Walking out of July’s long-awaited Black Widow solo movie, the temptation was to go online and exclaim “the MCU is back, baby!” And while it was, we finally had a big movie released since the COVID-19 pandemic that made over $50 million at the box office on its opening weekend. However, it wasn’t until I was sitting in a premium Dolby theater watching Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings that I finally thought, oh maybe these movies actually ARE back. Shang-Chi absolutely demands the theatrical experience, and thank goodness that’s the only way you can see it. And I highly recommend you do. On the biggest screen you can possibly find.
Shaun (Simu Liu) parks cars for a living in San Francisco with his friend Katy (Awkwafina). Shaun is not who he says he is, however. He’s Shang-Chi, the son of legendary warrior Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung), who holds the fabled Ten Rings, which hold immense power. Shang-Chi and his sister Xu Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) are recruited by their father for an attempt to travel to Ta Lo, where Xu Wenwu believes their presumably deceased mother is being held. In this process, Katy follows Shang-Chi and Xu Xialing and follows their journey as they learn more about their pasts and what their future holds.
I know we were all waiting on pins and needles for Black Widow, but now having seen Shang-Chi, I think it’s indisputable this should have been the first one back. It’s a much better time at the movies, and that’s because it doesn’t forget the whimsical movie magic the best Marvel movies do. It also helps that I enjoy these movies more whenever the tone isn’t overly dark and brooding, and the fate of the entire universe isn’t at stake, and we’re just spending a couple hours with some fun new characters who we’re going to get to see again in future installments.
I like these movies when they’re smaller, and Shang-Chi achieves that tone the best Marvel movies do where the scope is enormous, but the stakes are personal and have genuine emotional resonance. This is most common in character origin movies, and Shang-Chi left me the same way I felt after Black Panther and Captain Marvel, where I just desperately want to spend more time with these people – and I want to go see this movie again as soon as possible. Shang Chi is a total blast and a much needed breath of fresh air in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The tone is more light, the world building is breathtaking and the characters are particularly well written and have a lot to them.
Considering this is practically Simu Liu’s first movie, I would say he’s nothing short of triumphant, more than holding his own in a movie full of stars like Awkwafina, Michelle Yeoh and Tony Leung. He’s funny, handsome, charismatic as hell, and his performance is immediately engaging in a way only natural talents can achieve. He immediately brings you into the world of this character and is constantly giving you new reasons to care about his journey and where it’s going to go moving forward. I think he’s got a bright future ahead of him in the MCU and beyond.
Awkwafina is also reliably fantastic here, and I really appreciate how this film doesn’t treat her as just the comic relief sidekick. There’s much more to Katy than we initially realize, and she’s crucial in the film’s third act in a way we wouldn’t expect. And we end in a place where it wouldn’t make sense for us to not see more Awkwafina in the MCU, so I’m all for that. We also have Michelle Yeoh as a wise maternal figure who can fight like nobody’s business, and I’ll also take as much Michelle Yeoh as a movie wants to give me. She’s always fantastic. Meng’er Zhang as Shang-Chi’s sister is also doing extraordinary work, and she’s an actress I’ve never seen in anything before.
However, it would feel wrong for me to not talk about Tony Leung in this review. He’s an actor with an illustrious career and so many extraordinary credits to his name that many American viewers won’t recognize. He’s giving the kind of performance here where you wonder what this character is doing and what he’s thinking when he’s off screen. He’s incredible and there are so many layers to this character that Leung seems excited to explore, and he’s a standout in a movie full of standout performances.
Short Term 12 and Just Mercy filmmaker Destin Daniel Cretton directed this, yet another case of a buzzy indie filmmaker with some promising work to their name, given a film with a $150 million budget. Here, the gamble works out exceptionally well, and there are so many visually stunning sequences, from the extraordinary visuals of the Ta Lo world, to the stunning martial arts fight choreography that almost occasionally feels like dance choreography. The movie opens with a gorgeously romantic homage to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon where it’s a fight scene but it’s also a rom-com meet-cute. The scene doesn’t go where you’re expecting it to and so many sequences in this movie gloriously take the viewer by surprise in ways that stand out for different reasons.
Walking out of Shang Chi, I thought, wow, we might have a five star Marvel movie for the first time in a very long time. I’m not sure if I’d say it’s bold-print perfect, but it’s pretty close. I saw the movie last night, and I’m already plotting for how to go back and see it again. It does what the Marvel Cinematic Universe does best, and is also doing so much more. This is a significant step forward for the MCU, and for blockbuster films in general. The representation of Asian characters in a big-budget superhero movie is obviously something to celebrate, and this film will definitely be important to many viewers for that reason, but there’s nothing in Shang-Chi that isn’t entirely universal from a narrative and emotional standpoint. This is a top-shelf crowd pleaser of the highest degree. Go see Shang Chi on the biggest screen you can possibly find. It’s pure sensory overload and pure joy.