The Marvel Cinematic Universe is at a crossroads. After the endless build-up and cathartic rush of Avengers: Endgame, followed by an unintentionally long pause in releases (thanks to COVID, 2020 was the only year since 2009 without a major Marvel release) the all-mighty media behemoth seems to be casting about for a different sense of purpose post-Infinity Saga.
So far, alongside branching out into the streaming sphere with WandaVision, Loki et al and revisiting old favourites with Black Widow or Spider-Man, that new push seems focused on launching and developing new or lesser-known heroes like the Eternals, Moon Knight and – most relevantly for a review that hasn’t actually mentioned the film it’s about in two paragraphs – Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
A longstanding character in the comics, martial-arts master Shang-Chi gets himself a full-force solo movie here with none of the soft-launches in other projects seen for the likes of Black Panther or Tom Holland’s Spider-Man. And happily it’s a wonderfully entertaining, often emotional ride with a great deal of warmth, often bolstered by its excellent central cast.
Yes, this film is solidly within the Marvel Cinematic Universe – in fact, certain details (including its final scenes) seem to have been created with that emphasis in mind. But the world it creates is entirely its own, and could probably have existed even without the mighty scaffolding of Marvel behind it.
The story, as laid out in the trailers, is relatively simple. Raised by an ancient warlord (Tony Leung) empowered by magic rings, Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) has turned his back on the violence he was trained for, and now lives a low-profile life valeting cars with best friend Katy (Awkwafina). Both seem happy with their life – but in too-brief scenes with Katy’s wider family, who keep an eye on the apparently orphaned “Shaun”, you quickly get a sense of the home life he’s still yearning for.
Still, enough of that subtext! This being a superhero movie, it’s not too long before Shang-Chi is forced to reveal his hidden skills when he and Katy are attacked on a bus (a Jackie Chan-esque action sequence that stands out as a highlight), kickstarting an adventure that sends them barreling around the world to track down Shang-Chi’s embittered sister (Meng’er Zhang), discover what dark plans their father has for them and eventually face off in (of course) the traditional big CGI battle.
It could sound a little same-old, same-old – but what helps Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings stand out among its Marvel peers is the family saga at its heart, anchored by the legendary Tony Leung as Wenwu (who also helpfully explains that whole Mandarin/Ten Rings storyline in the Iron Man movies over dinner, if any fans still want that cleared up).
Oddly, while Wenwu is definitely the antagonist of the film and has plenty of blood on his hands, it’s hard to class him as the “villain” of the piece. He’s an eminently human character whose goals and actions are actually understandable, while a series of flashbacks show a softer side to him that helps justify his children’s conflicted feelings about facing him.
Most of this must come down to the depth of feeling Leung brings to the role, though Liu gamely matches up to him in a series of conflicts that often feel emotionally fraught. If there is a failing in this on-screen relationship, it’s in the oddly-structured flashback sequences that crop up throughout the film, and sometimes withhold information unnecessarily. Certain key details that inform their father-son history are only revealed towards the end, despite them being key to understanding Shang and Wenwu’s interactions (and in any case, the delayed revelations have little bearing on the plot).
In classic Black Panther style, the final mass battle full of CGI critters also feels like a bit of a letdown, with Shang and his allies facing a threat only introduced relatively late into the film and where the stakes seem a little too underdeveloped and fantastical to hit home. Also, after a film of (relatively) realistic martial arts with supernatural undertones, it feels a little strange for the finale to feel so exaggerated, with shades of Pixar hard to escape in the wilder moments.
This last battle also serves to take attention away from the real meat of this film – the human relationships, not just between Shang and Wenwu but also between Shang and Katy or with his sister Xialing, with both characters slightly fading into the background after making impressive entrances earlier in the movie (though generally speaking, Katy and Shang/Shaun make one of the most believable and sweet MCU friendships yet onscreen).
Still, even in these less-than-impressive moments Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings is never less than entertaining. The action feels solid and weighty, the gags (and impressive cameos) come thick and fast, and I left the cinema feeling cheerfully satisfied.
Slick, funny and often heartfelt, it’s a worthy addition to the MCU canon as the larger franchise heads into a brave new world. And for the die-hards, a couple of after credits scenes give the first hint at what that world might look like going forward. For Marvel, it’s clear that another story is just beginning…
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is released in UK cinemas from the 3rd September. Want more? Find out how to watch all of the Marvel movies in order, check out our dedicated Movies page or find something to watch in our full TV Guide.