‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ Doesn’t Change Any Games But Still Manages to Delight

Rating: B-

It seems weird today to think that 14 years ago, when Marvel announced they were getting into the movie business for themselves with Marvel Studios, the character of Iron Man wasn’t that big of a deal. At the time, comic readers had largely moved on to other characters and Tony Stark was something of a B-squad guy. These days, Tony Stark and Iron Man are emblematic of the superhero genre and of the MCU itself, the cornerstone which now holds together the whole of a billion dollar a year empire.

Really, the whole of their Avengers saga was built on the backs of characters that, at the turn of the century, weren’t that popular, at best or even comparatively obscure. If it can be said that an entity such as Marvel has a superhero of its own, it’s probably this. Their ability to take characters that had largely fallen out of favor with the comic book reading masses and turn them into box office and pop cultural powerhouses is nothing short of astounding.

So it’s fitting, then, that Marvel is diving into their fourth phase with the hopes of turning another formerly obscure hero into their next cornerstone. Such seems to be the case with Shang-Chi, a character first introduced in the 70s who has since largely languished in annals of Marvel’s vast repository. Now, with the release of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Marvel hopes they can strike Iron Man gold once more.

Largely, they succeed. Shang-Chi is a film that is absolutely cut from the Marvel cloth and, by now, Marvel knows what they’re doing. Rare is the Marvel film that tries to break any molds and this is certainly no different. Which isn’t a bad thing, by any means. Marvel knows their audience and is adept at delivering what they want.

However, Marvel has occasionally shown us the heights they can reach when they’re willing to play outside the well-defined lines dictated by the studios. Movies like Black Panther, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Thor: Ragnarok break free of the confines and transcend the genre. What’s frustrating about Shang-Chi is how close we almost came to seeing that again.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is clearly delineated into two halves. The first is a street level kung fu film that feels fresh and innovative within the Marvel oeuvre; the second is a CGI filled smorgasbord culminating into the same giant monster battle we’ve seen countless times before. Neither half of the film is bad, to be clear, but the front half is so loaded with fresh takes that it makes the back half fall a little short.

The film stars Simu Liu in the title role; we first meet him as “Shaun,” a kind of shiftless dreamer who is content to hang out with his friend Katy (Awkwafina) and work his dead end job as a valet. Soon, however, it becomes clear that Shaun is a man running from his past. His father, Xu Wenwu (Tony Chiu-Wai Lung), is head of the mysterious Ten Rings, a millennia old shadow organization that secretly runs large portions of the world. Located by his father, Shaun must face his past and his fears and seize his destiny.

Liu is immensely charismatic in his role, and his chemistry with Awkwafina is delightful. Of the more refreshing bits from the movie is the fact that the two have no romantic interest in each other. It’s nice to see a movie that doesn’t play up the romance between its two main characters and allows them to just be friends. A romance subplot might have hindered a movie that is, frankly, already packed with moving parts, and the angle they chose allows both actors to do what they do best.

Coupled with the classic son vs. father trope that has moved so much of story and myth, Shang-Chi offers no shortage of great moments, including a particularly memorable fight on a bus that will go down as one of the best scenes in Marvel’s history, and a stunning fight scene on the scaffolding of a building.

The film also offers nods to some of the MCU’s past characters, with two surprise appearances that serve to reaffirm Shang-Chi’s place in the milieu. More directly, the film also has appearances from Doctor Strange’s Wong (Benedict Wong), who, if this and his appearance in the next Spider-Man trailer have anything to say about it, seems poised to take a bigger role in the universe going forward.

Still, as much as I enjoyed Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, it’s impossible to get over the notion that we’ve already seen so much of this before. Marvel’s biggest weakness, which is more and more apparent with every release, is their affinity for repackaging old ideas and selling them as new. Which is what makes the back half of this movie so frustrating.

For the first half of the movie, Shang-Chi seems to be taking cues from Marvel’s Netflix series, giving us a look at a side of the MCU that so rarely gets showcased anymore. It’s refreshing and fun, delivering some much needed new ideas that have been sorely missing. By the end, though, we’re presented with yet another paint-by-numbers superhero climax that could be cut and paste from any Marvel movie into any other Marvel movie.

It’s good, then, that the script from Dave Callaham, Andrew Lanham, and Destin Daniel Cretton (who also directs), carries a lot of narrative weight. We haven’t had a lot of the son vs. father trope in the MCU and, while the climax is terribly familiar, the screenplay handles the emotional impact of that storyline well enough to mostly forgive any shortcomings that may arise.

But there can be no doubt that the character of Shang-Chi is a welcome addition to the Avengers canon. The team has long needed some new blood to bring into the assembly, and Shang-Chi offers some exciting potential. While it never manages to be much more beyond Marvel’s typical origin story introductory movie, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is nevertheless and fun and exciting movie that promises more potential great things still to come from the MCU.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is now playing in theaters everywhere.

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