Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is the latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and despite being the 25th film in the franchise, it’s a fresh, exciting introduction to the series’ newest superhero. Unlike the recently released Black Widow, the ostensible kick-off to Phase 4, Shang-Chi feels like it’s all about the future of the MCU, especially given it centers on its first Asian-American superhero. The film also boasts some of the best fight sequences in the franchise’s history, while indirectly building on Iron Man 3 by establishing the real terrorist group called the Ten Rings.
The film starts by establishing Xu Wenwu (Hong Kong legend Tony Leung, fantastic) the master of the magical Ten Rings, bracelets that give him infinite power and grant him youth and immortality. For hundreds of years, Wenwu pursues power above all else until he meets Li (Fala Chen), a member of a mysterious group with access to untold mystical powers. Against all odds, Wenwu and Li fall in love and Wenwu gives up his quest for power as he becomes father to son Shang-Chi and daughter Xialing.
Years later, Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) goes by the name Shaun and lives in San Francisco, where he works as a valet at a fancy hotel alongside his best friend Katy (Awkwafina). The slacker duo are content driving other people’s fast cars and staying out late having fun until one day on the bus to work, Shaun is attacked by a group of men who are after a pendant given to him by his mother. This kicks off an adventure that draws Shang-Chi back to the family he left behind in China, which forces a reckoning with both Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) and Wenwu. Meanwhile, Katy is along for the globe-trotting ride every step of the way, and her presence prompts several flashbacks that fill her and the audience in on the secret past Shang-Chi has kept hidden from her throughout their decade-long friendship.
The first two acts of Shang-Chi, which was directed by Destin Daniel Cretton (who also co-wrote the script with Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham), are more successful than the last, which devolves into formulaic final act action-movie territory. It’s exciting to see a movie from a popular franchise depict the Asian-American experience, which Shang-Chi does in its early scenes. Yet, the most memorable parts of the film are the fight sequences in its first half, which invoke (and in one case nod) to Jackie Chan’s acrobatic, grounded style of fighting in their inventive use of martial arts and action choreography. Far less exhilarating is the extended final battle, which evokes the wire-fu style of Hong Kong action films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon but comes across as far less inspired.
The film includes a variety of cameos, Easter eggs, and callbacks that MCU fans will appreciate, but the real attraction here is Shang-Chi himself. Liu is a welcome addition to the franchise. A charismatic, likable performer, Liu is as good at landing punches as he is bantering with Awkwafina, and his rise from underachiever to hero is handled well by the actor. Meanwhile, Zhang makes quite an impression as Xialing, whose legitimate grievances with her father and brother make her a slippery figure whose loyalties aren’t always clear.
On the other hand, there’s the matter of Awkwafina’s presence throughout the film. While Katy makes for a great companion to Shaun in the beginning of the story, her inclusion becomes increasingly preposterous as the plot unfolds. With no special skills or knowledge, she has no reason to be there by the time the final fight sequence happens. This isn’t a knock on Awkwafina’s skills as an actor; she adds some welcome levity to the film. But I can’t think of another MCU outing where the unskilled sidekick — think Ned from the Spider-Man films or Happy Hogan from the Iron Man films — sticks with the hero when the story offers them a better alternative. Because of this, Shang-Chi ends up feeling more like the story of the evolution of Shang-Chi and Katy, not the rise of the hero Shang-Chi. Hopefully, in future MCU installments, Shang-Chi will have the opportunity to stand on his own two feet without his co-dependent relationship with Katy getting in the way. If that happens, Shang-Chi has a bright future ahead of him.