Editor’s Note: The following article contains spoilers for Marvel’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.”
Less than ten minutes into “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) delivered its best fight scene to date.
Wrapped in a magical forest, Shang-Chi’s mother, Ying Li, and father, Xu Wenwu, engage in a beautiful, dance-like fight reminiscent of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Li, played by Fala Chen, effortlessly manipulates the air to dodge the ten rings thrown at her by Wenwu, played by Tony Leung.
The characters just met, but by the end of the fight, they’re in love.
“Shang-Chi” is the first new hero introduced in Phase Four of the MCU, as well as the first Asian lead in a Marvel movie. It follows Shang-Chi as he returns to China years after running away from his father who trained him to be an assassin.
Shang-Chi, played by Simu Liu, lives as Shaun in San Francisco. His best friend Katy, played by Awkwafina, works with him as a valet by day and karaoke partner by night.
After a group of assassins attack Shaun on a bus, Katy learns Shaun grew up training to be an assassin under his dad’s guidance after his mother passed away.
But that news was less shocking to her than discovering his real name isn’t Shaun.
Following the bus attack, Katy and Shang-Chi travel to Macau, where his sister has built an underground fight-ring empire in an abandoned skyscraper. This leads to the second-best fight scene in the movie, fought entirely on the side of a building.
The MCU has never lacked action, but in “Shang-Chi,” every fight is a piece of art. The camera doesn’t cut every two seconds, and the audience has time to engage and move with the action.
It can be hard to stay focused when a movie is two hours of fighting a CGI villain and their CGI army, but this movie avoids that trend by making the stakes for Shang-Chi personal. The villain is his grieving father, not an unknown threat from space.
Marvel has created complex characters before (hello, Wanda Maximoff), but none as emotionally confused as Wenwu. Between hearing the voice of his dead wife and failing as a father, he struggles to find purpose in his life.
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The complexity of Wenwu’s character carries over to Shang-Chi himself, who struggles to reconcile his father’s misguided intentions with his own feelings of resentment and duty to the memory of his mother.
By the time the climax of the film arrives, it’s hard to blame anyone for the path they’ve chosen, even though the narrative tells us to root for Shang-Chi.
Critics of Marvel point to its often one-dimensional characters and storylines, but “Shang-Chi” proves the studio can deliver on an emotional level and not just in over-the-top third act CGI fights.
“Shang-Chi” does lean into the big-budget finale in the end, but this time it’s with a dragon and not an alien, which makes it immediately eight million times cooler.
Marvel moved away from a hard science-fiction angle years ago with “Doctor Strange,” but in “Shang-Chi” it embraces full-on fantasy rooted in Chinese mythology.
Despite having troubles with whitewashing in the past, Marvel made strides with “Shang-Chi.” Only one character is played by a non-Asian actor, Ben Kingsley, and he’s there to reprise his role as an English actor playing a terrorist from “Iron Man 3” as the comedic relief.
Turns out, Kingsley’s role in this movie is funnier if you’ve actually seen him in the MCU before. Who knew?
Every actor has an opportunity to steal the show, and they each make the most of it. Meng’er Zhang is a badass as Shang-Chi’s older sister, Xialing, while Michelle Yeoh shines as Ying Nan, the siblings’ aunt. Even Awkwafina gets her action moment in the final fight (and proves herself as more than a one-dimensional actor).
Even the cinematography and visuals are heads above Marvel’s previous work, which has always been passable at best.
“Shang-Chi” proves that even after 13 years and 25 movies, the MCU can deliver something fresh and original without leaning on its reputation or existing characters.