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 unusual 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 brings 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 and while I’m sure some of the narrative turns won’t please all, the ultimate conflict of the film feels refreshingly different for this franchise. As a whole, this felt 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 here, 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. 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 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 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 is great. There’s exciting narrative developments in the film that I don’t want to spoil here, but Shang-Chi never fails at being highly entertaining!