By: Kevin Jordan
I’ll try not to geek out too much on you.
With the release of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, we can officially say the next phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has really begun. Yes, I know Loki and WandaVision and Falcon and the Winter Soldier have come out, but they are all television series and feel more like phase 3.5. And Black Widow filled in a gap in phase 3, if not a gap in Captain America: Civil War. But, I will concede that the three TV series feel a lot like the phase one movies. They all focus on specific characters and feel more like origin stories than continuations of their character arcs. There is also a mysterious figure, Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), showing up at the end of films and recruiting people (Yelena Belova and John Walker). And, you know how Marvel loves magic objects. Well, now we have ten, count them, ten magic rings.
(SPOILER ALERT – I’ll keep it to a minimum, but just know how hard it is not to talk to you about every little detail.)
Since Shang-Chi is still technically a Disney film, we get two standard Disney movie tropes. The first is opening narration telling us a bunch of stuff that does not matter. At all. It’s the backstory of Shang-Chi’s father, Wenwu (Tony Leung), who was a warlord for two thousand years, then met Shang-Chi’s future mother, Jiang Li (Fala Chen), and some other stuff I don’t remember. To be fair, it does matter for character building and motivations, but all of it will be reiterated later in the film, so what I’m really saying is it is redundant. And speaking of redundancy, Jiang Li dies well before this movie’s story takes place, and there we have the second trope. Did you really think a Disney film wasn’t going to include a dead parent? Why else do you think Disneyland is called the Happiest Place on Earth?
Once we get past the narration, the movie actually starts. Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) is living in San Francisco and working as a bellhop with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina). One day, while Shang-Chi and Katy are riding the bus to work, a couple of thugs demand Shang-Chi hand over his necklace. Yes, I thought it was really random as well. So did Shang-Chi for that matter. When they try to take it from him, he goes full ninja on them. Yes, I was really surprised by this. So was Katy for that matter.
The refreshing thing about this scene is two-fold. One, since Shang-Chi is apparently already awesome, we don’t have to worry about getting a training montage before fully developing his skills. He’s already a trained assassin who, as it turns out, was hiding out in San Francisco from his father. What’s that? There is a training montage, but just later in the film where he has to learn different skills? And a second one showing him learning to fight as a kid? Um, I meant two-fold as in double the training montage. Moving on.
The second thing is the fight scene feels really unique. It’s not like we haven’t seen fights on trains or airplanes or buses before, but this one felt exceptionally closed-in, yet amazingly acrobatic and free-wheeling. Beyond that, it also thrusts us into the main story with no warning, establishes Shang-Chi’s skills, introduces us to head henchman Razor Fist (Florian Munteanu), and gives Katy plenty of room to shine as the plucky comic relief, even to the point of doing a quick Sandra Bullock from Speed homage.
From there, the movie barely slows down, taking us from one action sequence to another, while blending in some surprisingly deep character and plot development, even beyond what we’ve come to expect from a Marvel movie. I especially liked how the plot first seems to be protecting a second necklace and potentially recovering the first, with Shang-Chi and Katy racing to Macao to find Shang-Chi’s sister, Xialing (Meng-er Zhang), to warn her of the impending danger since she has the other necklace. Instead, they find Xialing to be every bit Shang-Chi’s equal in the martial arts department and they learn that the amulets on the necklaces are just a stepping stone to a much larger plot. But we don’t learn this until after a fight scene that puts the bus fight scene to shame. It’s a lot like in The Matrix when you see that opening scene with Trinity in the empty apartment and you’re in awe, then see the lobby shootout and practically melt in amazement.
All of this is a long way of saying that if you were worried there would be some sort of swoon in the MCU after Avengers: End Game, Shang-Chi will disabuse you of that notion. Shang-Chi is everything we’ve come to expect from MCU movies. It’s sharp, it’s witty, it’s exciting, it has memorable characters, and it makes you want to come back for the next film to see what happens next. And to top it all off, it ties in a bunch of little things from previous movies that will make you say “bravo, Marvel, bravo.” That is, if you aren’t geeking out too hard to speak.
Rating: Don’t ask for any money back, but do ask when the next movie is. You’ll have no choice after seeing the end-credit scene.