The Marvel Cinematic Universe movie Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings begins like a fairy tale. Long ago, an ancient warlord discovered 10 magic rings that gave him immense power and immortality, which he then wielded for conquest. For a thousand years, he accumulated power, until one day, he fell in love, and set the quest aside. Then his love was lost, and he returned to his warmongering in secret, losing his family in the process. The story continues in a present-day setting, when he decides it’s time to bring his family together — violently.
This mythic opening neatly sums up all the many aspects Shang-Chi attempts to fold together, mostly successfully. In its first half, it’s a remarkably well-paced action film, and a serviceable family drama with comedy elements. In its second, it’s a surprising but languid fantasy film where, as with Black Widow before it, the expectations of a Marvel finale clash with the rest of the story. That said, as the first MCU film set firmly post-Endgame since 2019’s Spider-Man: Far From Home (a Sony production), Shang-Chi is refreshing in how little it’s concerned with big-picture universe-building details. Instead, the movie focuses on an extremely personal story that also implies exciting things about the future of Marvel movies.
At first glance, Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) seems like the most normal dude to headline a film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He lives a low-key life in San Francisco under the anglicized name “Shaun,” parking cars at a boring hotel valet job by day, and drinking with his best friend Katy (Nora “Awkwafina” Lum) at night. They’re a bunch of slackers capable of much more, something friends and family remind them of constantly, to no avail. Then assassins come for Shang-Chi on a bus, and the audience and Katy learn that Shang-Chi was trained from childhood to be one of the deadliest fighters alive — and he is still extremely good at combat.
The bus fight occurs astonishingly early in Shang-Chi, and it’s a solid encapsulation of what the movie is best at: lengthy spectacle that merges effects-heavy action with exciting fight choreography and personal stakes. With a few small exceptions and one very large one, every fight scene in Shang-Chi advances the audience’s understanding of characters and their relationships. Often, the fight scenes do this better than the plot, which is heavy with exposition and eager to move its characters from one scene to the next, from San Francisco’s Chinatown to the neon nightlife of Macau, China.
Narration introduces the audience to Wenwu (Tony Leung), Shang-Chi’s father, but viewers get to know him through combat — first as a warlord who single-handedly humbles entire armies, then as a man on the threshold of a forbidden land. When he meets its guardian, Jiang Li (Fala Chen), their blows slowly become steps in a dance by which they fall in love. Similarly, the bus fight reveals who Shang-Chi really is. Throughout the film, physical confrontations are the means by which he struggles against his family history, and the tragedy that forced him and his sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) to leave home and not see each other for a decade.
At its heart, Shang-Chi is not a story of heroes and villains, but a family drama concerned with three people coming to terms with long-suppressed anger and grief. Director Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12, Just Mercy), who co-wrote the script alongside Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham, unspools this drama tenderly and with plenty of humor — anchored by a tremendous performance from Tony Leung, who brings a level of subtle humanity to every moment he’s on screen.
When the color drains from the frame and it’s time for the clichéd third-act CGI battles, it feels like a bit of a betrayal. In its second half, the movie pivots to become a fantasy film that takes its heroes to a gorgeous land of myth, at the cost of gradually introducing a threat removed from the story’s personal stakes. It’s all in the interest of an extended fight against CGI creations that, while unlike anything on screen in a Marvel movie thus far, still swallow up the human characters at the heights of their respective arcs.
The shift also does a disservice not just to Leung and the other performers (some of whom will be a shock and a surprise for longtime MCU fans) but to the work of cinematographer Bill Pope (The Matrix), who presents the action clearly, without succumbing to the Marvel impulse to shoot battles with plain wide shots and zero subjectivity. Fights are observed through windows, against lights, from behind and above and underneath. The stellar work of Shang-Chi’s international team of fight coordinators is not lost on the screen.
When Shang-Chi owns its place in the Marvel universe, it’s more interested in retcons than future developments. The film massages prior plot points from the Iron Man films regarding the Ten Rings terrorist organization and its puppet leader, The Mandarin. It develops a cohesive new status quo that mocks the racist stereotypes of the source material, while providing a new and less problematic way forward. It’s a fascinating bit of IP housekeeping that aims to turn an embarrassing product of its time into a viable 21st-century franchise, and credit is due to Cretton and Callaham for crafting a script that achieves these goals while still telling a human story. Its light world-building reinforces the notion that Shang-Chi isn’t just a character in this universe; he’s tied to its future in a way that may be made more explicit in future films.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings also ends like a fairy tale. Some of the characters, home again after their miraculous journey, return to their mundane lives, wondering how they’ll ever live in the dull day-to-day world they came from. Then the obvious answer presents itself: They don’t have to. Things are going to be very strange and exciting for them from here on out. Hopefully, that’s true for us, too.
Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings premieres only in theaters on Sept. 3.