Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is the sign that Phase Four of the MCU is well underway. The ambitions are bigger and the storytelling is broader.
But there is a cause for concern that Marvel’s release schedule is a little overwhelming.
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In the same year we finally got to see Black Widow, we will have been witness to four movies (Shang-Chi, Eternals, and Spider-Man: No Way Home are the other three) before we reach the end of 2022.
And that’s just the folks out there who haven’t been able to see the Disney+ shows.
Can we depend on this franchise to deliver unique installments every time?
Even with some tiny shortcomings, Shang-Chi successfully delivers on that. Not only is the film one of the most stylish in the MCU lineup, it proves story-wise to be one of the strongest in the lineup to centre a standalone superhero.
What is Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings about?
Shaun (played by Simu Liu) and his close friend Katy (Awkwafina) are leading pretty uneventful lives in San Francisco when, after a violent confrontation with assailants, some truths about Shaun are revealed.
He is in fact Shang-Chi, the son of notorious warlord and leader of the Ten Rings Organisation, Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung).
It’s not long before Shang-Chi is forced to face his father thanks to a conspiracy involving his long-dead mother and the existence of a mystic realm.
Aided by Katy and his estranged sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), he has to come to terms with his legacy and decide who and what battles he is willing to fight.
(Writer’s note: There is a lot of plot that the film’s trailers did not reveal. Sorry, but I too shall remain tight-lipped)
One of Shang-Chi’s best elements is its visual aesthetic and execution. This is one of the best-looking and unique MCU films alongside the likes of Thor: Ragnarok and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2.
It embraces its Asian-set narrative and character collective, invoking iconic shots and doubling down on Kung Fu-oriented action sequences.
The choreography is excellent and thanks to a lack of tech or weapon-driven additions (except for the titular ten rings which look amazing when Leung handles them), it’s raw fighting with the punches hitting as hard as they should.
Those action sequences are also a high point, except for the film’s final showdown. It relies heavily on CGI to deliver the more mystical aspects of the narrative. In turn, they overshadow everything else.
However, Joel P West’s musical score does a great deal to elevate the whole spectacle.
Interesting characters, furious family
In addition to its visual excellence, Shang-Chi also gets big points for giving us one of the best standalone hero films in the MCU (it’s up there with Thor: Ragnarok and the first two Captain America movies).
Shang-Chi himself is a very compelling character and importantly, he is not an innocent one. Yes, tragedy has befallen him but his past is littered with actions that prevent him from a straightforward rise to the status of hero.
It’s also very refreshing for Marvel to tell a very intense narrative around a single familial unit. The Xu family is a shattered one from which many reflections give way to many emotions.
Shang-Chi and his sister devote themselves to contrasting life goals. His father is driven by deep-set grief.
Supporting actress Michelle Yeoh (who is awe-inspiring every time she is on screen) is here to make it all better. And, Katy’s relationship with Shang-Chi is kept platonic, comedic, and loyal.
Awkwafina herself is having the time of her life in this movie and her enthusiasm is fun to watch.
A plot that falters
Shang-Chi progresses at a fast pace. The film rarely has a slow moment. It ferries characters to various locations, provides exposition, and explodes into bombastic battle without hesitation.
That can come at the expense of the more intense, emotional moments. But thanks to the acting talent, that’s not an issue.
If anything, the plot falters when it progresses into story predictability.
There are moments throughout Shang-Chi that one will immediately see coming, especially in regards to the third act. Marvel is getting better at innovating the stock superhero origin story, but they still have a way to go.
The film does get points for not ignoring its lineage. This is not the first time audiences have been exposed to the Ten Rings organisation.
Their presence in the MCU dates all the way back to Iron Man 3.
Shang-Chi acknowledges this and uses it to its comedic advantage. The end result is hilarious.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings review verdict
Phase Four of the MCU has been theatrically distinguished with an exhilarating and gorgeous film.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings does fall victim to some cinematic tropes and the third act suffers from CGI overload.
But its characters and family-centered plot are strong, the cinematography is beautiful, and Cretton continues to prove to be an excellent director.
Featured image: Disney/Marvel Studios