‘Shang-Chi’ Delivers Amazing Action and Heart to the MCU (Movie Review)

As summer movie season comes to a close this Labor Day weekend, the MCU is releasing their first “only in theaters” experience (not experiment) since the pandemic, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. It’s also another first of sorts for Marvel, starring a predominantly Asian cast. Disney screening the film for critics nearly three weeks before its release in North America would seem to be good sign. This reviewer actually had to change flights to my hometown of Chicago to see if Kim’s Convenience star Simu Liu would do me proud as an Asian American. The pressure was on for the film to justify this writer’s nerdy need to screen it before leaving La La Land. Thankfully, my expectations were met. Exceeded, actually. But just how high could the 25th entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe soar? Read on!

Set after the events of Avengers: Endgame, Shawn (Liu) is a young man with a secret. Although he makes a meager living as a valet for a posh spot in San Francisco, he’s actually the only son of Wenwu (Tony Leung), the leader of the ominous Ten Rings Organization. Shawn would rather spend his nights at a local karaoke bar with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina) than aid his father’s crime syndicate despite years of training in martial arts. But fate, by way of his insanely powerful father, is about to step in, taking away any hopes Shawn had of living a normal life.

This is kicked off by the best hand-to-hand fight sequence in any Marvel film (MCU or otherwise). In and out and around a moving bus, Shawn fights off Ten Ring baddies while simultaneously protecting its passengers. While the breaking glass and the cars that crash are absolutely CGI, actor Liu and the host of individuals he squares off against absolutely convince with wuxia mastery. Short Term 12 director Destin Daniel Cretton, fight choreographer Andy Cheng, and stunt coordinator Brad Allan (who passed away on August 7) stage the scene as wide possible considering the confines of a moving commuter vehicle. Better yet, the editing never confuses the viewer. It’s the “wake up and pay attention” moment any great film needs to get viewers invested. With Shawn now taking on his true identity of Shang-Chi, I was hooked.

Wisely, the story’s structure doesn’t rush into this metro ride spectacle before establishing a well-told and surprisingly emotional opening. Here we learn the origins of Shang’s father, Wenwu. As played by legendary screen star Tony Leung, he’s a man of ambition but, more often, one of genuine human complexity. The fabled ten rings have made Wenwu powerful (he’s thousands of years old and looks great!), yet he’s not consumed by some rote thirst for world (or galaxy) domination. Because he’s done that many times over already. Don’t get me wrong, Wenwu is the film’s antagonist, but as played by Leung, he’s compelling and convincing. Still, we mostly see Wenwu as someone who gave up his past life many years ago. When he finally has the family reunion he’s been waiting for with Shang-Chi and his estranged daughter Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), the powerful man comes across as more earnest than the typical bad dad of the MCU.

Though I didn’t find the film overtly political, the struggle between Wenwu and  Shang-Chi invites a more progressive take on the East meets West arc than many films centered on the Asian American experience versus the ideals of those living in, say, China. Further, observations made in and around such culture clashes are not restricted to father and son. The characters of Katy, Xialing, and a guardian of the mythical city filled with magical creatures, Ying Nan (Michelle Yeoh), offer a myriad of compelling exchanges. There is even an attempt to correct a “sort of” Asian character from a previous MCU film that ends up being a highlight. There’s also a lot of banter, which is, as expected, genuinely funny, sure, but moving too.

The solo films of the MCU have become more complex in the last few years, and like Black Panther, Shang-Chi is not content with just being an origin story for its leading man. Though the world of Wakanda was richer in design and eye-popping visuals, the setting of the fabled mythical city is stunning in its own right, even though we see less of it. I do wish the color palette of the film didn’t succumb to the MCU’s washed-out look, but the costumes by Kym Barrett impress.

So how is Simu Liu as Marvel’s latest superhero? He’s relatable in his dialogue and impressive as a fighter. As an actor, I think someone like Robert Downey Jr. or Brie Larson brings more in their actor toolbox by way of line deliveries. Still, not every MCU star is on that level. And as mentioned earlier, the physicality of what Liu’s doing here should not be understated. He has no suit of iron or glowy spacesuit to hide in. Plus, as an Asian man, it kicked ass to witness Liu go shirtless for a brawl. Seeing a big American blockbuster not shy away from Liu looking sexy and handsome is terrific.

Are there nitpicks? Sure, like most MCU entries, it’s too long in the last act and too cluttered with CGI spectacle. The first hour of the film is better-paced. But beyond that and the aforementioned occasional muted look of the visuals, I don’t really have anything else to complain about. For me, Leung was the film’s MVP. I love seeing better, less outright “evil” antagonists in the MCU.  This is top ten (ringed) MCU for me. I can’t wait to see it again.

Note: there are two bonus end credit scenes, which you should know because this is a Marvel movie.

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