By Rick Ferguson
Well, that’s a relief. After the ho-hum storytelling of Black Widow—a film that served largely to introduce new Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) characters rather than deliver a deep dive into Scarlett Johannsen’s Natasha Romanov—I worried that Marvel Studios had finally jumped the shark. The decade-long Infinity Wars saga was such a monumental feat of studio-driven filmmaking that it’s likely Marvel will never come close to matching it again, let alone topping it. Too many variables—casting, scripts, direction, kismet—would have to go right for Marvel to keep its winning streak alive. Plus, with all the ancillary Disney+ shows, the forays into animation, and Kevin Feige’s promotion to overall Disney creative mastermind, the likelihood of brand dilution is high.
But I’m here to report that Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a welcome return to form for Marvel. Does the film suffer from some of the same tropes and third-act problems from which many Marvel entries have suffered? Indeed, it does. At this point, however, you’re either on board the Marvel bus or you have no intention of riding. And if you’re on the bus, Shang-Chi provides a reasonably bitchin’ trip.
Shang-Chi is Marvel’s first superhero origin story since 2019’s Captain Marvel, a joyless entry that turned Carol Danvers into the most bloodless hero in the MCU. In Shang-Chi, the joy is back. From the charisma of stars Simu Liu, Tony Leung, and Awkwafina to the fast-moving script by Destin Daniel Cretton, Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham to Cretton’s sure hand in the director’s chair, the film slaps. It may not reach the top tier of MCU films in our overall ranking, but it’s a respectable showing for the MCU’s first all-Asian adventure.
Like most superheroes, Shang-Chi (Liu)—or Shaun, as he’s introduced to us in an opening that sees him working as a valet for a San Francisco hotel—has daddy issues. Shaun’s father is legendary Asian warlord and gangster Xu Wenwu (Leung), who centuries ago unearthed the mysterious artifacts known as the Ten Rings, and who now wields them to enjoy relative immortality and to drive his chariot wheels over the bones of his enemies. By the present day, Wenwu is a smartly dressed villain who leads his Ten Rings Army of spies and assassins to amass a global empire. When Wenwu sends his assassins to retrieve a pair of amulets from Shaun and his estranged sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) given to them by their deceased mother, Shaun must reckon with his own past as a super-assassin. Can Shaun prevent Wenwu from opening a mysterious portal behind which may hide soul-devouring beasties? Can he escape his father’s murderous legacy to become the hero he was always meant to be? To ask these questions is to answer them.
The film indeed relies heavily on tropes now de rigueur to the MCU. There’s the obligatory first combat scene in which we see the hero in action—in this case, a repeat of Carol Danvers’ bus fight in Captain Marvel. There’s the obligatory midpoint link to the larger MCU—in this case, an appearance by Dr. Strange sidekick Wong (Benedict Wong) and a few other surprises. There’s the obligatory scene in which the hero receives his official superhero costume and agonizes over whether or not to don it. Most egregiously, the finale detonates into the obligatory orgy of prolonged and confusing CGI. These third-act episodes of explosive pixelated diarrhea have become so ubiquitous that Marvel runs a real risk of fans tuning them out. We may at least be thankful that superhero films have finally stopped leveling major cities.
What can you say? That’s Marvel. Seeing a Marvel movie now is comfort food, like eating at Waffle House: You can order the hash browns smothered instead of scattered and substitute the country ham for bacon, but you’re still eating the same yellow food. The good news is that, within the constraints of the Marvel formula, Shang-Chi mostly works. The film’s most direct MCU antecedent is not Captain Marvel but rather Black Panther: Instead of T’Challa you get Shang-Chi; instead of Killmonger you get WenWu; instead of Shuri you get Xianling; instead of Wakanda you get the mystical hidden village of Ta Lo; instead of vibranium you get dragon scales; instead of armored rhinos you get giant Asian lions. It’s all executed so well, and the joy of its cast and makers is so evident on the screen, that it’s easy to just surrender to the flow. Plus, you have legends like Tony Leung and Michele Yeoh kicking ass, which is nice.
So much has been made of the film’s importance to Asian representation in Hollywood that it would be redundant to dwell on it here. Let the culture warriors dictate the terms of that debate; Marvel fans are more interested in good stories told well, stories that weave snugly into the increasingly expansive tapestry that is the MCU. Shang-Chi delivers. That’s good news for the future of Asian-themed movies in Hollywood, good news for Disney shareholders, and good news for MCU fans. Given the film’s theatrical-only release and impressive Labor Day box office, it’s also good news for the beleaguered exhibition industry. As we enter the Fall of our second year of pandemic horrors, political turmoil, and extreme weather, that in itself is a cause for celebration.
Ranking: As always, we place each new MCU entry into our overall ranking, which is true and inviolate. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings enters at number 13, the highest ranking for a new MCU entry since 2019’s Avengers: Endgame.
1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
2. Guardians of the Galaxy
3. Avengers: Infinity War
4. Thor: Ragnarök
5. Captain America: Civil War
6. The Avengers
7. Iron Man
8. Captain America: The First Avenger
9. Black Panther
10. Avengers: Endgame
11. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
12. Spider Man: Homecoming
13. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
14. Ant Man
15. Doctor Strange
16. Spider Man: Far from Home
17. Black Widow
18. Ant Man and the Wasp
19. Avengers: Age of Ultron
20. Captain Marvel
22. Iron Man 2
23. Iron Man 3
24. The Incredible Hulk
25. Thor: The Dark World
Rick Ferguson is the author of The Chronicles of Elberon fantasy trilogy. Rick is also a globally recognized marketing expert with appearances in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Advertising Age, Fast Company, the Globe & Mail Canada, the Guardian UK, the Financial Times India, MSNBC, and the Fox Business Channel. He has delivered keynote speeches on marketing principles and best practices on six continents. He is also master of time, space, and dimension.