As the Marvel machine keeps full-steam churning, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings represents both the best and most mediocre of Disney’s failsafe superhero formula. Destin Daniel Cretton puts his stamp on another origin story that connects dimensions and allies while still architecting an MCU-friendly finale where good triumphs over evil in a swirl of computerized effects. Where some filmmakers find themselves lost in a production chain of spandex expectancies, Cretton anchors a hero’s introduction to agile Jackie Chan classics, humble Wushu martial artistry, and dare I say Jurassic Park meets Pokémon? Within the confines of studio regimented decisions, Cretton succeeds in melding Asian cinematic influences complete with a hidden dragon (no crouching tiger)—albeit playing amicably under Kevin Feige’s oversight.
Simu Liu stars as the titular Shang-Chi, a valet attendee going by “Shaun” with a complicated past. Shang-Chi’s father, Wenwu (Tony Leung), trained his son from single-digits to be a masterclass assassin under his Ten Rings banner, after Wenwu’s wife and Shang-Chi’s mother, Jiang Li (Fala Chen), was murdered by Iron Gang rivals. Wenwu’s ancient armbands are his source of advantageous power, which he wields in vengeance—Shang-Chi flees his father’s compound out of resistance and leaves sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) brotherless. However, that’s all about to change when Shang-Chi is beckoned home to protect Xialing from Ten Rings footsoldiers, aided by platonic companion Katy (Awkwafina).
It’s not long into Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings before Cretton introduces the elemental signatures of mystical warrior codes, as Wenwu and Jiang Li spark romantic flames amidst combat. Wenwu and Jiang Li dance this delicate ballet of footwork while Wenwu projectiles his ring extensions towards Jiang Li, who never breaks fluid stride. Set against a bamboo backdrop, Jiang Li swirls fallen leaves in her blustery wind bursts as she taps into Mother Nature while gliding around Wenwu despite his bestowed golden weaponry. Jiang Li’s flats trace perfect circles in the dirt to posture impeccable form, and it’s all so whimsically awe-inspiring a glimpse of modern Chinese action beats—we’re plucked from the MCU and transported elsewhere in the moment.
The above is the Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings I wish Cretton could sustain, past an exterior skyscraper ninja brawl where Shang-Chi and Xialing fend off Ten Rings assassins on bendable bamboo scaffolding rigs (which impresses). Liu and Awkwafina do a splendid job melding old world stoicism with new blood swagger, especially when Meng’er Zhang’s chain-swingin’ independent woman joins the squad—their journey speeds through the motions with time-tested predictability. These are characters worth engaging from Katy’s Speed reenactment to Xialing’s introduction as a national fighting ring mastermind to Shang-Chi’s reluctant family reunion. Yet? There’s a weaker third act where personalities strip away on the battlefield. Albeit, Liu otherwise charmingly and acrobatically asserts himself the correct choice for Shang-Chi whether flexing his combo defenses against laser machete hands or wrestling with his father’s perceived betrayals from a place of heartbreak.
I want to stress the encompassing world of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings because everything from dojos to off-world villages that require waterfall portals are timeless backdrops. Bill Pope offers a veteran cinematographer’s eye as Katy throttles an SUV through shifting forest mazes or fantastical lions the size of three buffalos lazily bask under sunbeams, tapping into the colorful flowing garbs of Ying Nan’s (Michelle Yeoh) protector clan. Composer Joel P. West features orchestral woodwind rhythms torn from martial arts classics with an at-times hip-hop bend, marrying culture and energy much like in Black Panther. We’re treated to enchanted, bejeweled statutes, imaginative creatures from another realm (prepare to adore Morris), and Eastern Asian cinematic commonalities that help broaden Marvel’s vocabulary regarding subgenre influences (like heist cinema to Ant-Man or ’70s political conspiracy thrillers to Captain America: The Winter Soldier).
My qualms with the third act of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings are not because I’m tired of Marvel’s low stakes—Wenwu’s lovesick arc is rather complicated in its antagonism (won’t go any further). I struggle with Marvel’s approach to finale rumbles because they’re usually CGI-saddled and a bit chaotic to follow. Shang-Chi’s culminating defense against Ten Rings waves using dragon scale weapons shimmers the glitteriest reds on costumes, striking staffs, and shields, except it’s a bit scatter-focused. I’ll draw comparisons to Black Panther, another stellar Marvel flick that hollers ambitions but ever so spottily struggles to fulfill in its final large-scale tussle. It doesn’t help how Liu, Zhang, and Tony Leung all sensationalize their martial arts choreography inside transit buses or as an adorable mating ritual, which juxtaposes unfavorably against whatever vanquishing blows the camera manages to catch in the violent whirlwind that is another Marvel-bred culmination.
In short, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings fits the Marvel descriptors of “fun,” “jovial,” and “exciting” without arguments. Simu Liu and Awkwafina should teach a chemistry class as their directionless nobodies chase honorable destinies that glow when powered by forearm muscles. Destin Daniel Cretton transitions from indie dramas like Short Term 12 and Just Mercy to this boastfully bombastic blockbuster spotlight without many growing pains. You’ll get your multiverse teases, callbacks to redesigned canon characters, and karaoke interludes that humanize superpowered guardians—and you’ll be cheering a new challenger’s namesake as the Avengers initiative flaunts yet another shining example of a rookie recruit.