AIDAN SMITH-FAGAN WRITES – As I walked out of Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, I couldn’t help but note a few of the similarities it has with 2018’s Black Panther: a Marvel hero breaking ground for a historically underrepresented minority, a fictional secret paradise, and a villain wielding an ancient superpower from the hero’s homeland. But despite sharing many of the qualities that made Black Panther so exciting and thoughtful, calling Shang-Chi ‘Asian Black Panther’ would be a disservice to the unique flavor that director Destin Daniel Cretton brings to Shang-Chi’s choreography and thematic throughlines.
Ten Rings follows the titular Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) after he is attacked by members of the Ten Rings organization, an international criminal organization run by his father, the Mandarin (Tony Leung). Together with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina), Shang-Chi embarks on a quest to hunt down his father and put a stop to his mysterious plans. What ensues is an action-packed, thematically distinct, roller-coaster of a superhero movie.
True to its lineage of Chinese martial arts movies, Shang-Chi’s melee action is just the right combination of well-honed athleticism and creative set pieces. Shang-Chi’s fights are lighting fast and filled to the brim with punches, flips, vaults, and kicks. But Ten Rings’ many action sequences aren’t just martial arts demos. Each of its stellar fights has Shang-Chi crisscrossing a unique and challenging setting: an out-of-control bus rolling downhill filled with innocent passengers, bamboo scaffolding on the side of a skyscraper, etc. All of this will be familiar territory for fans of Jackie Chan (no doubt due to Shang-Chi’s stunt coordinator being a veteran of Chan’s stunt team).
But all that flashy fighting would mean little without the actors that give Shang-Chi its strong foundation. Those familiar with Liu’s previous work will recognize the natural on-screen charisma and confidence that he brought to the role of Jung on Kim’s Convenience. But where Jung’s confidence sometimes bordered on arrogance, Liu gives Shang-Chi more of a charming friendliness.
Shang-Chi’s star-studded supporting cast rounds out Liu’s central performance. Awkwafina hits all the right comic relief notes as Katy, while also forming a genuine on-screen friendship with Liu. Meng’er Zhang and Fala Chen also give strong performances as Shang-Chi’s sister and mother, respectively. But most interesting are Tony Leung and Michelle Yeoh, who plays Shang-Chi’s long-lost aunt, Jiang Nan.
Central to Shang-Chi’s arc is his relationship with the generation of martial artists before him and -given their status as Chinese action royalty- the casting of Yeoh and Leung holds a certain symbolism. Just as the Mandarin and Jiang Nan pass the torch of super-martial arts to Shang-Chi, Yeoh and Leung help usher in Liu into the kung fu limelight. Family dynamics help pack Ten Rings with plenty of interesting messages, but perhaps a bit too many.
Cretton seems intent on giving every single lead character a full arc, but the net result is that no one in particular gets enough focus. The tug of all the character threads also compounds Shang-Chi’s biggest problem: its pacing.
The film’s first act is a brilliant display of back-to-back-to-back fight scenes. But halfway through the movie, the story slows to dump a heap of emotional and plot exposition on the viewer. Shang-Chi again swings the pendulum back to action for a drawn-out finale that borders on bloated. Before the final fight, the film introduces another, even bigger villain (as if an immortal Tony Leung wielding superpowered projectile rings wasn’t a big enough threat?). And the added villain doesn’t add much besides another obligatory Marvel Cinematic Universe tie-in.
But even though Shang-Chi bites off more than it can chew, none of the jampacked story content is especially bad. Although uneven, the film gets more right than it does wrong. Strong performances and sharp choreography put Shang-Chi well above the standard action film. And Cretton nails the key aspect of a good martial arts film: the student-teacher relationship. The interplay between Leung, Liu, Yeoh, and Zhang gives Shang-Chi the kind of depth sure to please fans of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Karate Kid, and Creed (yes, I’m counting boxing as a martial art).
So if you’re like me and missed its opening weekend, try and catch Shang-Chi before it leaves theaters. For better and for worse, it can be a rollercoaster. But where it really matters, Shang-Chi lands every punch.
Senior Aidan M. Smith-Fagen majors in political science and international relations at LMU.