Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings review: Entertaining and heartfelt
James R | On 14, Nov 2021
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Cast: Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Tony Leung, Michelle Yeoh, Meng’er Zhang
“If you aim at nothing, you hit nothing,” Katy (Awkwafina) is told halfway through Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. At once a literal instruction as she trains in archery and a knowing nudge for her to find direction in her aimless, slacker life, it’s a layered, thoughtful remark that’s delivered as a casual throwaway – and that’s at the heart of what makes this Marvel blockbuster such a winning, entertaining watch.
Director Destin Daniel Cretton, who co-wrote the script with Andrew Lanham and Dave Callaham, manages the impossible trick of balancing characters and comedy with straight-up blockbusting action. When we first meet our hero, Shaun (Simu Liu), he and best mate Katy are getting by as valets in San Francisco, only to find themselves attacked on a bus by a random stranger – it’s a wonderfully understated introduction to this part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with more time given over to karaoke and drinking buddies than conversations about the multiverse.
That grounded approach, rooted in specific personal experiences, is evident in the very name of the film. Shang-Chi isn’t a “made-up” superhero moniker, like Spider-Man or Doctor Strange; it’s Shaun’s actual name, making this a tale not about learning to handle the power of the titular Ten Rings but about the strength in accepting one’s own identity.
The thing that you come out of the film remembering isn’t the CGI but the relationships on screen. As well as Shang-Chi and Katy’s immediately believable friendship, there’s a complex bond between Shang-Chi and his sister, Xialing (the formidable Meng’er Zhang), who runs an underground fight club. (Watch out for Ronny Chieng as Jon Jon, the club’s announcer, who highlights the differences and similarities between this trio of Asian-Americans with another throwaway line – “Don’t worry, I speak ABC [American-Born Chinese].”)
At the film’s heart, though, is Shang-Chi and Xialing’s relationship with their father, Wenwu (Tony Leung) – or, moreover, Wenwu’s relationship with his late wife. Leung brings ever ounce of the brooding, intimidating, melancholic charisma that has made him a superstar for years to the role of Wenwu, a man powered by grief and love rather than ambition or greed. That the film starts with a prologue devoted to the ostensible bad guy of the piece highlights just how human this action fest is – Leung’s moving turn gives us the best villain the MCU has seen to date, to the point where we almost root for him out of sheer sympathy.
The success of the film’s smart screenwriting is evident in the fact that Wenwu is an entirely new character, replaces Shang-Chi’s problematic comic book father, Fu Manchu – Cretton steers us away from dated stereotypes and into subtler waters, from the challenge of Shang-Chi to embrace his heritage – focusing on his mother’s empathy as well as his dad’s power – to Xialing’s struggle to be recognised and respected in her own right (Zhang reportedly asked for a red streak in her hair to be removed to avoid her character falling into another stereotype), not to mention directly tackling the way Iron Man 3 handled The Mandarin, thus apologising for the whitewashing and stereotyping that Marvel has done in the past. A dinner conversation between them all is a beautiful climax for all these questions and nuances, even before we get to the ultimate showdown, and Cretton and the cast have such a handle on these characters that they touch on each theme with the lightest touch.
All that is not to say that the film isn’t exciting popcorn fodder – it’s gloriously thrilling in the way it balances familiar Marvel effects with decades of martial arts styles. As well as Leung, we get to see Michelle Yeoh confidently in action once more, with a calm, lethal presence that’s all her own. Andy Cheng’s choreography is dizzyingly detailed, crafting a bamboo scaffolding set piece that’s stuffed with jaw-dropping new ideas to fights that build character through action – the best face-off in the movie is between Leung’s Wenwu and Fala Chen as Shang-Chi’s mother, Ying Li, which is simultaneously an electrifying exchange of courtship and a sumptuous flourish of colour and style.
The result is a joyous ride through a new corner of the MCU that pays homage without becoming derivative, explores identity without becoming heavy-handed, and shoulders the weight of representation with ease and precision. If you aim at nothing, you hit nothing, Katy’s told. What a delight it is to see Destin Daniel Cretton take a big swing for it and not miss once.