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Should I Watch..? 'Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings' (2021)

Benjamin has been reviewing films online since 2004 and has seen way more action movies than he should probably admit to!

Teaser poster

Teaser poster

What's the Big Deal?

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is an action fantasy superhero film released in 2021, and it is the 25th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe or MCU. Based on the Marvel comics character of the same name, the film introduces us to Shaun, who has been enjoying living his life in San Francisco before finding himself drawn back to his past in China and facing demons he thought he had long left behind. The film stars Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Meng'er Zhang, Fala Chen, Michelle Yeoh, Ben Kingsley, Florian Munteanu and Tony Leung, and it was directed and co-written by Destin Daniel Cretton. The film is Marvel's first with an Asian character in the lead as well as the first with an Asian director and mostly Asian cast. Released as part of Marvel's 'Phase 4' after the colossal success of Avengers: Endgame, the film received a positive reception from critics and became the ninth highest-earning film of the year with global takings in excess of $432 million. As of the time of writing, a sequel is currently in development with Cretton returning as writer and director.

Enjoyable

What's It About?

Around a thousand years ago, the warrior Xu Wenwu discovers ten mystical rings worn around the wrists that grant immortality and near-godlike powers. Using the rings, he begins waging war and quickly conquers numerous kingdoms using his personal army known as The Ten Rings. In 1996, Wenwu decides to investigate rumours of a remote village called Ta Lo which is guarded by a mysterious forest and said to house a number of unusual animals. However, he instead meets Ying Li who is somehow able to counter Wenwu's power. The two of them fall in love and head back to Wenwu's compound in order to raise their two children, Shang-Chi who Wenwu trains to become his successor and his sister Xialing who trains herself in secret.

After Li is murdered by a rival gang, Wenwu sends a teenage Shang-Chi on a mission to assassinate the leader of their rivals but Shang-Chi instead flees to San Francisco and attempts to live a normal life. Adopting the name Shaun and working alongside his best friend Katy, Shaun finds work as a parking valet and spends his time partying and singing karaoke. But one day years later, he receives a cryptic letter revealing the location of Xialing (who has also fled his father's military organisation) and sensing that she may be in danger, Shaun travels to Macau as he fears that their father may be out to get the pair of them...

Trailer

What's to Like?

After all these characters we've seen introduced by Marvel since the game-changing Iron Man back in 2008, it would be easy to think that this admittedly minor addition to the MCU might be worth skipping or that Marvel are running out of ideas since Endgame. It would also be reinforced by the relative lack of promotion for this film which made me cynical about their reasons for producing the film in the first place - a naked attempt at expanding their diversity of characters after much criticism over the years. Thankfully, this movie proved me wrong - not only is it an inventive and hugely entertaining origin story for the character (righting some of the more problematic issues surrounding Marvel's use of the character in the comics) but it's refreshing in a way I didn't expect. I was ready for another middling effort like Ant-Man but instead, this was more akin to Black Panther which is a marked upgrade.

The film is unashamed to wear its influences on its sleeve and is chockful of action sequences that are reminiscent of various Jackie Chan films, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and even anime like Dragon Ball Z. The film's design is also first class, blending Chinese style and aesthetic with Marvel bombast and gloss. Take a look at the costumes, set design or the monstrous beasts that pop up for the final act - even the film's extensive use of subtitled Mandarin (no pun intended) separates this from the many other origin tales Marvel have produced so far. It feels different and respectful of the culture it depicts, another trick learned from the success of Black Panther.

Not only that but the film is enjoyable in its own right. Liu isn't the most engaging of lead performers - his best scenes are the more comedic interaction between himself and Awkwafina - but he is a real force of nature during the action sequences. The fight scene on board the bus is a genuine highlight, announcing Liu as a new action star and one I look forward to see again in future. Speaking of Awkwafina, her sidekick role is certainly one of the better ones seen in the MCU so far. She is everything that Kat Dennings' role as Darcy in Thor is not - effortlessly funny and a fun person to be around, even having her own character arc alongside that of Shang-Chi. But personally, the film's real star is veteran performer Tony Leung playing a complicated and sympathetic baddie that makes you understand their motives - something else that's all too rare within the MCU. It's been a while since I've seen him in anything (his excellent performance in Lust, Caution is the last time I recall watching him) but his performance is so good here, it shades almost any other performance I've seen in any MCU picture. By rights, I'd have him nominated for a Supporting Actor award but the Academy are loathed to put these sort of films forward for anything serious other than technical awards. More fool them, I say.

Liu is an uneven lead but convinces in the fight sequences, announcing his arrival as a legit action star in a big way.

Liu is an uneven lead but convinces in the fight sequences, announcing his arrival as a legit action star in a big way.

Fun Facts

  • The film marks legendary Hong Kong actor Tony Leung's first appearance in an Hollywood film and his first English-speaking role in any film. He has always spoken English fluently, however. He also insisted on training in martial arts, despite Cretton informing him that CG would be doing most of his work.
  • The film was one of many whose production was halted due to the Covid-19 pandemic, causing filming to stop in March 2020 before resuming at the end of July. When shooting finally finished in October 2020, they had managed to complete production without a single case of Covid-19.
  • Xialing was supposed to have a streak of red in her hair but Zhang asked for it to be removed. She had read an article in Teen Vogue about how often this trope was used in films to indicate a rebellious streak in characters so she asked for it to be dropped.
  • In the comics, the Mandarin wears ten rings that give him his powers. As hand-based jewellery had already been used in the MCU with Thanos' Infinity Gauntlet, the decision was made to change the Ten Rings to Hung Gar iron rings which were originally used to strengthen the arms and fists during martial arts training.
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What's Not to Like?

Sadly, I feel that the film does drop the ball on a few occasions. Although the part of Trevor Slattery is played well (it's Ben Kingsley so that should be a given), the inclusion of the character feels like needless fan service at this point. The film's comedic element was already being supplied by Awkwafina's Katy and as soon as Slattery makes his first cinematic appearance since Iron Man 3, she is left with little to do besides develop her own rudimentary fighting skills and much of the interplay between her and Liu disappears as well. I'm all for characters jumping across different franchises and such - it's what the MCU is all about, after all and the welcome appearance of Wong from Doctor Strange shows how to do it right - but Slattery isn't a known quantity outside of the sole film he appeared in and even then, he's nothing more than a quick punchline.

I also felt that the film was unnecessarily long, in large part due to the film having to explain the origins of Shang-Chi with a number of flashbacks. Sadly, these didn't do a great deal besides demonstrate some exposition and some are almost entirely redundant such as the scene when their mother is killed. There was also far too much product placement, something I hadn't noticed that much before in a MCU picture but is very noticeable in this film. Surely Marvel have made enough money now to not have to rely on such schemes? Like many of the latter James Bond films, it cheapens the picture somewhat and makes you sometimes wonder if you're watching a movie or an expensive commercial. But on the whole, I enjoyed Shang-Chi... a great deal. It's always nice finding a film that manages to surprise you in a good way and I'm pleased to report that this film did just that.

Veteran star Tony Leung is hugely impressive as Wenwu, as emotionally complex and interesting a villain as we have ever seen in the MCU.

Veteran star Tony Leung is hugely impressive as Wenwu, as emotionally complex and interesting a villain as we have ever seen in the MCU.

Should I Watch It?

Much more than a simple marketing strategy, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings sticks to the traditional Marvel formula but is culturally and stylistically different enough to stand out from an increasingly bloated market. Enriched with talent behind and in front of the camera, the film proves that Marvel haven't ran out of ideas just yet. Even if you aren't familiar with the character, this film feels like a return to form after the earth-scorching Avengers: Endgame and is hopefully indicative of further quality yet to come.

Great For: long-time MCU fans, Chinese and Asian-American audiences, proving cynics wrong, anyone looking to purchase a German-made SUV

Not So Great For: those who missed it at the cinema, younger viewers (the film has a surprising amount of swearing), accusations of white-washing

What Else Should I Watch?

I admit that I had some fears for Marvel going forward after Endgame as the long-awaited Black Widow movie didn't exactly justify all the fans' patience. The reason for my trepidation is that with many of their core stars dropping off the radar, Marvel seem to be shifting their attention more towards TV shows like Loki, WanderVision and Hawkeye. Nothing wrong with that in principal but considered the shows are canon, it's a lot more product to consume just to keep up with the relentless release schedule for the films - especially when these shows only appear on select streaming services. Even without the aforementioned shows, you have The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and the animated What If..? plus forthcoming series based around Moon Knight, She Hulk, Ms Marvel and the Secret Invasion storyline - and then you have the forthcoming films on top of that. I fear that Marvel will start leaving many casual viewers behind in the coming years and nobody wants to see that.

Apart from DC, possibly. They have continually lagged behind Marvel with their own cinematic universe, the DC Extended Universe (DCEU), and their films have had a rather more chequered success rate. While nearly all of their films have been financially successful, critical acclaim is far rarer after misfires like Suicide Squad, the original version of Justice League and the overblown Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice. Hopefully, they'll be able to turn things around soon with films like Black Adam, The Flash and Batgirl all currently scheduled for release later in 2022. Not that they're too bothered, I imagine - so long as these films keep making money and there's little indication of that trend ending soon, they'll continue to keep churning them out.

Main Cast

ActorRole

Simu Liu

Shaun / Xu Shang-Chi

Awkwafina

Katy

Meng'er Zhang

Xu Xialing

Fala Chen

Ying Li

Florian Munteanu

Razor Fist

Benedict Wong

Wong

Michelle Yeoh

Ying Nan

Ben Kingsley

Trevor Slattery

Tony Chiu-Wai Leung

Xu Wenwu

Technical Info

*story by Dave Callaham & Destin Daniel Cretton, based on characters created by Steve Englehart & Jim Starlin

DirectorDestin Daniel Cretton

Screenplay

Dave Callaham, Destin Daniel Cretton & Andrew Lanham*

Running Time

132 minutes

Release Date (UK)

3rd September, 2021

Rating

12A

Genre

Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero

Academy Award Nominations

Best Visual Effects

© 2022 Benjamin Cox

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