Come in closer family, we need to talk about one of the most enjoyable Marvel films in a minute.
One that is not driven by the big 3 Avengers in Iron Man, Captain America or Thor. Shang Chi and the Legend of the 10 Rings as the premise goes is about Martial Arts master Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) who’s forced to confront the past he thought he left behind when he’s drawn into the web of the mysterious Ten Rings organisation.
If like me you were raised on comic books and martial arts with a side order of patty and coco bread you will find sustenance here. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) can be predictable, heroes are quick mouthed and quick-witted, saving the day with a good old sky-beam end of the world scenario battling the super bad guy whose matching powers & skills provide the ultimate challenge. The hero of course wins the round because they have the power of banter and franchise favouritism. Cue a mid and/or post-credit easter egg scene and we’ll see you at the next one. In other words, the formula is known and can get quite repetitive, and while there are certainly elements of this in Shang Chi, it is its own film, its own landscape and it will take your breath away more than once.
Equally, martial arts films have their own tropes, clunky dialogue, choreography which strain credulity, and pedestrian characters. However, Shang Chi took the best elements from both respective powerhouses and blends them into a tasty treat, both visually and stylistically. There are tonal similarities with some of the most iconic martial arts films spanning generations such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and Enter the Dragon (1973). And for an MCU film, Shang Chi showcases a refreshing level of acting pedigree and a supporting cast of gems, notably in the sublime and majestic Michelle Yeoh and Tony Leung. Their presence doing more than legitimising the feature with familiar iconography but creating characters and a world with depth that’s visually and stylistically in the company of modern masterpieces such as Kung Fu Hustle (2004) and Hero (2002).
Simu Liu as the titular character is enigmatic, accomplished, and so comfortable in the role that you would think this is his third jaunt as Shang Chi, not his first. He carries the weight of Shang Chi’s debut with effortless energy that is strong with no bravado, something that we are not used to seeing with other marvel headlining characters. Simu’s Chang though is in no way retreating, he is measured and dutiful, more unsure of the impact of power than his ability to do anything.
If this sounds familiar, it is because Shang Chi and the Legend of the 10 Rings is in harmony with another MCU favourite, Black Panther. Black Panther was a moment in time, for the people and for the culture. The inspiring representation, the unapologetic proclaiming of a people’s greatness and a celebration of every part of coolness within that was played out by the iconic character, created for that reason. Shang Chi’s director Destin Daniel Cretton really cooked this to perfection, he had a vision for the characters that are certainly complex and performed by the best of the best, a world that is beautifully vibrant and action that is certainly authentic. Shang Chi is that vehicle for the Asian community, the film is rich, rich, rich.
Creating a relevant world for the TikTok generation whilst honouring the history and culture of meditation and combat, Shang Chi makes it look effortless. It should not be understated just how difficult a premise it is to have a martial arts master holding his own in a universe that has teenagers with superhuman strength and billionaire tech suits fighting intergalactic warlords with the power to literally alter worlds. Shang Chi’s scale of epic cultural majesty, beautiful sets, intriguing mysticism and folklore are a compliment to the minds behind the production.
The cinematography, colour palettes, costumes, and music are extremely complementary to each other. even the weaponry is in keeping with the honouring of traditional staples of the culture. However they are given a futuristic tweak that feels in keeping with the MCU and you can see how the film is a platform to jump from, not finally land onto.
Action scenes have a fluidity to them that does not feel like Wire-Fu but a delicious blend of parkour and Kung Fu. The movements feel authentic and sometimes even hard to do. It did not translate like fight sequences where each person is waiting for their turn to hit or be hit and the exchanges felt like two experts evenly matched. The choreography, shot composition and pacing meant that while this is clearly a level above the rest of the MCU fight scenes, (yes, even Winter Soldier), the moves are all distinguishable. There are no flurries of limbs or costumes in matching colours meaning you cannot distinguish butt kicker from butt kicked.
My criticisms? I wanted more. With a run time of 2 hours and 12 minutes, it was by no means a short flurry that felt rushed, but like most MCU fans, we are also comic book fans and are quite happy to immerse ourselves in a saga and soak up all the details in background and foreground. The characters indicated to us as being deep and full of intrigue were not extensively given the platform to reveal more to us than being the facility to drive Shang Chi forward to a predictable end (or beginning, as origin stories go). Also, the electric Simu Liu who quite clearly has a locker full of talent, runs the risk of being a side salad on his own plate. While this may be indicative of the superb supporting cast the feature has, the audience can perhaps feel a little short changed in the exploration of Shang Chi’s personality, which of course may be a subject for future films, because he is here to stay and he could potentially be a big player.
I for one, am delighted.
Shang Chi and the Ten Rings is in UK cinemas now.