Way back in 2013, Marvel’s “Iron Man 3” first introduced the dastardly villain known as The Mandarin. The warlord and his infamous band of mercenaries, the Ten Rings, had terrorized the pages of comic books for years, and it was only right for the franchise’s biggest hero to challenge him on the big screen.
Only… that iteration of the villain turned out to be a farce – an elaborate prank played out in the film – but the real version in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s latest entry, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” is no joke.
Marking Marvel’s first true return to the big screen since 2019, “Shang-Chi” does so in tremendous style, delivering thrilling action sequences, dazzling martial arts and a compelling, familial storyline.
When Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) was 14 years old, he broke free from the clutches of his terrorist father, Wenwu (Tony Leung). After being raised alongside his sister (Meng’er Zhang) to become the ultimate weapons for his father’s crimes, a simple life in America seemed a better alternative. But Shang-Chi’s escape to the States couldn’t last, and soon his father’s minions come calling, forcing the would-be assassin to confront his family’s troubled past.
There’s certainly more than just daddy issues to unpack in “Shang-Chi,” though. There’s plenty of lore regarding the Ten Rings – as both an organization and the magical tool that gives Wenwu his power – as well as the backstory of Shang-Chi’s mother, Li (Fala Chen), and her people. Considering “Shang-Chi” is an origin story for the hero, information overload is a given, but the film does an excellent job of showing not telling, explaining nearly everything through flashbacks sequences or first-hand experiences. As a result, nothing ever feels too overwhelming and the often-used exposition dump monologue is nowhere to be found.
At this point 25 movies deep in the MCU, the traditional “fate of the world” stakes are so omnipresent that they don’t even feel like a true risk, but luckily the relationships between Shang-Chi, his sister, and their father work to develop real stakes throughout the film. Everyone in the theater knows how these things go – at the end of day the good guys will save the world – but what’s truly compelling is the unknown of whether the family will reconcile or remain enemies. The greatest benefit of the complex character dynamics comes in the form of Tony Leung’s Wenwu. Marvel films have had some iconic villains, from Thanos to Loki, but far too often the hero clashes with a forgettable big bad with muddled motivation, but Leung made sure that was not the case for his antagonist. Wenwu creates plenty of external conflict terrorizing the world, but his internal battles are just as intense, as he desperately searches for a way to reunite with his wife, and struggles to connect with his children. Leung perfectly balances his intimidating warlord persona while still managing to portray his tormented inner self.
While the events of “Shang-Chi” will no doubt play a larger part in what’s to come for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there’s really no required knowledge necessary on the front end, which comes as a shock for the ever-growing franchise. Checking out “Iron Man 3” and “Doctor Strange” beforehand would definitely enhance it, but it’s not mandatory viewing.
What is mandatory viewing, though, is the stunning action in “Shang-Chi.” Blending the artful, Wuxia choreography of traditional Chinese fiction with vicious, modern hand-to-hand combat, the fight sequences immediately cement themselves as the best the MCU has to offer. In addition to the fighting itself, the set pieces as a whole are a blast, particularly two high-speed chases that are so intense they’d feel right at home in a “Fast & Furious” movie.
However, the film’s final 20 minutes divert from the style of action that made its first 110 so spectacular, and the result is a sloppy, CGI-filled mess of a climax. Marvel is often criticized for finales that rely too heavily on visual effects, and that trend hasn’t changed in “Shang-Chi.” Gone are the technical jabs and punches, replaced instead by two clashing kaiju monsters that look straight out of the “Godzilla” universe, which feels unnecessary and uninspired.
As Marvel embarks on its fourth phase with more projects than ever in the pipeline, superhero fatigue is a trending topic nearly every day. But as long as the studio continues to create new projects as fresh, artistic and inspired as “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” no one will be getting tired anytime soon.
“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is now playing in theaters.
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Raleigh, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.