In a 2019 Comic Con panel, Kevin Feige, the president of Marvel Studios, eagerly announced the abundance of projects that would continue to expand the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). For over a decade, Marvel has released more than twenty films, divided into three phases that make up the Infinity Saga, which recently ended with Spider-man: Far From Home (2019). After Feige’s announcement, the Marvel fan base has waited in great anticipation for the fourth phase and the new saga it brings.
Alas, in the midst of a pandemic, the fourth phase of the grand narrative that MCU fans were promised was not only pushed back by a year but rearranged as well. Even with a few phase four Disney Plus series and an overdue installment for the deceased Black Widow character, some of Marvel’s loyal viewers still need a strong, feature-length entry that provides a good reason to continue the journey after phase three’s climactic conclusion. Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) is officially the first film of phase four, but is it the strong and promising entry that Marvel Studios needs? Rest assured that if you’re still unsure if Marvel can provide another great experience, the answer is in everyone’s favor! With its many strengths and few minor weaknesses, Marvel’s introduction of Shang-Chi is also the proper introduction to phase four.
At the age of sixteen, Shang-Chi escaped his life as the cold-blooded assassin his father, Wenwu, had trained him to be from childhood. With a new identity, Shang-Chi parks cars for wealthy tenants of a San Francisco hotel. This new life ends when Wenwu’s men find and threaten Shang-Chi on a public bus, forcing him to face the life he had hoped to leave behind. Despite the danger ahead of him, his best friend and fellow valet, Katy, refuses to let him go alone. In a jarring chain of events, Shang-Chi is reunited with his sister Xialing and then Wenwu. Soon after the reunion, Wenwu discusses his plan to open a sacred gate in the ancient land, Ta Lo. He claims that Shang-Chi’s mother, Jiang Li, is trying to contact him from the other side. Dubious and unwilling to embark on the journey with his father, Shang-Chi and company race to reach Ta Lo before Wenwu. It is there that the gate’s true significance is disclosed—for rather than keeping Jiang Li tucked away, the gate conceals a monstrous consumer of souls. Shang-Chi must keep this malevolent creature from escaping Ta Lo, but in order to do that he must face his father, furthermore entailing a battle with his personal demons. Can he claim victory over them all?
One of Shang-Chi’s greatest adversities is the strained relationship he has with his father and the struggles it has left him with. Throughout the film, our hero recounts his past to earn the viewers’ understanding of this struggle. Viewers also learn that Wenwu is as damaged as he is corrupt, and that he fought to hold onto the loving side of him that Jiang Li brought to the surface. Once again, the past reveals this, along with Wenwu’s motivation for falling back to his violent ways. While much of this father-son relationship is explored in the past, Simu Liu and Tony Leung Chiu-wai really sell the tension between Shang-Chi and Wenwu that lingers in the present.
Awkwafina’s performance as Katy successfully carries much of the film’s humor, but it also connects in the heavier moments and the camaraderie between Katy and Shang-Chi feels authentic. Even though a relatively flat character who serves primarily as comic relief, Katy has a place in the journey and even learns from it herself.
Some of the remaining characters, while not the most influential, were brought to life with solid performances from the actors behind them. Honorable mentions would be the gentle yet strong mother of Shang-Chi, Jiang Li, portrayed by Fala Chen; his headstrong sister, Xialing, played by Meng’er Zhang; and then his patient and wise aunt, Jiang Nan, brought to life by Michelle Yeoh. Marvel has hinted at Xialing’s return, but hopefully they can also find a way to bring either or both of the others back, even if only to further teach Shang-Chi as he navigates the complex Marvel world.
Visual and Auditory Elements
The combat choreography is the film’s strongest element, impeccably crafted by the stunt crew and executed flawlessly by cast members with martial arts backgrounds—aside from Simu Liu, who learned to perform all of his amazing fights for the film. Some fights were stressful and almost too fast to keep up with, while others were slower and resembled a dance. The two extremes effectively illustrated the subtle storytelling, a scene’s tone, and even characters and their relationships.
The film’s cinematography deserves much of the credit for the action scenes as well. Combined with coloring and lighting, the film, with its vast scope of locations, is quite the spectacle where it counts! The use of sound and score, and even some clever timing between the two, also greatly added onto the visual experience that audience members were in for. Like every entry before it, this Marvel film heavily features computer generated visual effects, but they are rarely unconvincing and distracting, a problem that even some of Marvel’s newer releases occasionally face.
This film only slows down a few times and is otherwise a speeding bus. The scenes and events that take place in this film do not always happen chronologically. In fact, this film often features flashbacks. Thankfully, these flashbacks are handled well—not taking viewers out of the storyline and not causing any whiplash—and they serve their purpose as transitional, expositional scenes, and in an instance or two, the long opening for a humorous moment.
Even with a fine execution of flashbacks and backstory, a critique for the script is its reliance on them, rather than exploring some of its points and themes more in the present. Another weakness, likely due to the film’s compact and fast-paced story, is that even with a lack of loose ends, some weren’t tied satisfactorily. Perhaps this is more of a personal nitpick, and even with such an issue, the movie still holds pretty strong in the other, aforementioned departments.
The story of Shang-Chi is a strong introduction to the MCU’s phase four. It shakes off much of the formulaic dust settling on Marvel’s previous solo hero films, breathing fresh air into the genre. This film features incredibly impressive action, humor that nearly always lands, clever subversions of expectations, high stakes and consequences, a good lineup in the soundtrack and score, and great audiovisual combinations sure to evoke as small as a subtle reaction. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings proves itself a worthy addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Perhaps it is too soon to say, especially with two more films releasing within the year, but I would dare to view this film as the promise of success in Marvel Studios’ future.