Admittedly, I’d never heard of the Marvel superhero Shang-Chi prior to seeing trailers for the 25th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. But consider this: I didn’t know much about of anything about Iron Man/Tony Stark prior to the 2008 film. Or the Guardians of the Galaxy. Or Thor. Or … I think you get the picture. That has been the magic of the MCU, where they get the broader movie-going audience, like me, into characters they were otherwise unfamiliar with. Since Marvel has to sort of “reset” with this Phase Four plan in the post-Infinity War world, that means introducing us to new characters, such as Shang-Chi.
And with the film itself, mission accomplished! I’m all in on the Shang-Chi character. He’s so dang cool! So much of the fighting in the film also was oddly beautiful and came across like violent dancing and I loved it.
The premise of the film is that it’s actually an origin story for Xu Wenwu (played by Tony Leung) as much as it’s an origin story for Shaun/Xu Shang-Chi (played by Simu Liu). Because it’s Xu Wenwu who is the original person (at least the one presented here) with possession of the Ten Rings. The Ten Rings give him eternal life; he’s been alive for more than a thousand years. And he’s used the Ten Rings to amass power and fortune.
By 1996, a thousand years of conquest and domination are apparently not enough for him, as he seeks Ta Lo, which is thought to be a magical realm to further expand his power. That realm has has many mystical beasts. Instead, he is easily defeated by Ying Li (played by Fala Chen), who is the guardian of the village. His love for her makes him give up his Ten Rings (for now) and they have two children, Shang-Chi and Xu Xialing (played by Meng’er Zhang). I did think that was rather amusing. The mother is narrating the story to a young Shang-Chi and is like, “Yeah, he was power-hungry and it was insatiable and then I fell in love.” Alrighty then.
But Xu Wenwu’s past catches up to him and his enemies kill Ying Li, causing him to put his Ten Rings back on. He then begins training Shang-Li in all manner of martial arts and kung fu at a young age. At 14, he directs Shang-Li to a mission to kill his mother’s assassin, which he does, but then Shang-Chi runs away from his father and assumes the name Shaun in America.
He left behind his sister, who was forbidden (or neglected is perhaps a better word) from training, but taught herself anyway. She eventually runs away, too, and resents Shang-Chi for leaving her behind.
In modern times, we find Shaun living in San Francisco as a valet driver, essentially living life on the down-low compared to what his skill level is at. His best friend of 10 years is Katy (played by Awkwafina), who is a wise-cracking, car-driving, carefree hilarious fiend.
But, like his father, Shang-Chi’s past catches up to him when his father goes after his necklace. His sister has a similar necklace. Both pieces allow Xu Wenwu to enter the village where he thinks Ying Li is being held prisoner by the village because her voice has been calling to him.
What he doesn’t realize, though, is that he’s being duped by the soul-consuming Dweller-in-Darkness, who is the actual prisoner sealed off by the Dark Gate, which the village is protecting from ever being opened because it threatens the universe.
Fortunately, when Ta Lo was previously attacked by the Dweller-in-Darkness, the Great Protector, a dragon, arrived to banish the entity. The Great Protector is also what allowed Ying Li to easily defeat Xu Wenwu in 1996.
Along the way through this, we get one of the best action scenes Marvel has ever presented when Shaun and Katy are on the bus heading to work. Katy has no idea about his history, so when Xu Wenwu’s henchman, including Razor Fist (played by Florian Munteanu), who has a machete blade for a right hand, attacks him, but Shaun is somehow able to easily fend them off while also saving everyone’s life in miraculous fashion? Whoa, what?! The smooth, seamless choreography of the fight scenes and the way it’s shot by Director Destin Daniel Cretton is fantastic.
The next-best action sequence is when the henchman follow them to Xu Xialing’s underground fight club and have a fight on the scaffolding using the wood and elements there. I was going to be so mad when it seemed at first that Katy was going to be killed off! Luckily, Shang-Chi’s sister returns and saves her.
This makes me want to see a lot of the martial arts and kung fu films that influenced this film! Because Simu Liu pulls it off flawlessly and what’s amazing is, he’s also able to pull off the comedy well! And yet, he’s not even the funniest one in the film. Awkwafina as Katy completely stole the film, as far as I’m concerned. This was a star-making performance and role for her. She was laugh-out-loud funny, they didn’t force a romantic relationship between her and Shang-Chi and she also came into her own, ultimately being the one who takes down the Dweller-in-Darkness at the end. That surprised me, but it was well-earned.
As mentioned, the film is mostly an origin story for Xu Wenwu, so after he dies at the end, we finally see Shang-Chi get the Ten Rings.
Overall, I thought the first half of the film with the aforementioned action sequences, along with the main thrust of the comedy and the fun interplay between Katy and Shang-Chi, was much stronger than the second half, where even as much as I enjoy dragon-on-demon action, it’s hard to get as drawn into that CGI-on-CGI action as it was the hand-to-hand combat earlier in the film.
That said, I’m so excited by having this character in the MCU and what it all portends going forward: The mid-credits scene alludes to the fact that there’s something more peculiar about the mystery behind the Ten Rings; the fact of other dimensions where a place like Ta Lo exists at all; and how all of this will fold into the multiverse storyline with the variants running rampant!
The MCU is still as strong and must-watch as ever and if you’re going to keep up with Phase Four, Shang-Chi is vital viewing.