If you’re anything like me i.e. old, you may remember reading Marvel’s Master of Kung Fu comics long before you even knew who Bruce Lee was or how much that true master of martial arts and his movies inspired the Marvel creators of the ‘70s to make a cheap knock-off.
Decades later, Marvel Studios’ Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings takes that idea and shifts it into the present-day Marvel Cinematic Universe, keeping the martial arts but throwing in some of the magic and high-tech ideas that have allowed the likes of Iron Man, Thor and Doctor Strange to all coexist in an expansive and more realistic but still quite fantastic world together.
In order to introduce the character to the millions (more like billions) who had never read any of those comics — the character hasn’t had the strongest publishing history — this Shang-Chi (played by Simu Liu from Kim’s Convenience) is introduced in what is essentially a stand-alone film. It’s directed by Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12, Just Mercy), whose previous work would not belie his ability to handle any of Shang-Chi’s strongest aspects, whether it’s the action, the comedy, or the larger-than-life fantasy aspects that take over the movie’s third act.
First, we get an introductory prologue where we meet Tony Leung’s Wenwu Xu, a powerful man whose ability to control the ten energy wristbands (the rings of the title) has allowed him to fight off all adversaries and create an equally powerful criminal empire. When he travels to the elusive city of Ta Lo to try to learn an undefeatable form of martial arts to increase his power, he fights and then falls in love with Fala Chen’s Ying Li, an equally mysterious woman with the power to control air. She’s more than a match for him, and soon they’re married and having kids.
The story then shifts to San Francisco many years later where we meet Liu’s “Shawn” as he’s working as a parking valet with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina). While they seem like your typical young slackers, an encounter with a number of his father’s henchmen, including Florian Munteanu’s Razor Fist (yes, this is a real character from the comics), puts him into the middle of a fight on a runaway bus. Apparently, Shang/Shawn ran away from his father’s kingdom when he realized his father expected him to kill others, but the film then shifts to Macao where Shang-Chi goes looking for his sister Xianling (Meng’er Zhang), who he thinks will be the killers’ next target. As it turns out, their father only wants his kids’ help in finding their mother, who was presumed dead but might actually still be in Ta Lo.
As much as Shang-Chi is a full-on Marvel movie, and one of Marvel’s first standalone movies in quite some time, it does a fine job paying tribute not just to Bruce Lee’s films but to Chinese fantasy epics like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero. It’s about as East meets West as you can possibly get.
Liu is extremely likable, not playing the character as grim as he’s been depicted in comics, making you want to see how he might interact with the other MCU characters, but you also immediately recognize the impeccable comic chemistry he already has with Awkwafina, which gives Shang-Chi a far more comic vibe than anyone might expect, at last for the first half of the film. Americans who aren’t aware of the mighty Chinese thespian Tony Leung are treated to an especially fine villainous turn, and the movie actually doubles down on the mockery of the Iron Man villain, The Mandarin, from Iron Man 3, who Leung is playing, at least in theory.
The last act takes us back to Ta Lo and the fantasy elements from the beginning start permeating the film more, as Michelle Yeoh up as Shang’s aunt who wants to teach him his mother’s martial arts so that he can face his out-of-control father.
It’s impossible to watch a film like Shang-Chi, and not marvel (pun intended) at the amazing crafts on display beginning with the way the entire film is shot by Cinematographer Bill Pope, one of the people Cretton brought over from The Matrix. Similarly, the production design by Sue Chan (designing her biggest movie to date) and Clint Wallace looks so great from the streets of San Fran to the Macao fight club, and finally to Ta Lo, which is almost like a Chinese Wakanda but with far more otherworldly beasts and the magnificent costumes by Kim Barrett (The Matrix) really get to shine in that last act.
And then, you come to the Visual Effects, which are a key part of any Marvel production with literally thousands of people whose names stream past you while you wait for the inevitable end tag. There are too many names to mention, but all the work by the talented team from houses like Weta Digital, TRIXTER, Scanline VFX, Digital Domain and others. This is a big movie that requires a plethora of visual effects, not just to show the powers inherent in the ten rings, but the entire last act is comprised of magic and creatures needing to have their own distinctive look.
The music is provided by Cretton’s long-time collaborator by Joel West, who also steps up his game for a far bigger movie, and it’s further proof of Cretton’s desire to mix his frequent collaborators with new people.
Sure, there may be other takeaways to be had from Shang-Chi (like it being the first Marvel movie led by an Asian superhero, if you hadn’t heard), but really, it’s Simu Liu and Cretton that constantly impress with what they’ve put together. If you’ve seen a single one of Cretton’s earlier films, you would never expect this to be the director that would helm a funny, action-packed fantasy epic like Shang-Chi, and yet, someone had the foresight to give Cretton the meeting that led to Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
Shang-Chi is proof positive that Marvel still has more than a few new tricks up its sleeve, while still being able to maintain its identity with its ability to pull surprising things out of filmmakers and actors alike. Simu Liu’s Shang-Chi is already a welcome addition to an already-thriving pantheon of superheroes.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings will only be in theaters nationwide starting on September 3. All photos courtesy Marvel Studios.