Final Verdict:Although still a Marvel film at its core (for better and worse), a strong cast and incredible action scenes lead to one of the freshest and most enjoyable MCU movies in recent memory.
About The Film
Don’t look now, but the Marvel Cinematic Universe may just be reeling me back in. The latest wave of Marvel films is at its best when it doesn’t feel like just another wave of Marvel films. Despite consistently high quality, the movies have become increasingly burdened by the need to tie into the overarching narrative or establish some upcoming new show on Disney+. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is still very much a Marvel movie at its core, but it is also the freshest and most enjoyable MCU entry in a really long time.
The story might not be as memorable or consequential as some other Marvel films, but it’s just a ton of fun. The Asian influence and cast give it a unique feel, as does the relative lack of superpowers or abilities. Shang-Chi also boasts perhaps the most incredible action scenes of any Marvel movie. The martial arts action is captivating and clever, always showcasing something new and engaging. A fight scene on a bus cruising through the streets of downtown San Francisco is blockbuster cinema at its finest.
The cast is strong across the board, elevated by excellent chemistry between Shaun (Simu Liu) and Katy (Awkwafina). I’m a fan of the always delightful Awkwafina, and her character is responsible for much of the film’s humor and needed “pedestrian” perspective. Xu Wenwu (Tony Chui-Wai Leung) is not a menacing villain, but his character is nuanced enough to elevate him above the fray of Marvel’s notoriously uninspired villains.
At around the film’s midway point (marked by the surprise reappearance of a former MCU character), the film morphs from a relatively grounded and gritty film to an over-the-top silly and zany one. The tonal switch is jarring, and the more personal story established in the opening acts unfortunately drifts into more typical “the fate of the world is at stake” CGI spectacle for the climatic final act. That is not to say that the later part of the film is unenjoyable. I actually appreciated the film’s unabashed embrace of the more fantastical elements, another unique addition to the expanding MCU canvas. However, it does make for a slightly inconsistent narrative and lacks originality.
Overall, this is a highly enjoyable film. If this is a taste of the future of the MCU, then it might be time for me to punch my ticket and jump back on the bandwagon. Bring on The Eternals!
Profanity: A handful of minor profanities (mostly “S—“).
Violence: Typical Marvel violence. Characters fight with minimal blood.
Engage the Film
Overcoming the Sins of the Past
Despite the film’s tonal inconsistency, one of its greatest strengths is the consistency of its themes. The story explores the topic of identity and how past sins and mistakes inform that identity for better or worse. The singular theme is developed by contrasting Shaun, his sister Xialing (who could have used more screen time), and his father. All three family members face tragic events in their shared past in different ways—running from it, combating it, or letting it rule them.
Shang-Chi is perhaps Marvel’s least linear entry. The film uses frequent flashback scenes to effectively contrast the characters’ past with their present, using prior experiences to reveal more insight into their current day struggles. As the movie becomes increasingly supernatural, the application becomes more cosmic. The evil creature called “the Dweller in the Darkness” is a fitting stand-in for a Satan-esque character. It preys on Shaun’s father’s guilt and shame, pulling him back into the violence and selfishness that he had sought escape. It is present as a soft, lying voice, making insincere promises and offering false hope.
As a result, one of the film’s triumphs is that Xu Wenwu is a sympathetic antagonist. His villainy is motivated by despair and loneliness. He is a broken man rather than a truly evil one. He is an example of how past sins can be overcome, but also how they can haunt and destroy us if we allow ourselves to listen to the wrong voices.
As a result of Wenwu’s nuanced character, Shaun’s contrasting journey becomes more interesting and relatable. His journey is not merely about choosing good rather than the evil path of his heritage (a theme played out in countless other films), but rather about overcoming the sins in his own past and not letting them determine his future identity the way it has his father. While the film offers a more postmodern and spiritual solution to the problem (look inside and find your true identity within yourself), the themes of sin and brokenness and the need for rescue can be affirmed by Christians.