Less than a month before the 25th entry in the James Bond series hits cinema, the Marvel Cinematic Universe reaches this number with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Representing the second film in the fourth phase of this continuity, Shang-Chi comes from director Destin Daniel Cretton, best known for the independent movie, Short Term 12.
Beginning centuries in the past, Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung) finds the ten rings – effectively a series of magical bracelets, which grant the user immortality, along with mystical powers, great speed and strength. Amassing an army of warriors named after the rings, Xu conquers kingdoms as the centuries pass. In 1996, he finds the hidden village of Ta Lo, an area though to harbour mythical beasts that he believes will expand his powers. Stopped by the gatekeeper of the village, Ying Li (Fala Chen), Xu and Li fall in love. He renounces his use of the rings and starts a family. From here the rest of the years bridging to the present day are told in periodic flashback through the main story.
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Our main narrative picks up in present day San Francisco. Shaun (Simu Liu) – who we will find out is one of the two children from that union, and the Shang-Chi of the title – is living under an assumed, and working as a parking attendant with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina). When he is attacked by member of the Ten Rings army while on a bus to work, he has taken from him a pendant given to him by his now-deceased mother. Fearing that they will be looking to take a similar pendant from his sister, Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), Shaun and Katy head to Macau to try to prevent an attack.
Failing, they are taken to the Ten Rings compound, where he learns from his estranged father – now using the rings once again – that Xu believes his wife to be alive and being kept in Ta Lo. Meeting with Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley reprising his role from Iron Man 3), who is being kept there as a kind of court jester, Katy, Shaun, and Trevor escape the compound and head to Ta Lo in order to prevent both genocide, and the release of soul eating beasts that will render Xu unstoppable.
Shang-Chi contains some of the best action yet to feature in the MCU. Simu Liu is an accomplished martial artist and stuntman, and brings this to bear in a film which displays a range of disparate influences. In visuals we can see echoes of Lady Snowblood, The Wolverine, The Last Samurai, and even The Lord of the Rings. Action sequences are often playful, with elements of Jackie Chan in the bus battle – the best of the action sequences, if the actual battle route was a little too reminiscent of Ant-Man and the Wasp.
Performances are terrific, with Liu and Awkwafina sharing good chemistry, and the latter possibly the most enjoyable element of the film, in a role that could be far too broad in less capable hands. Michelle Yeoh, as Shaun’s aunt, reminds audiences of both her considerable screen presence, and her ability in action scenes. Yeung sits deftly on the line between villain and loving husband, coming off as misunderstood, yet suitably menacing. Effects work – with two minor exceptions – is up to the usual, high standard expected from Marvel Studios.
For all of that – and often experimental TV work coming in this phase – it is fair to say that phase four doesn’t feel quite underway yet somehow. Black Widow made its bow arguably five years too late, and played more on audience nostalgia for what has come before. Here, much of the film’s first half feels only tangentially Marvel. Despite the supernatural elements of the prologue, the first act feels more like a family friendly action film than a superhero film. This is not necessarily a bad thing in itself, but it leads to the various cameos linking to the wider universe (Wong, The Abomination – later, Bruce Banner, Carol Danvers) feel more jarring. At this stage, Shang-Chi feels crammed into the MCU, rather than organically of it.
That said, judgement of this movie is very likely to change once it is viewed as part of a complete phase. The mid-credits scene hints at a much bigger backstory for the rings themselves, and with the Ten Rings organisation seemingly intact at film’s end, there is every chance that what feels like a slightly out of place one-shot, augmented with distracting cameos, may end up pivotal to the story to come.
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In summary, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is emblematic of most of the better aspects of the MCU: likeable leads in good performances, quality action sequences, and a tone that balances light and dark in a way for which this studio never gets the appropriate credit – the darker elements often ignored in critical analysis. There are also some of the flaws we see in some of the weaker entries: an overlong (seriously overlong in this case) third act; cameos that play like the studio winking at the audience, and humour just occasionally in the wrong place. Ben Kingsley’s appearance is welcome, and it contextualises his previous turn in the series, along with what exactly The Mandarin represents in this continuity, but sometimes he is funny where the tension could do with being left unbroken.
With the aforementioned caveat that more than most entries in this series, this film seems ripe for reinterpretation and reappraisal once we all have more information, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings currently feels like a lower half MCU entry, and part of a phase yet, truly, to catch fire. For all of this, it is an entertaining film that is unlikely to disappoint.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is out now at Cinemas. It will be availble to stream on Disney+ and purchase on Digital from 12th November, and released on 4K Ultra HD™, Blu-ray and DVD on 15th November.