So far, Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been overwhelmingly, well, familiar. All three of the heavily hyped Disney+ shows have centered around characters that we already know, and the lone feature, this summer’s unexpectedly wonderful Black Widow, is the solo movie that probably should have been made a decade ago. Avengers: Endgame definitively closed a chapter, but it still feels like we’re waiting for a new chapter to begin. Thankfully, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,shows that there are still unexplored areas left in the interconnected MCU. Easily one of the best standalone movies in the franchise, it uses cultural specificity to tell a universal story, and, thanks to innovative editing and action choreography, genuinely feels new and different. If you’re feeling burnt out on Marvel Studios product, get ready for Shang-Chi to make you excited again.
A brief prologue introduces the idea of the Ten Rings, which are both a magical artifact harnessed by a vengeful warlord named Wenwu (played by international icon Tony Leung) and a pseudo-terrorist organization responsible for covertly changing the course of history, run by Wenwu. (In a brief montage, we see various horrifying acts perpetrated through time.) After some more worldbuilding mythology that feels, honestly, impossible to synopsize, we are introduced to our hero, Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), who lives in San Francisco and works as a valet at a swanky hotel. Content to simply bum around with his bestie Katy (Awkwafina), his true nature is revealed while riding the bus to work. That’s when a bunch of goons, led by the sword-armed Razor Fist (Florian Munteanu), make a play for a jade necklace, and end up with their asses handed to him. It’s a dynamite sequence that establishes the visual language of the film; quick cuts are interspersed with long, gorgeous takes of unbroken action, everything is fluid and remarkable, but never so graceful that it lowers the stakes or intensity. From there, Shang-Chi and Katy embark on a globetrotting adventure that has them enter into an underground fight club in Macau and finally to a mystical, unspoken Chinese village.
Honestly, the less you know about the plot, the better (there are some good surprises, and both a mid-credits and post-credits scene so sit tight). The movie unfolds in a series of vignettes and flashbacks, with a tricky, intricate structure that feels like what Captain Marvel was going for but couldn’t properly pull off. Yes, it’s a superhero origin story, but it’s also a family story, about legacy and birthright and self-fulfillment. And it winds up in a wholly unfamiliar, mystical realm that should expand what the MCU is all about but is too good to spoil now.
And if all of that sounds too heavy, don’t worry – it’s also got some of the best action in the entire MCU. This is thanks largely to the combined efforts of Brad Allen, the stunt choreographer and second unit director who was a protégé of Jackie Chan (he died a few weeks ago at the age of 48 and the film is dedicated to him) and cinematographer Bill Pope, weirdly credited here as William Pope. The two have worked together before, most recently on Edgar Wright’s The World’s End (whose entire premise owes a debt to Chan’s Drunken Master) and it is wonderful to see the ways they play off of each other here. There’s more than one moment where a piece of action will happen, and the camera will suddenly jostle out and you’ll realize that everything before that movement had been taking place in a mirror; it adds fun and levity and a level of surprise that you might not otherwise have in a more straightforward bit of superhero action. And Liu, who should absolutely be a movie star after this opens, throws himself into it wholeheartedly, punctuating each action sequence with moments of genuine character development and growth, particularly as the film barrels towards its climax. It’s rare to have fight sequences this thrilling in western films, and rarer still to have some that feel this special.
And, really, the whole movie feels like that much of a magic trick. For those worried about how the film will handle the character’s problematic past (in the comics he was the son of fictional villain Fu Manchu, who many have characterized as a deeply racist symbol of the “Yellow Scare,” and whose copyright Marvel no longer holds), as well as the connection to earlier Marvel villain The Mandarin (played, with much aplomb, by Ben Kingsley in the deeply brilliant Iron Man 3). Without giving anything away, both are handled delicately, and both benefit hugely from the fact that Leung, who has starred in a number ofmovies you maybe haven’t seen but definitely should (including Infernal Affairs, the precursor to The Departed, and Wong Kar-Wai’s masterpieces Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love and The Grandmaster). Yes, he is the villain, and he can be quite scary, but he also will make you feel for him in ways that you might not anticipate. It’s a testament to how much Marvel has evolved that they no longer rely on “a slightly different version of the hero” trope and instead offer nuanced, complex, emotionally resonant antagonists for their equally complicated heroes to combat.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings wears its influences on its sleeve. Jackie Chan is an obvious influence – there’s a moment in the bus fight that people have already pointed out mirrors an identical moment in Rumble in the Bronx, and a fight later, staged on the side of an incomplete building, that recalls the famous “glass story” climax of Police Story. Elsewhere, the movie tips its hat to Hayao Miyazaki and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. But this is far from empty homage; instead, it enriches the movie and its sense of cultural specificity.
This is one of the most special movies in the MCU, and it’s hard to imagine it not being a runaway success, even with the feelings of uneasiness associated with the delta variant and rising COVID numbers. Even if you are feeling burnt out by the glut of Marvel product (and, to be sure, there is a ton), Shang-Chi will lift your spirits and make you very excited about what’s to come. And that might be the biggest accomplishment of all.