‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ Sets a New MCU Standard While Knocking Down Stereotypes

It has to be admitted that Marvel has created a brand that seems to have the power to rejuvenate itself. Just when it seems like the formula might start wearing thin, here comes a new entry like “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” full of cinematic exuberance and brisk popcorn excitement, as it also opens further space for variety in its genre. What the imitators have missed is that the Marvel Cinematic Universe at its best is pop spectacle with a human touch. Sometimes it takes blockbusters to truly diversify a media landscape as well, because they have mass appeal. Asian characters have always been present in American action cinema, but never on this scale and so fully at the forefront. 

Like many a good epic, this one begins about a thousand years ago when warlord Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung) attained cosmic powers through the control of ten particular rings. To exercise his new capabilities, Wenwu founded the society of the Ten Rings, which has done the usual, like overthrow kingdoms, build a shadowy infrastructure, etc. His power-hungry urges seemed to calm down when he met Jiang Li (Fala Chen), with whom Wenwu had a son. When Jiang Li dies, Wenwu is left distraught and tries to raise their child, Shang-Chi, to be a ruthless assassin. But the boy escapes and fast forward to the present and he is now Shaun (Simu Liu), living in San Francisco as a college graduate happily working as a valet with best friend Katy (Awkwafina). Friends and family wonder why they’re so comfortable with such an ordinary job, but they’re happy. The laid back lifestyle is shattered when Wenwu’s henchmen appear, demanding Shaun hand over a green pendant he wears around his neck. A gift from his mother, the pendant holds a particular key. Shaun has to come clean now to Katy about his past, fly to China and traverse into another realm to face it and his father.

There’s a particular method to how the MCU under Kevin Feige has been selecting directors for its roster. While it’s a strategy that really kicked off back in 2005 when a still-indie Christopher Nolan directed “Batman Begins” for Warner, Marvel has perfected the idea of bringing in directors not necessarily associated with big-budget behemoths. For “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” director Destin Daniel Cretton brings the character-driven sensibilities from his previous films like “Just Mercy,” “Short Term 12” and “The Glass Castle,” which all combined could amount to the budget of this movie. There are two main themes running through “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” hurtful pasts and the natural state of an underdog. Shaun and Katy defy the stereotype of the go-getter college grads, especially when it comes to Asian communities. They are perfectly content being valets, despite the pressure of Katy’s Chinese family. There’s even added suspicion over how Shaun and Katy insist they are just friends, because buddies of the opposite sex just can’t exist, right? In truth Shaun is running away from his family history, which literally rips back into his life when Razorfist (Florian Munteanu), a henchman with a machete-like arm, comes looking for the pendant. The writing even jabs a bit at the common habit of adjusting Asian names for the English language. Katy is astounded and somewhat disappointed to learn Shaun’s real name is Shang-Chi and that he chose such a lame, westernized cover. 

Typically in a comic book adaptation, the villain always seeks global conquest or some sort of apocalyptic disorder. Wenwu’s plan could mean doom for everyone, but he is driven by matters of the heart. Cretton could have not cast any better than Tony Leung, who was the face of repressed desire in Wong Kar-wai’s classic reverie “In the Mood for Love.” His Wenwu is dressed and looks like a supervillain, but his desperation stems from trying to make contact with his wife. He is willing to burn down the world to see her again. Cretton sets the base for this longing in lush flashback sequences where Wenwu lives in a romantic state with Jiang Li in a lush forest of bamboo that looks plucked from some dream. Who wouldn’t want that all back? And like “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” another layer of the plot involves the imperfections of families. Shaun resents his father for trying to turn him into a killer, and when he arrives in China he reconnects with sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), who now forms part of an underground cage-fighting club in Macau, where humans are pit against more bestial sorts. She also resents him for leaving. It’s a classic case of the sins of the father chasing the children.

Let’s remember this is a Marvel movie, so all these themes are not explored with the full dreariness of a Bergman film. Cretton delivers a visually exciting action adventure with sequences that feel like the MCU rendering homage to great Asian action films like “House of Flying Daggers” or “Hero” (notice the shower of arrows during one standoff). Cretton films the Macau fight club with neon grit, followed by an exhilarating multi-floor battle between Shang-Chi and Wenwu’s masked, armored pursuers lit with the artistry of films like “Skyfall.” Simu Liu should be firmly established now as an action lead, bringing down-to-earth charisma to the physical presence required. Awkwafina is also great fun, adding slapstick humor to the grand fight sequences. There should be clapping in any audience once our heroes enter the realm where Wenwu seeks to carry out his plans, and from a picturesque village appears Michelle Yeoh. The “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Tomorrow Never Dies” star is Ying Nan, Wenwu’s sister-in-law, and naturally a great warrior. The eventual showdown will involve massive creatures, a glorious dragon spiraling upward out of a lake and a father-son standoff written with operatic flair. The music by Joel P West is one of the best recent Marvel scores, full of elegance and percussive energy. 

Even if the fanatics cry heresy, it’s not essential to have seen every single Marvel movie that came before in order to fully enjoy this one. Of course there are references to that apocalyptic showdown in the last two “Avengers” entries, and the bonus end credits scene has some cameos and hints at what’s to come. But on its own “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” confirms the MCU remains the leader in this genre, breaking new ground in representation while delivering the laughs and adrenaline. It’s an Asian story, with fantastic Asian talent occupying all the key roles. Like all good storytelling it’s also universal. Liu and Awkwafina alone as a pair capture the spirit of every goofy, platonic friendship on the planet. There has been much chatter over this being a rare post-pandemic Marvel movie Disney will not release simultaneously as a streaming option. If conditions are safe, it is indeed a big canvas film worth experiencing on a large screen. It feeds the fantasies of leaving your day job for some glorious adventure while acknowledging families are not always so picture perfect. Ideas like these are part of the secret recipe that keeps this monster franchise going.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” releases Sept. 3 in theaters nationwide.