“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” the latest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and now playing in theatres, is a rarity. It’s a superhero origin movie that doesn’t suck. They haven’t all been terrible, but I still feel the burn of “Fantastic Four,” “Green Hornet” and “Catwoman” whenever I hear the dreaded ‘origin story’ descriptor.
But “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” doesn’t suck. It is a stand-alone origin movie with some of the best action sequences seen in the MCU jurisdiction, a couple of Hong Kong screen legends in the form of Tony Leung and Michelle Yeoh and a winning performance from Simu Liu as the first Asian lead in Marvel’s superhero stable.
The story begins 1000 years ago with warlord Wenwu (Leung) taking possession of the mystical Ten Rings, each containing untold power. Now immortal and unbeatable, for the next millennium he amasses wealth and influence as his army secretly has a hand in controlling world events.
His evil ways come to a (temporary) halt when he meets Jiang Li (Fala Chen), a guardian of the mystic realm of Ta Lo. After a flirty battle, they fall in love. Wenwu puts the Ten Rings away as they welcome two kids, Shang-Chi and Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), to their happy family. But the salad days don’t last for long. When Jiang Li is murdered by a rival gang from Wenwu’s past, the immortal’s megalomaniac ways return. He trains Shang-Chi to be his number one assassin, and, at just fourteen-years-old, sends him off on his first mission.
Cut to present day. Shang-Chi is now an adult, living in San Francisco under the name Shaun. He and his best friend Katy (Awkwafina) work as hotel valets during the day, and most nights stay out too late singing karaoke. Katy has no idea of Shaun’s mysterious past until one morning on the bus a gang of daddy dearest’s assassins attempt to retrieve a jade pendant his mother gave him. Old instincts kick in and Shaun defends himself in what is probably the most fun fight sequence in any Marvel movie.
The action now shifts to Macau, as Shang-Chi, with Katy in tow, travel to China to warn Xialing that Wenwu’s assassins are likely coming for her pendant next. But questions loom: Why does Wenwu want the pendants, and what secrets do they contain? “I don’t know what he wants with them,” says Shang-Chi. “But it can’t be good.”
“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” succeeds because of its action, its cast and story but most of all it works because of its sincerity. It is as epic as any other Marvel movie but it’s the small moments that really add up. The story’s emphasis on personal cultural details, relationships and family provides an earthbound grounding that helps balance out the mystical themes of the final forty-five minutes.
The charming relationship between Shang-Chi and Katy brings considerable comedic relief, but also helps differentiate Shang-Chi from his other Marvel colleagues. He’s not an alien, or a wealthy industrialist with a penchant for world saving, or genetically mutated. He’s a car valet with an extraordinary set of skills learned through years of practice. Liu’s performance is believable both as everyman Shaun and the heroic Shang-Chi, because the relationships that have formed him, with his mother, father, sister and Katy, are well detailed, showing us how and why he became the person he did. That backstory—the dreaded origin story—works, despite a reliance on flashbacks, and is distinct enough so as not to feel like Shang-Chi is being wrestled into the MCU.
The MCU influence becomes evident in the film’s busy climax. What was once a character drama, with great action sequences, that touched on issues of generational trauma via heartfelt performances—Leung elevates every scene he’s in with his majestic presence—switches gears to full blown, muddy CGI. The climatic world saving battle fills the screen with action, but compared to what came before—more up-close-and-personal fight scenes—it feels overblown and uninteresting.
Until that sequence, however, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” has the heroics, heart, humor and homages to Asian culture to make it the best, and most fun, standalone Marvel movie since “Black Panther.”