Disney and Marvel have gotten to the point in their collaboration that much of their projects together seem to look and feel exactly the same. Every time a new movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe comes out, it seems like each filmmaker has to prove that their project is more than just another superhero movie. Luckily, the MCU’s newest offering, SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS, stands on its own as a quality action film with some of the best stunt-work and visual effects of the year. The movie is not perfect, and contains some trite “superhero” storytelling elements that Disney movies often rely on, but director/writer Destin Daniel Cretton’s clear talent behind the camera transforms every average scene into a larger-than-life sequence with high stakes for characters that are easy to invest in.
The first act of the film admittedly plays out similar to many mainstream “hero’s journey” tales — an average joe (Shang-Chi) turns out to have a more-than-average calling and must return to his past in order to keep his father from doing evil things that might cause many innocent casualties. It seems like a combination of ideas that have all been done before. The movie is at its weakest when it sets itself up to be as interesting as the concept of the plot, but for SHANG-CHI, the gold is in the execution of this storyline.
Firstly, the characters are interesting from the very start of the movie to the end, so despite the clichés the audience still cares about what happens to every character, including the fantastic villains. The comedic relief is also on point throughout, and the characters all feel personable and colorful due to the life that each actor puts into their performances. Simi Liu as Shang-Chi is a star in the making, similar to Chris Evans’ turn in the first Captain America film, and casting directors all over Hollywood will likely have him near the top of their call lists after this. The performance of the film for me, however, is Tony Leung as Shang-Chi’s father and the primary villain. Leung plays one of the most lived-in and memorable MCU villains since Erik Killmonger — it is impossible not to feel sympathy for him even though it’s clear that he has some serious issues with how he is dealing with his inner demons.
At the end of the day, I believe SHANG-CHI will truly be remembered for the technical mastery put into the action sequences. Only time will tell if this statement remains to be true, but it struck me while watching: this film contains the most well-filmed action sequences of any live-action Marvel movie thus far. A high-stakes fight scene on a bus about 20-30 minutes into the movie made me realize that the filmmakers weren’t messing around with their action: the stunt choreography is phenomenal, the visual effects and cinematography are stunning, and the action set pieces are inventive and pay homage to great Asian cinema of the past. The final 30 minutes of SHANG-CHI involve one large final battle, and it ranks as one of my favorite final fight scenes in the MCU along with Avengers: Endgame and Infinity War.
SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS is not perfect, especially for those looking for a complete reinvention of what it means to be a superhero movie. It adheres to many of the standards that have already been set up for the genre, but it does so in such a stylish and sleek way that it is difficult not to smile during much of the film. Cretton does a fantastic job helming this movie in a way that sets it apart from the projects that came before it, and ends up crafting the Avatar: The Last Airbender movie that I wish we had. Superhero movies may be running out of ideas, but if they continue to be crafted this well, then we should expect to see plenty more where this came from.