Ryan Coogler’s 2018 Marvel directorial debut Black Panther signalled a major milestone at Marvel Studios, as the blockbuster became the first superhero flick with an African-American director at the helm and a predominantly POC cast, celebrating African and black culture. This inclusive and multifaceted representation was a truly special moment, highlighting the importance of authentic portrayals which reflect modern-day life, paving the way for future titles. Three years on and Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings marks the exciting debut of Marvel’s first Asian-led martial arts film, with many hoping the studio will also right some of the previous misfires regarding cultural stereotypes and mis-casting characters of Asian descent.
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton (Just Mercy and Short Term 12), Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings centres on San Francisco valet ‘Shaun’ aka Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) and his best friend Katy (Awkwafina), who regularly spend their free time living it up drinking and karaoking. However, Shang-Chi’s past finally catches up with him in a violent family reunion, following a decade on from fleeing from his deadly father Wenwu (Tony Leung), the leader of the shady organisation The Ten Rings. His father attempts to recruit the former trained assassin and his sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) to help him conquer a magical but hidden village, driven by grief and vengeance.
Cretton and the phenomenal cast have crafted one of the most fun MCU instalments yet, paired with plenty of humour and heart as the director brilliantly explores family dynamics and friendships. As Shang-Chi, Katy and co. travel on their fantastical quest to the mystical realm of Ta Lo, the narrative draws from a rich history of epic and expansive Asian cinema that feels so refreshing. Weighty themes such as destiny and legacy are also tackled throughout Shang-Chi’s journey of self-discovery, as the reluctant hero struggles with identity, familial expectations and following in previous footsteps. This cultural perspective, coupled with the exploration of the new myths and legends associated with the character and his family, make for a surprising break from the typical Marvel formula, which previous instalments have felt so constrained to.
Simu Liu is absolutely perfect in the titular role, channeling a huge amount of charm and endearing nature with the impressively kinetic and prop-based fighting style of Jackie Chan. The Kim’s Convenience star is afforded an impressive and emotional arc, and thanks to his brilliant dynamic with Awkwafina, will certainly become the next favourite Marvel superhero for many. The Raya and the Last Dragon star is also brilliant, bringing her signature dry humour for plenty of laughs, whilst also proving Shang-Chi’s anchor throughout. The supporting cast also excel, with newcomer Meng’er Zhang’s turn as Xialing proving one of the most compelling and emotionally conflicted female characters in some time, struggling in a male-dominated world and in the shadow of her brother – I fully expect that theres’ more to come from this character in the MCU. While Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s Michelle Yeoh brings a cool charm and a raft of elegant fight choreography with her.
Marvel are often criticised for their lacking antagonists, (yes Taskmaster’s adaptation to screen was certainly disappointing most recently) but The Grandmaster star Tony Leung, one of Hong Kong cinema’s most beloved actors, certainly changes that. Leung brings a huge amount of nuance and complexity to the millenia-old leader of the Ten Rings, who’s encompasses a multi-faceted role – evolving from conquerer to loving partner to father and eventually vengeance-driven villain. Leung surprisingly draws you to empathise with the character, as the effects of grief and trauma on Wenwu are clearly his driving factors and motivations, feeling akin to certain characters from ancient tragedies. Dealing with grief in the opposing cultures (American and Asian) is cleverly explored, further complicating the tricky family dynamic and deepening the father-son rivalry.
The writers and cast have crafted a core collection of well-rounded and special characters who you genuinely care and root for, which is no mean feat in such a packed blockbuster, shifting Asian representation in the MCU from the often sidelined sidekicks to heroic leads.
The action is also nothing like we’ve seen from an MCU film before – thanks to the fantastic fight choreography by the late Brad Allan, a frequent Jackie Chan collaborater. The martial arts sequence on board the runaway bus is incredibly dynamic and certainly keeps you gripped on the edge of your seat – spotlighting the amazing talents of Simu Liu (that double-kick!) – while a vertigo-inducing battle on scaffolding alongside a sky-rise evokes the parkour foot chase of Casino Royale. However, it’s the elegant initial fight between Wenwu and warrior Jiang Li (Fala Chen) which is truly the outstanding sequence, highlighting a fight style which replicates more of a sweeping dance for a truly graceful spectacle. It’s fascinating to see Shang-Chi’s fighting style also evolve throughout his journey, as he delves into his legacy and adopts this style.
DP Bill Pope brings his trademark cinematography styles from The Matrix and Spider-Man 2 to Shang-Chi, with the fluid, unsparing takes allowing the martial arts fights to naturally progress, while the neon and screens of the cities juxtapose with the beautiful greens and yellows of the lush and expansive mythical world. While the final act does at times succumb to the usual CGI excess of most comic-book movies, Pope takes the time to stage a beautiful visual dichotomy of father and son as they battle, wielding the same ancient power. While the visual identity pulls predominantly from vibrant Asian cinema, Cretton also weaves a number of fun easter eggs and cameos throughout the film, nicely connecting to the wider MCU. There’s also exciting mid and post-credits scenes, so make sure to stick around.
With a stellar cast, impressively choreographed martial arts sequences and a fantastic lead performance from Simu Liu, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a refreshing and exciting entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Packed with plenty of heart and humour, along with a distinct visual and narrative flair evoking epic Asian cinema, Destin Daniel Cretton adds a well-needed burst of charm and soul to the MCU.