When I was trying to convince my wife that we should see the new Marvel film, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” she told me that it wasn’t worth spending money on a babysitter to see a third-tier comic book movie.
As I went to the theater (alone, as I was unconvincing), I hoped that she was wrong.
Fortunately, the latest Marvel offering is one of the strongest yet, and it should please both casual and hardcore fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
For the last decade or so, Marvel’s “Cinematic Universe” has dominated the box office. With 25 films and multiple television shows, all interconnected, some of the weaker entries can feel more like homework than entertainment. The most recent offering, July’s “Black Widow,” had many fans worried that the shine was coming off of the franchise. Despite its good qualities, “Black Widow” felt like a tangent that arrived a few years too late.
“Shang-Chi,” the real start of the new “Phase 4” of Marvel films, had its work cut out for it in several ways. It’s not a recognizable character at the level of Captain America or Spider-Man, and many fans are tired of origin stories that often feel too much alike. With at least eight more films arriving in the next two years, in addition to several streaming series, this hero needed to give fans a reason to stay engaged in Disney’s high-budget soap opera.
“Shang-Chi” has an incredible mix of action, comedy and heart that makes it fit perfectly in the MCU, but more importantly, it can stand on its own rather than just serving as a piece of a larger puzzle. Some familiar faces show up, and there are passing references to other MCU events, but overall this feels lees like pieces moving on a chessboard than some of the weaker entries.
The film begins by setting up the legend of the ten rings, a mysterious set of weapons that grant the bearer superhuman abilities and everlasting life. The owner, Xu Wenwu, uses the rings to conquer the world and set up a criminal empire. While searching for a magical realm he falls in love with another warrior who changes the course of his life. More than two decades later, we catch up with his son, Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), working as a valet in San Francisco with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina).
When his father’s henchmen show up he is dragged back into his old world, and like many super hero origin stories, he has to decide to accept his destiny rather than hide from it.
Director Destin Daniel Cretton, best known for “The Glass Castle” and “Just Mercy,” seemed like an odd pick for this story, but he pulls all of the elements together well. The film reveals the character’s pasts through a series of flashbacks paced elegantly throughout the film, and by the time the film becomes a CGI-filled parade of mythical creatures and magical fighting, the film has earned enough investment in the characters that it doesn’t fail in the way that many Marvel films do in the final act.
The film is only the fourth major Hollywood film to feature an all Asian cast, and the performances are great throughout. Much like “Crazy Rich Asians,” which had to bear the weight of addressing decades of underrepresentation in American films, “Shang-Chi” has to create a new legend for a character with a problematic past in the comics. The film never seems bogged down by this weight. Much like “Black Panther,” the quality of the whole endeavor transcends the idea that it might be trying to check a cultural box.
I don’t have 5,000 words to rank and dissect every Marvel film, but “Shang-Chi” should land near the top of any list.
More importantly, it’s a film I can recommend to people who have no interest in a daunting cinematic universe, and who just want to have fun for two hours.
It also signals that the studio isn’t taking a safe direction as it heads into its next phase. Up next in November is “The Eternals,” from reigning Academy Award best picture director Chloe Zhao, a film that faces some of the same challenges as “Shang-Chi.”
Once again, I’ll have to convince my wife that it’s going to be worth the price of a babysitter.