Review: ‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ (mazes, monsters, and Michelle Yeoh)

“Iron Fist: the Apology.”

Shaun (Simu Lui) and Katy (Awkwafina) are co-working friends with slacker jobs and matching attitudes. When not parking cars at an upscale San Francisco hotel, they’re out too late at night singing karaoke and unworried about their future. After a surprise attack forces Shaun to successfully defend himself against multiple attackers, Katy learns her friend is more than he seems, following him to China in search of his sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) in case she, too, is being targeted. Over a thousand years before, a man named Xu Wenwu (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung) acquires an artifact called the Ten Rings, using them to build an empire until he bores of conquering and succeeding. When Wenwu encounters his match in a mere villager named Li (Fala Chen), he abandons his millennium empire for a simpler life with a wife and children, but the past doesn’t forgive a man his sins for turning over a new leaf… and an empty heart is easy to manipulate.

While Black Widow largely felt like a movie that should have happened far sooner than it did, the second of Marvel Studio’s planned four films for 2021 has more in common with Raya and the Last Dragon than any previous MCU film… and not coincidentally both with an entertaining character powered by Awkwafina. Directed and co-written by relative newcomer Destin Daniel Cretton, the screenplay is brimming with Asian myth, but continuity is also hamstrung by a previous appearance of The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) and his terrorist organization — also called “The Ten Rings” — in Iron Man 3. Are the two like-named things related, each different things entirely, or something in between… and why are the “rings” from the comics now bracelets all of the sudden?

Who (and what) Ben Kingsley’s portrayal turned out to be didn’t set especially well for longtime Marvel fans, but the short entitled “Marvel One-Shot: All Hail the King” added a bit of needed clarity, not to mention a fatal complication for actor Trevor Slattery (if you know, you know). With the reveal of the actual man in charge of the Ten Rings (and what the name is in reference to), the Shang-Chi script is proof the MCU either employs some of the best retcon writers of their time, or Marvel Studios are truly masters of the long game. In a movie serving as backstory, an origin story, and even another MCU expansion, the reinvent button on the impeding “superhero fatigue” machine is mashed yet again with a satisfying character-driven adventure… and one of the best Marvel films to date.

Every major role in this Asian story is filled by an Asian actor — a big deal in a world that should be long past the need to explain why representation matters, yet here we are. Simu Liu doesn’t waste his star turn to film after biding his time in television, including a stint on Awkwafina’s own show. Of course, Awkwafina was in the excellent Crazy Rich Asians opposite Michelle Yeoh’s matriarch Eleanor… and Yeoh pops up later in Shang-Chi because “of course she does.” Legend of the Ten Rings does fall into many of the unavoidable hero’s journey trope traps, but for an MCU entry, it also turns many of them on their ear in the best possible way. It’s almost as if Marvel learned every lesson they could from a certain Danny “Iron Fist” Rand.

As upcoming films are already starting to flinch at a 2021 Fall/Winter release schedule being threatened by COVID closures and postponements, Shang-Chi is essentially critic-proof. Over the long Labor Day weekend, there aren’t any new blockbusters really coming out until October, so studios will be paying close attention to what kind of legs the feature will have. What those on the fence need to know is this: if you’re an MCU fan and can get to theaters safely, this is one worth the effort and deserves to a little love.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, language, and crimes against The Eagles’ “Hotel California.”

Four skull recommendation out of four

One comment

  1. I just caught Shang-Chi in a Chicago theater, and it was great. Interesting acting, a plot that (at least for me) is un-foreseeable,and amazing cinematography (in particular, the fight on the scaffolding in downtown Macau).

    Like

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