The Marvel Cinematic Universe is enormous, encompassing dozens of superheroes and hundreds of characters, all tied together through vague and mysterious organizations like SHIELD or Hydra. SHIELD was created when boss-man Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) realized how fragile our world was to outside threats, then a subset of them created The Avengers. That covers about twenty movies and a couple of TV series, I think. But Marvel has had other secret organizations throughout its long comic book history, notably The Ten Rings, an evil Asian gang run by the nefarious Mandarin.
Haven’t heard of The Mandarin or the Ten Rings? You can be forgiven, they’re pretty obscure in the Marvel world, first introduced in a 1991 arcade game, though he is referenced in the Iron Man and Ant-Man movies, albeit in passing. In Shang-Chi And The Legend of the Ten Rings, The Mandarin, named “Wenwu” in the film (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung) is the father to both our titular hero, Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), and his sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang). And he’s got some control issues…
The film opens with Wenwu already a dastardly villain, granted superhuman powers through the ten rings; ten bracelets that can fly off and smash things, produce bolts of electrical power, and otherwise enable the bearer to be invincible. The power’s gone to his head and he’s pretty convinced he’s the most bad-ass dude in the kingdom. Until on a quest to find a secret, hidden village he encounters the lovely Jiang Li (Fala Chen) deep in a forest. They fight. She schools him. They fall in love, get married, and have two cute little children, Shang-Chi and Xialing. A happy ending, until Wenwu’s past catching up with him in an encounter that results in his beloved wife Jiang Li being killed by thugs.
Wenwu loses all traces of his humanity after her death and becomes the worst type of ultra-strict dad to his children. Shang-Chi is tasked with learning martial arts, but Xianling is denied the opportunity. She’s a girl, after all. Once he’s old enough to do so, he runs away and heads to America, landing in San Francisco. Zoom forward a few years and he’s living an aimless life as a restaurant valet with his best pal Katy (a hilarious Awkwafina). They drink, they have fun, they sing karaoke. But Dad’s not done with Shang-Chi and just as his father’s past came back in an ugly way, so is Shang-Chi’s secret life as the son of The Mandarin unavoidable.
The first action sequence in the film is a bit slow in coming, a fight on a San Francisco transit bus. It’s a fantastic mix of parkour and martial arts, inspired by Jackie Chan’s acrobatic fighting style. Shang-Chi’s nemesis is the intimidating and aptly named Razor Fist (Florian Munteanu) and his gang of thugs. When Shang-Chi realizes Razor Fist is part of the Ten Rings gang he also figures out that his sister must be in danger too. Girlfriend Katy isn’t letting him fly off to Macau without her, however, so the two of them head to Asia to meet up with Xialing and get Dad to chill the heck out.
But Xialing hasn’t ended up as a noodle girl at the local ramen shop, she’s built an underground entertainment complex that features constant fights and a denizen of tough hipsters betting on the winners. We realize that it’s not MMA or boxing when the Abomination (voice of Tim Roth), a sort of Hulk gone wrong, is in the center ring, fighting Wong (Benedict Wong), last seen in Doctor Strange. While there’s not a lot of reliance on the Marvel Cinematic Universe for the storyline, there are a lot of easter eggs to catch, from posters to photos, people in crowd scenes, and more.
Meanwhile, Dad’s been pulled further to the dark side, convinced that his beloved Jiang Li is trapped in the village of her birth. He wants to free her, but Shang-Chi, Katy, and Xialing are convinced that it’s a trick to unleash ultimate evil on the world. They meet long-lost Aunty Ying Nan (Michelle Yeoh) and it’s game on, Wenwu and the Ten Rings versus Shang-Chi, Aunty Ying, and their gang of heroes. With a few mythical creatures and a dragon or two thrown in for good measure.
Fans going into the theater should know that this is actually a pretty typical Chinese mythic action movie. The first portion is all spoken Chinese with English subtitles. Then it switches to spoken English, so not to worry if you’re not a fan of subtitles. Later in the film, the mythic creatures and style of fighting are very much classic Chinese action film, which always has a generous sprinkling of fantasy. Fortunately, I’m a big fan of this genre so found Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings really entertaining and a much-needed breath of fresh air for a stale Marvel universe. Like the best of the MCU films, it achieves a great balance of serious, intense, and exciting action, and comedy, the latter of which is delivered by the endlessly snarky and hilarious Katy (Awkwafina).
This isn’t to say that it’s all perfect by any means. Some of the story is pretty darn convoluted to follow, and the last major act is a bit too long, feeling drawn out with the “and then this happened… and then this happened…” sort of trope. I felt the vf/x were uniformly excellent but my film viewing companion complained a few looked a bit poorly rendered for his eyes. The film also carefully balances offering up typical portrayals of Asian family dynamics (and Asian grandmothers) with what could be viewed by some as tinged with racism. I’m not Asian so I cannot speak to that aspect, but I would be most interested to hear from people of Asian descent how they feel about this aspect of a film written by non-Asians and directed by a non-Asian (Destin Cretton).
At this point, I’ve seen all the Marvel movies and watched all of the live-action TV series. While there are a few Marvel superheroes I still like, notably Captain American (Chris Evans) and Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), most of them have become a bit too dull, a bit too shallow comic-book-y at this point for me to have any engagement at all. That’s why Shang-Chi and his team are such a great new chapter. From the cinematography to the guest cameos, the fights to the overall storyline of a family working out power dynamics now that they’re all adults, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a really good film, definitely worth watching in the cinema. Recommended.
Dad At The Movies Addendum: There’s a fair amount of violence in the film with the fight sequences and moments of heroes and others in mortal peril, but if your children already love the Marvel films, they’ll do just fine with this newest MCU movie.