Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Starring: Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Meng’er Zhang, Fala Chen, Florian Munteanu, Benedict Wong, Michelle Yeoh, Ben Kingsley, Tony Leung
Run Time: 132 mins
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is the latest in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the first film to feature the lesser-known oriental superhero. Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, who made the excellent Just Mercy, he is the latest director to have successfully directed a handful of smaller projects and then given the unenviable task of taking on a behemoth of a Marvel project. This film should be lauded for committing to an Asian director and mostly Asian cast.
Simu Liu makes his feature film debut as the titular hero. After Shang-Chi runs away from his overbearing crime lord father, Wenwu (Tony Leung) at the age of 14 after the death of his mother, Jiang Li (Fala Chen), he changes his name to Shaun and becomes a valet in San Francisco, where he works with his girlfriend Katy (Awkwafina). On a bus journey to work, members of the Ten Rings attack Shang-Chi and steal a pendant of his, which forces him to head to Macau to warn his sister, Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) that she may also face a similar attack.
Other than a wonky beginning, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is upper-tier Marvel fare. It follows the Marvel formula but its emotional warmth and martial arts sequences make it stand out from the crowd. There is a great set up of Shang-Chi’s family, which plays an important dynamic in the film. Shang-Chi boasts some innovative set pieces, fusing and updating the wuxia and kung-fu genres with modern visual effects. The first action sequence on the bus and another early sequence set in Xialing’s fight club are particular highlights with their kinetic energy. The tone of the film feels like a melding of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Chronicles of Narnia with the mystical worlds that Cretton creates. Some of the sheen is lost in the final act of the film as Cretton succumbs to a big CGI battle, which is customary for comic-book films and is often their downfall as the investment is lost in the characters. However, the final CGI spectacle doesn’t derail the film as it is not overlong and there is a purpose in the narrative but it would have been far more exciting if Cretton had tried to deviate from convention.
Simu Liu makes for a genuine and likeable superhero and Liu and Awkwafina have effortless chemistry together. The treatment of Katy is particularly impressive as she is not just positioned as comic relief or damsel-in-distress. Cretton deftly explores these characters as first generation Asian-Americans and how their native elders have traditional values. Tony Leung makes for an emphatic villain and like the best Marvel villains, one can understand why he takes the actions he takes.
The film stumbles in its awkward linking to the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe in its first act, with references to Avengers: Infinity War’s Thanos blip. It could have done without it and made the film seem less grounded than it was.
Cretton’s regular composer Joel P. West collaborates again on this project and his scores is excellent, creating some memorable themes for the characters and wisely revisits them often throughout the film. The use of hip hop and pop artists doesn’t work quite as well and felt a little abrasive.
Overall, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is an excellent addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and proves there is life in the Marvel formula and wider comic-book genre, where it feels like we’re getting a new film a month and the quality is stagnating. There is always the question of how much of a director’s personality will be retained in a big studio project and Cretton fares excellently here, bringing his light and balanced touch to the film. With some innovative action sequences for the genre and amiable character development, I can’t wait to see where these characters are taken next.