Since its establishment, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has gained a reputation for being a consistent and crowd-pleasing series that never ventures outside its four-quadrant box (to great commercial success). However, with the ten-year Infinity Saga in the rearview mirror, the opportunity for a fresh start filled with bolder projects that expand the potential of the universe has presented itself. Arriving exclusively in theaters in the midst of the newly prominent delta variant, Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings will make its mark as the first Marvel film to feature an Asian lead as it infuses the MCU with yet another fresh angle to propel the franchise forward and ensure its commercial longevity.
Set in the present day after the events of Avengers: Endgame, the film centers around the titular protagonist’s journey towards his self-discovery of superheroic proportions. Living contently in San Francisco with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina), Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) works as an unassuming valet driver with no greater ambitions. However, after his mysterious past comes back to haunt him in the form of his father The Mandarin (Tony Leung) and his army known as the Ten Rings, Shang-Chi must come to terms with the responsibilities of his lineage as he is thrown back into the world he came from.
Having deserted his family at a young age after years of torturous training and mistreatment at the hands of his father, Shang-Chi attempts to live his normal life until he is attacked by his father’s henchmen during his daily transit. Fearful for their lives, Shang-Chi travels across the globe with Katy to find his sister and join forces to fend themselves from the threat of their father, until he captures them and brings them back to their ancestral home. After their father tells them that their mother is still alive (despite her untimely death many years ago), his quest to find her fueled by desperation takes a dark turn that threatens to tear their family apart if Shang Chi is unable to stop him for good.
The latest in the line of independent directors handpicked to bring new life into the Marvel universe, with Shang-Chi, Destin Daniel Cretton holds his own to craft what is one of the most personal Marvel Cinematic Universe films to date. Already an established name in the indie circuit known for his ability to helm grounded character-driven narratives with a compelling emotional through-line like Short Term 12, Cretton pairs his core talents here with remarkably directed action sequences that jump off the screen. Employing dynamic choreography, effervescent camerawork, and wider angles that allow the audience to experience the full impact of each punch, kick, and strike, with Cretton’s direction, Shang-Chi’s set pieces, such as the highly marketed bus fight, a scuffle lit by gargantuan neon billboards, and a romantically charged dance-like conflict between a young Mandarin and his soon to be wife in a flashback that opens the film, stand closer to classic sequences of Hong-Kong action cinema than the choppily edited atrocities that plague many of today’s modern action-driven blockbusters. Even with sequences that aren’t as action-driven, Cretton brings with him a somewhat refreshing visual style that helps Shang-Chi stand out from the rest of the Marvel crowd. For instance, in what could have been a bland and forgettable moment under a less emboldened director, Cretton introduces the immense power of The Mandarin and his army with a particularly impressive tracking shot that sweeps through various intricately blocked layers to result in establishing a far more intimidating presence than if it had been captured in a more conventional way.
That isn’t to say that Shang-Chi completely breaks free from the limitations of the strictly enforced Marvel template. Despite a few exceptions, the film is still plagued by the Marvel brand’s infamously washed-out color grading, creating a visually flat environment that saps life from even the most impactful sequences. While sure to elicit favorable reactions from the franchises’ most loyal fans, the plethora of obligatory cameos and moments taken to expand on other corners of the universe end up distracting from the central narrative to a detrimental point and feel unnaturally shoehorned in. Certain character beats feel unearned or rushed to service the strictly structured plot, such as when Leung’s Mandarin casts out Shang-Chi, his sister, and Katy after having voiced mild doubt about the situation at hand. While necessary to the plot, what could have been a gripping, emotionally-charged development turns into yet a beat to check off to move the story forward without assigning it the necessary weight and giving it room to breathe. Even the final act suffers from an overstuffed climax that should have been traded in for a less complex but more emotionally satisfying conclusion in line with the rest of the film.
Yet, perhaps the factor that enables Shang-Chi to truly carve out a unique identity in an oversaturated blockbuster market is that of how it intertwines its commendable efforts of representing strong Asian communities with a truly impactful familial narrative that holds a tremendous emotional weight to it. Told primarily through flashbacks, Shang-Chi’s fractured relationship with his family is explored by screenwriters Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham alongside Cretton himself with a touching sense of maturity that unravels the layers of pain and loss that shaped the family unit. Hong Kong acting legend Tony Leung, in his first major American appearance, shines under Cretton’s direction in his portrayal of a desperate man driven by a desperate need for a family that is whole once more, going to drastic lengths to find his seemingly dead wife while alienating those around him in the process of his search. Bringing a certain level of gravitas and prestige to the role, his turn results in a heartbreakingly compelling antagonist who one sympathizes with throughout the entirety of the film. In quieter moments, even Liu, whose somewhat stoic demeanor and superficial charm is best suited to lead in the action realm, delivers in his role to help elevate the film to something more than a run-of-the-mill blockbuster.
Despite its inability to transcend many of the genre’s limitations, Shang-Chi is sure to make its mark as an important milestone of representation in the history of superhero cinema. An action-packed thrill ride powered by superb fight choreography, dynamic set pieces, and a powerful narrative with a surprising amount of emotional depth, it may just result in one of the best standalone films of the franchise as a unique entry that bodes well for a bolder and brighter future for the next phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Walt Disney and Marvel Studios will release Shang-Chi only in theaters on September 3.
Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios