Sometimes it’s best to go into a movie with no expectations and no background on what you’re about to see. That’s how it was for me watching Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. While it’s the 25th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the second in what’s known as “Phase Four” of those films (with Black Widow being the first), you don’t need to have seen any other Marvel movies to enjoy Shang-Chi. And wow, did I enjoy it. Since I have watched all of the other 24 MCU installments, I can confidently say that Shang-Chi ranks within my top 5. I loved it.
I think in general I’m also a sucker for stories about dysfunctional families. From movies like Parasite, Knives Out and Stoker to TV shows like Succession, The Undoing and this summer’s buzzy The White Lotus, I can’t get enough of backstabbing siblings, dark secrets and daddy issues.
Daddy issues abound in Shang-Chi, as we learn soon after slacker valet Shaun (Simu Liu) is brutally attacked while riding on a public bus in San Francisco with his best friend and fellow valet Katy (Awkwafina). A gang of men, including one with a huge blade for an arm, throw all kinds of insane martial arts moves at Shaun while trying to steal a pendant he wears around his neck, but Shaun is able to hold his own.
This fight sequence—which takes places while the bus is still tearing through San Fran’s hilly streets—is truly jaw-dropping. Anyone remember the movie Speed? It reminded me of that, only if Keanu was playing John Wick on the bus and giving the beat-down to 5 other dudes while Sandra Bullock tried to steer. These days I’m pretty sick of battles and fights and chases and explosions. I usually zone out during those scenes because all of it seems so familiar now. But what I saw in Shang-Chi was extraordinary. It immediately drew me into the movie and made me want to understand why in the heck Shaun could defend himself like that.
Which leads back to the daddy issues. It turns out that Shaun is really Shang-Chi, son of the notorious warlord/mob boss Wenwu (the fantastic Tony Leung), who possesses the Ten Rings—ten iron rings with insane magic powers. His army is also named the Ten Rings, and those bad guys on the bus were sent by Wenwu to steal Shaun/Shang-Chi’s pendant, for reasons I won’t spoil.
Shaun then has no choice but to reveal his true name and background to Katy. He explains how his father trained him to be not only a martial arts warrior, but also a deadly assassin. The first chance he got to escape his father’s clutches, he ran … and that’s how he ended up in America. But in doing so he left behind his younger sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang).
A postcard from Xialing leads Shang-Chi to believe she is in grave danger and that the Ten Rings thugs will come for her next. And that’s how Shang-Chi and Katy (who refuses to stay behind) end up in Macau, which is where yet another absolutely stunning fight and chase sequence takes place—this time on the side of a skyscraper that’s under construction. It’s just bonkers. And therefore it’s no surprise that the supervising stunt coordinator on the film was Brad Allan from the amazing Jackie Chan Stunt Team, and I directly credit him for my enjoyment of so much of this movie. Allan’s astounding work on Shang-Chi makes his death at age 48 last month all the more tragic—clearly he still had so much left to bring to audiences.
Director and co-screenwriter Destin Daniel Cretton’s (Just Mercy), along with his co-writers Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham, did an excellent job at introducing us to all of these new characters, and in balancing the action with the deeper scenes revolving around themes of grief, loss, identity, and what we do or do not owe our families. Some of the quieter scenes that explored these themes through the help of Shang-Chi’s aunt, Jiang Nan (Michelle Yeoh), were especially powerful. The full cast was also incredible, with Awkwafina providing the comic relief she’s famous for, and relative-unknowns Liu and his on-screen sis Zhang proving they could more than hold their own in an ensemble of superstars.
While the final act of Shang-Chi was a little more CGI-laden than I would’ve liked—but don’t get me wrong, everything looked great—I still enjoyed it and actually yelled “OH #$% YASSSSS!!!” through my mask two separate times. Though I rarely re-watch movies because there’s just still so many great films in the world that I haven’t seen yet at all, I am already looking forward to a second Shang-Chi viewing with my family.
Lastly, I have to comment on the fact that if a few characters from other Marvel films hadn’t made an appearance, I likely would’ve totally forgotten this was a Marvel movie. It just felt very, very different than what’s come before. To me that is a positive, exciting thing. If Shang-Chi represents what the future of the MCU is going to be like, I am psyched.