With their cinematic universe culminating in Avengers: Endgame, it makes sense that Marvel Studios would use its fourth phase of films to step back and focus on developing new characters and new stories, explored by new and exciting directors. Enter Destin Daniel Cretton, a director mostly known for character dramas like Short Term 12 and Just Mercy. Cretton may seem like an odd choice at first, but the director brings a lot of character, heart and pathos to Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings that really helps to bring this fantastical Marvel adventure to life.
The film follows Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), who works as a valet driver with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina) in post-“Blip” San Fransisco. When agents of the Ten Rings organisation turn up on his doorstep though, Shang-Chi must face the past he ran away from ten years ago. His father (Tony Leung), the leader of the Ten Rings, is determined to bring his family back together again – but what for? It’s certainly one complicated family reunion…
To say too much more would begin to spoil some of the more interesting developments in the film – the trailers for Shang-Chi have actually done a pretty good job at not revealing too much – and while I’m sure some of the narrative turns won’t please all fans, the ultimate conflict of the film does feel refreshingly different for this franchise. In fact, the film as a whole feels very distinct from the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Perhaps the film’s greatest strength – and weakness – is the core family dynamic between Shang-Chi, his father Wenwu and his sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), which Destin Daniel Cretton explores in some really interesting ways, but still feels restrained by the need to keep the pace up and get back to the plot and the action. There’s a lot of nuance to be found, even if it isn’t explored in as much depth as I would have liked. Shang-Chi still has to include all of the humour, heart and big action expected from a Marvel blockbuster, and so the character development sometimes takes a back seat to the other key aspects.
Simu Liu proves himself to be a born action star as Shang-Chi; he’s utterly committed to the fight sequences, and with choreography this complex, it’s a huge achievement. This is made harder by the fact that his face is never hidden behind a mask, and the action is shot in long, flowing takes by cinematographer William Pope (as in the same Bill Pope who shot The Matrix, Spider-Man 2 and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, in case you weren’t already planning on seeing this on a massive IMAX screen). It’s consistently impressive, with some of the best action in any Marvel film, and I wouldn’t be too surprised if this kicks off an action movie star career for Liu. Tony Leung is brilliant as Wenwu delivering a rich, nuanced performance with a character who could so easily come across as one-note. Many fans will be expecting the Mandarian, but Leung’s character is someone infinitely more compelling – and threatening. If there is one aspect lacking to his character, it’s that the Ten Rings as an organisation isn’t explored in any particular detail, instead keeping the focus on Wenwu himself and his connection with the physical Ten Rings as the source of his power. Awkwafina meanwhile brings some much-needed humour and warmth to her role as Katy, acting as an audience surrogate for much of the film; I really hope she returns in future instalments.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is best experienced in the IMAX format, being presented in the full digital IMAX 1.90:1 aspect ratio (featuring 26% more picture throughout the entire film, like Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame). The IMAX presentation is terrific, allowing for more scope during the action sequences as well as the scenes in [*SPOILER*]. The IMAX 6-track sound mix is equally impressive, further adding to the immersive experience. Why wait for a Disney+ release when Shang-Chi looks this good on a huge IMAX screen?
Overall, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a great action blockbuster from Marvel Studios. The premise is engaging, there’s a unique vibe to the whole film, the cast are terrific, the fight sequences look great and the ending promises even more exciting stories to come. I do wish that the film had focused a little more on the interesting character dynamics, as some arcs feel somewhat unresolved by the end, but the nuance that Destin Daniel Cretton brings to the film is really great. There’s some really exciting narrative developments in the film that I don’t want to spoil here, so suffice it to say that Shang-Chi is a great time at the movies and definitely well worth spending the extra money for an IMAX screening. Just remember to stay through the credits…
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