It’s about damn time Marvel started paying attention to diversity on screen. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings marks the studio giant’s first superhero film with an Asian lead. They found their titular star in Simu Liu, a relatively unknown actor who slips into the shoes of Shang-Chi with ease and buckets of charisma and while Shang-Chi by no means fixes all of Marvel’s issues, it is an exhilarating start.
Shang-Chi, or as he goes by now, Shaun (Liu) works as a valet and lives a rather ordinary life with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina). The two are pulled into a magical adventure as Shang-Chi’s past and true identity are revealed when his father Wenwu’s (Tony Leung) hitmen arrive in San Francisco. Wenwu attempts to find (and probably destroy) his late wife’s village where he believes his wife is being held hostage and Shang-Chi teams up with his estranged sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) to stop their father.
Director Destin Daniel Cretton is probably best known for his breakthrough hit Short Term 12, starring another Marvel regular Brie Larson and Just Mercy, a forgettable awards-bait film from 2019, but Cretton brings his A-game here. Shang-Chi is a visually powerful and well-paced superhero adventure that manages to balance spectacle and emotional stakes particularly well.
The film is impeccably cast. Liu and Awkwafina share great chemistry and their friendship has a familiar, worn feeling that you get with your oldest friends. The two actors bounce off each other dynamically and inject the film with a lot of humour and Awkwafina’s comedic timing especially is a welcome addition here. While Shang-Chi is very much part of the MCU – there is talk of The Blip and a few appropriate cameos – the film works well as its own standalone, independent entry into the universe. The script isn’t weighed down by the need to include certain characters or plot contrivances in order to continue a bigger story and it works in Shang-Chi’s favour and the character is sure to become a new fan favourite.
But the standout here is Leung. An icon of Asian cinema, this is Leung’s first English-language role and he is convincing and compelling as Wenwu, but that will not come as a surprise for fans of the actor’s work in films such as In The Mood For Love and Internal Affairs. Leung complicates the typical Marvel baddie by simply not playing Wenwu as a straight-up villain, but as a man torn apart by his grief and loneliness. Wenwu is a quiet, collected man, not a hysterical power-hungry monster we’re so used to in these films. But make no mistake, Leung still brings a lot of menace and threat to the film, but Shang-Chi often appears a little aimless and the stakes don’t always feel high enough for this level of epic shenanigans.
While Shang-Chi plays homage to Jackie Chan and many popular martial arts films, it fails to craft a unique identity of its own. Cretton often gets lost in his influences and Shang-Chi feels like a Marvel film crossed over with a Yimou Zhang -film rather than a Destin Daniel Cretton -film. The film is also heavy on the CGI, which in the beginning is shoddy but the final battle is a handsome sequence full of wonder and terror in equal measure, even if Shang-Chi himself gets a little lost in all the action around him.
Some of the film’s fight sequences, while exciting, are framed too tightly and edited so fast they’ll make your head spin. While the film is constantly entertaining and full of fun cameos and, of course, the standard Marvel end credits scenes, there is something missing from Shang-Chi. Perhaps it’s Cretton’s occasional lack of vision or Marvel playing everything a little safe, but nonetheless, this is an exciting new start for Marvel and hopefully, the dawn of a new, more inclusive era for the studio.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is in cinemas September 3.