Origin stories can be tricky. Trickier when you don’t just need to stand up on your own, but also have to serve the part of a bigger canvas. The MCU has officially entered a new phase and being the 25th entry in the canon puts Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings right in the center of critical cross-fire. It doesn’t help that the trailer that introduced us to our new hero wasn’t particularly exciting. This only makes me eager to report that the film, in all its generic glory, is an absolute blast.
Post-infinity saga, MCU has really nudged down on its character-focused developments. The Black Widow film felt so far-off and far-removed from what really went down, that director Cate Shortland had to force her hand to tie up loose ends in what has to be the most disappointing post-credit sequence in Marvel movie history.
The television iterations sans WandaVision, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, and Loki used their well-developed and beloved characters to weave a web of short-hand storytelling so bizarre and bland that even the most loyal viewers had to give up. Thankfully, director Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12) is here to rescue some of the damage laid by these surface-level interesting but completely unnecessary distractions.
As the next step into the future for the MCU, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings exhumes freshness from the get-go. Unlike other counterparts, this installment begins with a mother telling a story to her child. Director Cretton makes sure that he doesn’t dumb down his story for the casual movie-watching audience and the entire 15 odd minute-long opening sequence is shot in Chinese with subtitles to the rescue. Everything including the voice-over and our introduction to Wenwu (played by the exceptional Tony Leung) forces the audience to sit up and pay attention.
The carefully choreographed and shot sequence places us right in the middle of Wenwu’s dual persona. The clever plotting clues us into both his dark past and his more gentle and intimate family-man outlook. It also introduces us to the legend of the ten rings, it’s power, whilst also portraying the supposedly evil, power-driven man that Wenwu once was. The opening also helps us understand Cretton’s vision of this tale which mostly balances its ongoing action with a balanced look into the past.
While the film’s obsession with backstory may serve to be problematic for a few people, I didn’t mind being led into these characters. It made me understand them, their motifs, and their life a little better. The first time we actually meet our hero is when he is not Shang-Chi but Shaun; working at low-paying gigs in San Francisco. He is accompanied by his funny, bumbling yet charming friend Katy (Awkwafina). The two of them are slacking through life before they are cornered on their way to work on a bus by a squad led by Razor Fist (Munteanu).
Shaun is forced to take drastic steps by telling his best friend Katy about his real name and the reason for the attack. He also tells her that the whole thing might happen to his now-estranged sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) and that he needs to get going before things get out of hand. Katy, who is not ready to grow up just yet, decides to stick around like a true friend. The two of them find themselves in more sticky situations and intense shenanigans ensue.
Now, the film sticks to a lot of formulaic MCU baits. The whole globe-trotting, internal conspiracy, and daddy issues aside, Shang-Chi subverts the thirst for power (which was the initial setup) for a more personal and intimate conflict. Wenwu and his army (named the Ten Rings) is something both Shang-Chi and his sibling Xialing have run away from. The controlling, docile nature of their father Wenwu, coupled with his grief-stricken disillusionment is far more dangerous and interesting than the storytelling beats we have expected the MCU to throw our way.
While this does not cover up for the fact that Shang-Chi as a character isn’t particularly interesting, these subversive methods help us understand the arc that director Cretton is going for. Since this origin story is necessarily a coming-of-age tale, we are bound to see more facets of his personality in what’s coming up later. The fact that Cretton manages to overturn racial stereotypes gives enough leeway for the audiences to accept this fully-developed story as an essential offering in the MCU.
Coming to the action part, the martial-art bits are truly breathtaking. The two sequences in the first leg of the film (the bus fight in particular) are so well-done that one can hardly take their eyes off the screen. The fist-fights owe a lot to 80s Hong-Kong martial art cinema and fight coordinators Andy Cheng & the late Brad Allan. They make these set-pieces feel exhilarating, intense, and fun at the same time. Sadly, the same can’t be said about the climactic battle that retorts to a shit-load of CGI (a lot of which is actually pretty tacky), invariably sucking out the fun that one had with it initially.
Talking about the performances, Tony Leung is the clear highlight here. He is menacing as the immortal ring-bearer and a father who doesn’t know what he needs to do to keep his family intact. While Simu Liu isn’t particularly great in his role, his comradery with Awkwafina helps quite a lot. There’s no match to Awkwafina’s dialogue delivery and after her lead turn in A24‘s The Farewell, one can understand that she is a perfect fit in Marvel’s formula of funny sidekicks.
Overall, Shang-Chi and the Legends of the Ten Rings is a solid entry in the new phase of the MCU. It is fun, fast-paced and more emotionally inviting than one would anticipate. Few missteps like its obsession with righting the past mistakes of a few other MCU films, and indulging in Chinese mythology feel unnecessary. However, when the conflicts are this personal, one is bound to get invested.
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