For all of the voluminous expository dialogue in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, essentially none of it concerns the legend of the Ten Rings — a name that doubles for both a nebulous criminal organization (already referenced in Iron Man and Iron Man 3) and a set of ill-defined mystical weapons whose powers basically function however the plot requires. In fact, their role in the massive, muddy CGI third act is entirely incidental, as is Shang-Chi himself — a comic character Marvel originally created to cash in on the Bruce Lee-inspired kung fu craze of the 1970s, who now finds himself a frustratingly passive big-screen superhero. The first act of director Destin Daniel Cretton’s foray into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) features a lot of promising fight choreography from the late Brad Allan and a great score from Joel P. West, but the bulk of it is a muddled mess of blockbuster tropes that feel tired even by MCU standards.
If there was ever a time for the studio to do something different, Shang-Chi was it. Instead, it’s one of their most frustrating whiffs.
Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) is living in San Francisco under the assumed name Shaun, working a dead-end valet job with his childhood friend Katy (Awkwafina). The two joy-ride by day and sing karaoke by night. Their friends from college don’t understand why neither of them has ever committed to something better, and Katy’s family wonders why they haven’t committed to one another. Liu and Awkwafina have great chemistry as friends, which helps power through the first act before becoming one of the big casualties as the story needlessly expands in scope.
What Katy doesn’t know is that Shang-Chi’s father is Wenwu (Tony Leung), the 4,000-year-old leader of the Ten Rings who also wields the Ten Rings. His organization is extremely powerful but also never seems to have actually left any measurable mark on the history of the MCU and just sort of disappeared one day when Wenwu fell for Shang-Chi’s mother. He hung up his powerful Ten Rings and shut down the Ten Rings. Then she died and, in his grief, Wenwu decided to turn Shang-Chi into a living weapon to extract revenge on those who wronged him. Shang-Chi abandoned the life of an assassin while on his first mission and lived in anonymity for the following 10 years, hoping to avoid the destiny Wenwu had written for him. Until Wenwu comes calling, with a mission that could restore their family, which also includes Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), a daughter whom Wenwu disregarded but who has become her own self-made warrior.
Liu does an admirable job creating Shang-Chi, a character who will no doubt shine in another Marvel property soon enough. Awkwafina is fun as Katy. The two have great comedic chemistry. Zhang is great, too, but Xialing has an unforgivable shallowness that only gains slight depth in the second of two post-credits sequences.
That’s more than can be said for the villain of the piece and the entire mythology haphazardly constructed to form the “story.” Tony Leung, one of the great actors of Hong Kong cinema, does as good a job as he can possibly do with Wenwu. He’s handsome and capable of bringing subtle emotion to a character Marvel has done a dozen times — the evil father with whom you empathize.” It’s an archetype they should’ve retired after Thanos, the father so intent on carrying out galactical genocide that he killed his own daughter. Or after Hank Pym, who also pushed his children away after his wife died. Even Black Widow made sure to redeem a shitty father just a few weeks ago.
Wenwu is driven by ghosts, specifically the voice of his late wife calling to him to attack her mystical home village. He seems to love his children but also resent them. Constant flashbacks interrupt the forward momentum of the characters and leave all of them, particularly Wenwu, with some interesting beats untold.
Marvel’s marketing of Shang-Chi has taken great pains to hide the totality of what the film actually is. I’m not sure why because it’s all pretty boilerplate fantasy stuff. The extent to which it borrows elements of Eastern mythology is in line with what modern Western audiences expect, if not less so. There are spirit creatures, vague talk of finding your inner power and a cool dragon. Everything culminates in a massive battle sequence between two faceless armies using inexplicable magic weapons, before some CGI beasties intervene. It’s really disappointing that Shang-Chi tosses aside some intriguing character work and settles on a grey-on-grey final CGI battle as terribly impersonal as it is visually incoherent.
One of Marvel’s problems during Phase Four is that it can’t seem to commit to anything. The Falcon & the Winter Soldier tries to be a political piece without ever actually incorporating a political status quo into its world for its characters to brush up against; it’s all just vague nods to the real world unless the plot calls for it. WandaVision introduces the organization S.W.O.R.D. without ever explaining what it does or why it’s doing things. Black Widow reveals an entire infrastructure for the Widow program but never provides examples of anything they’ve accomplished. In this new phase of Marvel, only Loki has managed to create and follow through with changing the MCU as a whole. But we have yet to see the ramifications of its finale touch another property.
Shang-Chi is the worst offender by far. The Ten Rings, both the organization and the weapons, are given no backstory. We’re told that Wenwu sought power across many thousands of years of his operation, but no examples of that power and influence are ever really shown. He uses rings, but the lack of origin for them is made into a recurring joke that stretches into the first post-credits sequence. By the end, we have no idea what they can do. These are basic elements the screenplay should address; by giving concrete details, future movies can expand on them. Instead, everything about Shang-Chi feels like one big tease. Fans have complained about Marvel doing this. For years, the films have served as stand-alone that happen to tease bigger stories in the future. Not so here: the denouement is just a blatant segue into a potential sequel that may answer a few of the questions this origin story didn’t bother to properly address.
It’s all just constant teasing. Do you like Tony Leung? Here he is as a villain, but we won’t explain much about him. Are you a fan of Allan’s hand-to-hand combat choreography? Here are some giant CGI creatures instead. Do you prefer to see a film end with characters completing a journey rather than cameos to tease a sequel that might actually be about the legend of the Ten Rings? Sorry, we know what you really want. Half of the story in Shang-Chi is told via endless flashbacks that never quite hit the most important beat in Shang’s backstory. It’s a baffling storytelling choice that underlines the perpetual tease nature of the film.
Still, there are parts of Shang-Chi that entertain. There are some fun fight sequences at the start, and the chemistry between Liu and Awkwafina is great when it’s allowed to breathe. Leung saves Wenwu, a character so unfathomably shallow and irritating that a more straightforwardly villainous actor would’ve had nothing to work with. It certainly isn’t Marvel’s worst, although it’s very close. Perhaps the most damning thing about Shang-Chi is that it feels like a Marvel film that doesn’t call to be rewatched. Almost every element of it is done in other Marvel Movies. Despite the best efforts of the cast and occasional bits of franchise-best fight choreography, this is just fails to distinguish itself.