This review contains spoilers.
Each time I find myself in a theater gearing up for Marvel’s newest offering, I can’t help but prepare for the worst. As the lights dim and that iconic Marvel opening plays, I shield my eyes from the screen, prepping myself for the impossible: a disappointing Marvel movie. But just from the first few minutes of “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,'' I quickly realized that Marvel has another hit on their hands.
What I didn’t realize until the credits started rolling, though, was to what scale this film might have an impact on Asian representation in film.
The film centers on a brilliantly cast Simu Liu as Xu Shang-Chi on a journey to protect his mother’s homeland from his villainous, misguided father Xu Wenwu, who is excellently portrayed by the legendary Tony Leung Chiu-wai.
Of course, the audience's first introduction to Liu’s character is not the superpowered Shang-Chi, but rather, the startlingly average valet driver Shaun and his witty best-friend Katy Chen, hilariously played by the wonderful Awkwafina.
This all changes, of course, when Shaun, aka Shang-Chi, receives a mysterious postcard in the mail from Macau.
The movie’s plot structure isn’t anything we haven’t seen before; Shang-Chi is set up to be a failure and his character journey will consist of him realizing he’s capable of so much more. Luckily, the film adds in some family dynamics and a dedication to the film's side characters’ evolutions, like Katy, which help to make the plot feel just unique enough to pass.
And, much to the credit of co-writer and director Destin Daniel Cretton, these small embellishments provide big returns as the film is a rather interesting family drama as much as it is a superhero origin story. This doesn’t come as a large surprise given Cretton’s deft handling of complex plots and family dynamics in his previous films, namely “Short Term 12.”
With the postcard in hand, Shang-Chi and Katy (because how could you leave Awkwafina behind?) head to Macau with plans to warn Shaun’s sister Xu Xialing, played by Meng’er Zhang, from what he believes to be a plot orchestrated by his estranged father.
In between all of this are some of the most visually appealing and well-choreographed fight scenes in the Marvel cinematic universe. In fact, I’d go as far as to say “Shang-Chi” contains the best fight sequences in any MCU film to date.
“Shang-Chi” draws very heavily from classic martial-arts films to imbue its fighting with a certain level of precision and excitement not found in any other Marvel film. The flashback scenes between Leung’s Wenwu and Fala Chen’s Jiang Li are particular highlights, playing out more like dances rather than combat sequences.
Once in Macau we find out that Shang-Chi’s father was, unsurprisingly, pulling the strings on everything up to this point in an attempt to reunite their family following the death of Shang-Chi’s and Xialing’s mother, Jiang Li, years prior.
The film goes back and forth between past and present at many points, frequently revisiting different events with new context. The context usually depends on which parent, Wenwu or Jiang Li, we are learning about with the Jiang Li-focused flashbacks portraying more heart and Wenwu’s flashbacks portraying more harshness.
It’s this push and pull between Shang-Chi’s mother and father that is the driving force for who his character will become. He must accept that he is a combination of his mother and father, not just one or the other.
The most important aspect of this film, though, is its casting and representation. Shang-Chi is the first Asian superhero to get their own solo film in the MCU. The film also features a largely Asian cast and an Asian American director. And, judging by the film’s record-breaking box office numbers, it’s clear that people want to see more films like it.
Overall, “Shang-Chi” feels like a welcome change of pace from the typical MCU fare, with outstanding fight sequences and brilliant casting and acting. It’s a thoughtful and intriguing take on a character who will hopefully come to shape the future of the MCU, and maybe all superhero films.
John Scott is the photo editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JScott050901