Finally starting to catch up after the massive disruptions of COVID, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is moving forward again. Several great series have come out on Disney+, with more airing and/or on the way, and Black Widow was finally released recently and was another great installment in the ongoing story. Now, the wait is over, and Shang-Chi gets his turn to shine in “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.”
Shang-Chi was Marvel’s answer to the superstar popularity of Bruce Lee in the 1970’s. One of the world’s best hand-to-hand fighters, Shang had his own long-running title and has crossed paths with many of Marvel’s characters over the decades. He’s even been a member of some of the many and varied Avengers teams. Now he gets his first live-action appearance, and what might be his first appearance outside the comics at all if I’m remembering correctly.
The original character history had to be reworked several years ago when Marvel lost the rights to the somewhat problematic character they’d originally made Shang’s father. Since they’d rewritten him once already, another alteration to make him fit in the MCU wasn’t a big stretch. As you might be able to gather from the trailers and commercials, Shang is living in America (San Francisco, specifically), hiding from his past, and trying to keep a low profile while having fun with his friend Katy (played by Awkwafina). Naturally, the things he can’t run from finally catch up with him and that’s when the action takes off.
We get to see the martial arts mastery of Shang-Chi, played phenomenally well by Simu Liu, as we get glimpses of his past and the tangled story of his family. Working through issues from the characters’ pasts is a frequent theme in the MCU, and they give us some good spins on it here as we go from San Francisco to Macao to a remote, hidden, mystical village. Despite his long history, Shang doesn’t have as much of a mythos as many characters that have been around for this long, so they had a largely free hand to fill in details. We also get to see Tony Leung, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Yeoh, and Meng’er Zhang as assorted friends, foes, allies, and comic relief. To borrow some language from the “Pitch Meeting” series online (which, if you haven’t seen it, you should really check out) there is a big CGI army but no skybeam near the end. I’m skipping a lot of detail, but there are a lot of spoilers in the twists and turns, so I’m erring on the side of caution. I will say there’s a major tie to a particular past movie that removes what some might call a continuity error about a character.
As with every MCU production, there are several ties to the larger Marvel world. There are several references to the events of Infinity War/Endgame, as there should be. If the world loses half its population for several years, there would have to be repercussions, and they handle it well, with a few lines and some background bits that make perfect sense. We also get to see a few characters from throughout the MCU. One gets a much bigger part than I had thought, and several others are cameos, although they come with a sense of continuity and interesting developments. There are, of course mid- and post-credit scenes. One connects Shang much more firmly to the rest of the MCU, and one provides fodder for future stories.
There were, I would argue, two minor missed opportunities. Of all the cities in America, they set some of this one in San Francisco. While that city has a huge Chinatown and it makes some sense, it’s also where the two Ant-Man movies take place. Some kind of Pym Technologies sign somewhere would have been a great, and simple, touch. There was also a persistent rumor that Iron Fist, who had what is generally agreed is the weakest of the Marvel/Netflilx series, would turn up in passing in some kind of martial arts tournament. They didn’t do this, and it would likely have been easy enough to do, especially with the mounting evidence that both the Marvel/Netflix and Agents of SHIELD characters are slowly going to be brought into the “main” MCU.
What I liked: Pretty much everything. The action was great, there were no bad or weak performances, and I really enjoyed seeing a character I’ve been a fan of for many years finally getting the big screen treatment. The ties to the rest of the MCU really worked, and they worked in surprises with them even with what’s been shown in the trailers. As with the majority of the MCU, you don’t have to have seen the other movies to follow what’s happening, but if you have it makes a few things much richer. They also blend action and humor well, a hallmark of the MCU.
What I didn’t: One character did the trope of gaining mastery over a skill that’s not easy in about a day, which is always tiresome. I mentioned the missed opportunities above. And none of that really detracts from anything.
This was a really well-done movie that succeeded on every level. I can’t wait to see Shang, and whoever else makes it, in the future. I’m giving this a 4.5 out of 5.
At this writing, the MCU continues with What If…? airing on Disney+, and both The Eternals coming to theaters, and Hawkeye to Disney+ in November.