Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Shang-Chi is simultaneously more of the same and the biggest risk Marvel has ever taken

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings benefits from a genre shift and an excellent villain.


Destin Daniel Cretton’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is the 25th movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I have seen nearly all of them and written about most of the ones I’ve seen, and if I’m going to be honest with you, I’m starting to run out of things to say. It’s not that the Marvel movies are bereft of things to talk about; it’s not even that I don’t like them, per se. I am, nevertheless, at a point where it seems my response to any and all Marvel films is almost exactly the same: I am neither negative nor positive on them, and they all seem to exist within the same sort of mass of content. Whoever pulls the strings over at Marvel would love to hear me say that, because that’s exactly what Marvel wants to make: a homogeneous mass of entertainment that delivers exactly what it promises, time and time again. Marvel is not in the business of taking chances, and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is so thoroughly an example of that mindset that it manages to somehow be the biggest risk Marvel has taken in some time and to be entirely predictable and familiar in almost every respect.

One of those chances is to explicitly be a martial arts film rather than just a superhero movie in which martial arts are integrated. Another is to base a whole film around a character that’s unknown to anyone but die-hard comic book fans and to have an almost completely unknown actor play that character. In spite of all of this, it’s hard not to see Shang-Chi as a chip off the old block in which things inevitably move towards a chaotic bouillabaisse of CGI critters and boring mumbo-jumbo about prophecies and chosen ones and fate — albeit one with pretty good fight scenes and an excellent villain.

Shaun (Simu Liu) works as a valet alongside his best friend Katy (Awkwafina), who he’s known ever since he came to America in his early teens. Shaun seems ambitionless on the outside, but the truth is he came to the U.S .to escape the hold of his father Wenwu (Tony Leung), a powerful warlord and leader of an organization known as the Ten Rings. Wenwu made sure that his son was trained as an assassin early on, something that Shaun (whose real name, as you may have guessed at this point, is Shang-Chi) tried to reject for as long as possible – but now, the past comes roaring back when a pack of assassins led by Razor Fist (Florian Munteanu) corners him on a city bus. Shang-Chi finds himself drawn back into the world of the Ten Rings and of his grieving father, who has never gotten over his wife’s death.

Tony Leung in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

There’s quite a bit of table-setting to do with Shang-Chi, since its world is only tangentially related to the broader Marvel universe. It’s a particularly verbose and prophecy-centric story that thankfully gets a ton of juice from the insanely charismatic and measured performance that Leung delivers as Wenwu. Leung’s involvement in the film was surprising to many who mainly know him from his high-brow work with Wong Kar-Wai, but it’s not like hasn’t also done tons of more mainstream genre work in Hong Kong. He proves to be a particularly inspired choice, bringing a great deal of poise and charisma to a villain role that could easily have been a throwaway function. Leung is so good, in fact, that he threatens to completely upstage Liu, who does a more than commendable job but is stuck with a character that feels like he has a lot to prove.

There’s that, of course. Much of the buzz around Shang-Chi has revolved around issues of representation in much the same way that Black Panther asked those questions five years ago. The only white character of any import in the film is Razor Fist, and the film revolves around characters of Asian descent whose origins are inextricably linked with the film’s story. While this is entirely commendable and rather well presented by Cretton, the film’s universe isn’t quite as well defined as Wakanda, and the film ultimately loses itself in lore that’s less than the sum of its parts. As I noted before, though, Shang-Chi is saddled with even more table-setting than your average Marvel movie, which suggests that there’s a level of “taking your medicine” to the world-building here that’s mostly there to establish the character for appearances later on.

All these mea culpas I have to give exemplify the core problem of Shang-Chi and, really, of most superhero movies — it feels like part of a whole at best, a puzzle piece that has no real aesthetic qualities until you link it up to the rest of the things that make up the bigger picture. Despite all of the ballyhoo about creativity and genius that is constantly being trotted out by fan sites every time one of these comes out, Shang-Chi looks and feels like pretty much every other Marvel movie. It has better fight scenes and a great villain, but it has more boring exposition and lamer jokes than most; at some point, it basically feels like each Marvel movie plays Tetris with its flaws, moving them around until it fits a reasonable facsimile of the one before it. It doesn’t make for bad movies by any means — just not particularly interesting ones.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Sept. 2. Watch the trailer here:

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings starring Simu Liu, Tony Leung and Awkwafina, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton

For more film and TV coverage, please visit our Film & TV section.