As phase four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe soldiers on, there’s a consistent nagging feeling that Marvel movies will get stale. “Black Widow,” which came out earlier this year in July, proved to be a significant disappointment, and the promotion for “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” was not exciting enough to make it seem like a standout Marvel movie. Luckily, the film is out for everyone to see and it’s pretty awesome.
The action sequences alone are worth the price of admission. This is the first Marvel movie in a long time where not only was the action clearly shot, but there was a sense of rhythm and flow to the choreography that paid homage to the action of Jackie Chan. There were some shots of action in the movie where I felt genuinely giddy with excitement, and that’s a feeling that I have been missing from a big blockbuster movie in the past few years.
But beyond the amazing action is an engaging, even if slightly familiar, story to back it up. The Ten Rings is shown to be a legitimately competent organization that operates in the shadows, taking down governments and building a silent empire over the course of 1,000 years. The main antagonist, Xu Wenwu, leads the Ten Rings with, well, his ten rings. It’s a powerful entity, perhaps cosmic in origin, that essentially overpowers the person who wears it and grants him the gift of immortality.
What makes the story stand out is the way it is structured. Instead of showing the audience every event in order, we get the backstory of the Ten Rings and how Xu Wenwu meets Shang-Chi’s mother, Ying Li. She’s a powerful guardian from another dimension called Ta Lo, which is rumored to have mythical beasts and magical powers. Cutting to the modern-day, we then see Shang-Chi in San Francisco as a grown adult who parks cars for a living. He’s called back into action when mercenaries sent by his dad attack him on a bus, setting off a thrilling action sequence where we see Shang-Chi as a martial arts master. It is a fantastic way to build tension through the story, as information is revealed gradually over the course of the story rather than shown chronologically like a traditional story.
The family dynamics between Shang-Chi, his sister Xialing, and their father drive the heart of the story. As it turns out, Ying Li was killed by Wenwu’s former enemies. This sets Wenwu, and eventually a young Shang-Chi, on a path of blood to settle the score. At the age of 14, Shang-Chi is sent on the final hit to kill the man responsible for his mother’s death. It’s after this that Shang-Chi runs away, where he then lives his life in San Francisco. His sister, realizing that Shang-Chi will never return, also runs away to Macau, where she sets up an underground fight ring.
Wenwu’s motivation throughout the whole story is to make his family whole once again, but without sacrificing his power as the head of the Ten Rings. In a standout performance from Tony Leung, we see a man who realized he had the ability to love and grow old, giving up everything for Ying Li. After her death, he is driven mad, and that madness is manipulated by dark forces. He is convinced that the love of his life is held captive in Ta Lo by her former guardians. He resents Ta Lo because they deemed Wenwu unworthy of being able to live in Ta Lo, so Ying Li gave up her powers to be able to live with him.
This conflict, rooted in elements of mysticism and themes of grief, separates the story from a traditional Marvel origin story. Where most Marvel origin stories try to show characters overcoming their grief and become the heroes they are meant to be, “Shang-Chi” shows how grief has already torn a family apart and how that family becomes whole again. In becoming whole again, they find their true selves. It’s not the most original story, but it is certainly very effective and it is different from Marvel’s traditional formula.
Of course, the film does follow the Marvel formula of having a big CGI fight in the third act, but it’s a very enjoyable CGI fight. As it turns out, the dark force manipulating Wenwu is actually a soul-sucking monster that nearly destroyed Ta Lo once. The monster was locked away in a mountain that has been guarded for thousands of years, but Wenwu is able to break the monster free. But there’s also a protector dragon that, with the help of Shang-Chi, fights the monster. It sounds ridiculous, but on screen, it was a lot of fun to watch. It also helped that the CGI action was well shot and was interspersed with a very personal and well-choreographed final fight between Shang-Chi and his father.
The movie isn’t perfect by any means. It does have some pacing issues, and as said earlier, the story does feel familiar. But the movie is a really well-done origin story with phenomenal action sequences that have set the bar for action in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The story is personal and touching, with a great antagonist who will be remembered as one of the better ones in any Marvel movie. If you have been turned off of Marvel movies, come back and give “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” a shot. It’s a very fun ride, and a pretty engaging one too.