Macau and then to the defence of the mystical kingdom of Ta Lo, which warlord Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung) is determined to conquer.
Marvel has dipped into eastern mysticism before, of course, clumsily with IRON FIST and then more carefully with DOCTOR STRANGE, neither of which gave any hints of just how well SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS would handle the cultural elements of the story it wants to tell. The MCU is already quite the genre chameleon but what’s wonderfully refreshing about this latest entry is that it feels giddily free of the accumulated baggage and lore of everything that’s gone before it. Not dismissive of it – there are threads linking all the way back to IRON MAN 3 – but entirely unbeholden to it and free to shape its own distinct corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a corner that brings in multi-dimensional mythology and comes puckishly close to making Pokémon canon within the MCU.
While its story is a mix of mythology, Chinese folklore, kung-fu tropes and Marvel superhero shenanigans, where SHANG-CHI really excels in its casting and its action. Simu Liu fits the character of Shang-Chi like a glove, echoing the serendipity of the casting of Phase 1’s big three: Tony Stark, Steve Rogers and Thor Odinson. Likewise, Akwafina delivers one of the best, if not the best, performances of her career so far, providing just the right balance of cynicism and wide-eyed wonder, performing the role of the audience surrogate as her world view is blown wide open accompanying Shang-Chi as he returns to a life and family he thought he’d left behind. Tony Leung, too, is terrific – in his first English-speaking role – imbuing Wenwu with layered depth and emotion that’s a huge step forward from some of the disposable or two-dimensional villains which have plagued previous Marvel movies. The cast is rounded out with superb support from Meng’er Zhang and the ever-reliable Michelle Yeoh while a surprise return for another actor brings a satisfying resolution to not only a loose Phase 2 plot thread but also the Marvel One-Shot HAIL TO THE KING.
The action sequences – particularly the stand-out bus sequence – bring new energy and new sensibilities to the action of the MCU. Playful, precise and beautifully choreographed, some of the action is jaw-droppingly good and even the finale feels like something different for the MCU, balancing the audience’s appetite for CGI spectacle with stakes, emotion and action aplenty.
SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS may have started the year as the dark horse of the Marvel releases for 2021 but it’s more the fulfilled its potential and with an ending (and mid-credits scene) that teases far wider repercussions for the MCU as a whole than you might expect, Shang-Chi ends on a high which will merely drive anticipation for what’s to come even higher, especially if that involves a meeting between Akwafina’s Katie and Michael Peña’s Luis.