For two hours Shang-Chi and Legend of the Ten Rings is a charming, family-friendly action-adventure movie about learning to grow up, learning to grieve, and learning to flex ab muscles so the light hits them just right. Then, as every movie set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is wont to do, it reminds us it’s part of a large fabric and its characters are destined to join forces with the likes of Captain Marvel, Thor, and Doctor Strange. And instead of being exhausted, I was elated. This movie helped me overcome my MCU fatigue, and — unlike every other Marvel flick since the Snap — actually set out to tell a new story absent of the baggage of Iron Man and the rest.
It helped that it’s just a really fun film, too.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of Ten Rings stars Simu Liu, who came to fame as the lovable, buff son in the Canadian sitcom Kim’s Convenience. In Shang-Chi, he’s again playing a charming guy with more abs than career drive. But after more than a decade of super capable Marvel superheroes, it’s refreshing to have a guy who’s content to just park cars and stay out all night drinking cheap booze and singing karaoke with his best friend. The best friend, in this case, is Katy, a completely normal woman with zero ties to the larger Marvel universe. Awkwafina minimizes the appropriative accent that brought her fame to make Katy a compelling human anchor for the otherworldly adventures the film takes its hero on.
Well, one of two anchors really. Tony Leung, one of the biggest stars to ever come out of Hong Kong, makes his American film debut in Shang-Chi as Shang’s father, Wenwu. Wenwu, besides being the titular character’s dad, is also the actual leader of the MCU’s Ten Rings, the terrorist organization that played a major role in Iron Man 3. Leung is one of the greatest actors working today and immediately elevates what could have been a rote role. He’s suave and menacing as the ageless leader of a group of assassins who run a chunk of the world from the shadows, but he’s tragic and affecting as Shang’s distant dad who has spent more than a decade abandoning his children and mourning his wife.
The grief these characters share is ultimately what Shang-Chi is about. The two men, and Shang’s younger sister Xialing (played by a wonderfully droll Meng’er Zhang), were once harmed by the loss of Shang and Xialing’s mother and they spend the film trying to reckon with that grief more than a decade after her loss. It gives Shang-Chi a surprisingly effective emotional core, which is good because the plot is fairly thin beyond the familial drama. This isn’t Loki or WandaVision with intricately plotted reveals and Marvel-y twists. It’s a film about a dad and his kids learning to grieve.
But, you know, it’s still Marvel, so all that learning to process grief happens in between the best action in a Marvel film since Winter Soldier. This is director Destin Daniel Cretton’s first action film, and you would not believe it with how confidently he shoots this movie. He holds the camera steady so the fast-moving and fantastically choreographed fights are easy to see. It feels like you’re watching a Hong Kong action film from 1991 — in the best way possible.
The only time the fights drag are when CGI enters the picture, and like Black Widow earlier this year, the CGI seems to get in the way, feeling goofy and looking silly after we just watched Shang-Chi battle ninjas across the sides of buildings. Marvel’s come to be emblematic of a kind of glossy modern action aesthetic that leans on cartoonish CGI when practical would have done it better, but Shang-Chi is the first time I felt truly disappointed by its appearance instead of just a little annoyed.
Thankfully, the CGI only infects small chunks of the film, and while it does contribute to the worst of the Disney / Marvel excesses of the finale, it's used sparingly enough that you can make peace with it. The film has a great cast, anchored by some real heavyweight actors (Michelle Yeoh and Tony Leung act opposite each other for the first time since 1993’s Butterfly and Sword), sharp action, and more heart than I’ve seen in years from something out of the MCU.
Which brings me back to actually being excited about the MCU again. Shang and Katy feel like real, normal people (or as normal as a former child assassin and his bestie can be) thrust into a much larger world of gods and monsters and interdimensional wars. Shang-Chi is the first film of Phase 4 of the MCU to not feel like a denouement for Endgame. And like WandaVision and Loki, it cracks open a much, much larger world and gives us a glimpse of where the next big Avengers team-up could take place.
But where Loki and WandaVision were about some of the most powerful characters in the Marvel universe, Shang-Chi is about a guy who can fight really well but would probably rather be doing some karaoke or earning enough to pay his rent. Shang-Chi establishes Shang as the heart of whatever this eventual new team will be and finally moves the Marvel Cinematic Universe out from the shadow of Avengers who have come and gone before.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings will be in theaters only on September 3rd. Unlike Black Widow, it will not have a dual release on Disney Plus Premiere Access. That is a bummer because this film deserves to be seen and audiences should feel safe while watching it.