Marvel movies are back!
Once again, superhero fans can hustle into theaters and witness this increasingly complex cinematic universe unfold on the big screen.
Over the summer, we got our first taste of the Phase 4 movies when “Black Widow” was released in July. But that movie was more of a conclusion of the old era, putting to rest the last of the original Avengers.
The new era begins with “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”.
Xu Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) is the son of Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung), a cruel warlord with 10 insanely powerful rings, and Ying Li (Fala Chen), the former guardian of a magical dimension called Ta Lo. After training his entire childhood to be an assassin for his father, he completes one mission then flees to San Francisco rather than return home.
There, he befriends Katy (Awkwafina), a fun but directionless young woman, and they lead average lives as valet workers.
His adventure begins when his father forcefully recruits him and his sister, Xu Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), to save their late mother from Ta Lo, where Wenwu believes her to be held captive. Wenwu vows to destroy Ta Lo if his late wife is not retrieved.
The siblings, knowing their mother is dead, escape from Wenwu and adventure to Ta Lo to prevent their father from destroying it. They are joined by Katy, whose loyalty to her friend overshadows her lack of combat experience.
This movie does great justice to its “comic relief” character. Katy is simultaneously hilarious and multidimensional. She has an aimless, nonchalant attitude toward life that contributes to her humor, but also limits her to mediocrity. She grows and learns throughout the film to have a sense of serious purpose and agency, while still maintaining her intrinsic humor.
Awkwafina’s performance beautifully illustrates Katy’s journey. The contrast the actress was able to pull off between Katy’s comedic and serious moments made each facet of the character equally powerful.
However, more time ought to have been spent on Shang-Chi’s oft forgotten little sister, Xialing. Her contribution to the story was more than crucial, but she did not get the screen time she was due.
Surprisingly, Shang-Chi himself was not particularly memorable as a character. While Liu’s acting was believable and emotive, Shang-Chi rarely seemed to take the lead in his own movie, as other characters often overshadowed him.
Though “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” serves as the origin story of a hero who will certainly return, the story was so original and complete that it could exist on its own, outside the Marvel universe, and still be a quality movie.
The movie also ties into the Marvel Cinematic Universe just enough for fans to speculate on what Shang-Chi’s role will be in other MCU projects.
Yet, it leaves certain questions unanswered, such as the origin of the Ten Rings and where their power comes from. Questions like this demand that Shang-Chi not be forgotten quite yet, and keep people eagerly waiting for the sequel. Creating hype for sequels is a Marvel staple, but it also takes away from the excellence of the movie itself.
The movie, which centers around Chinese characters, celebrates Chinese culture rather than exploiting it for surface-level aesthetics. By focusing on family, it embraces the Chinese value of respecting and learning from elders.
At the same time, the movie’s main antagonist is Shang-Chi’s own father. This dichotomy adds to the complexity of the film and of Wenwu’s character, and makes the mission of defeating him all the more emotional.
“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” takes the action genre in an unexpectedly sentimental direction. It sacrifices large-scale, violent fight scenes for moments of introspection and growth while still maintaining high energy and high stakes. Hopefully this movie sets the precedent for future MCU films.