Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings review: An average first outing

Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) in Marvel Studios' SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS. Photo by Jasin Boland. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.
Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) in Marvel Studios' SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS. Photo by Jasin Boland. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved. /

The first Marvel film to introduce a new hero since Captain Marvel, the first Marvel film with an Asian lead, and one of the first to hit theaters since the pandemic began in March of last year, it’s safe to say that there’s a lot riding on the shoulders of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Though Shang-Chi introduces what could’ve been one of Marvel’s most compelling villains ever, even the magic of Tony Leung can’t save the film from tumbling into mediocrity thanks to an uninspired script and a bumbling third act.

Starring Simu Liu, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings follows Shang-Chi (Liu), the son of an ancient warlord Wenwu (Tony Leung), who has held the secret to eternal life and commanded a secret army of mercenaries through the use of the mystical ten rings. Shang-Chi – or Sean, to his best friend Katy (Awkafina) – is trying to live a normal, hidden life in San Francisco when he receives a mysterious postcard that draws him back into the brutal, combat-driven life he fled from years ago. Together with his estranged sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) and Katy, Shang-Chi races against time to stop his father from unleashing a planet-destroying evil.

As far as hero origin stories go, Shang-Chi’s is perhaps the most interesting and complicated in the MCU – involving a hidden village full of magical creatures and mystical powers, a centuries-old warlord that trained him to be a cutthroat killer from birth, a soul-eating monster destined to consume his mother’s village, and – of course – the ten rings themselves, which grant the wearer all sorts of nifty powers including immortality. As such, the first act of The Legend of the Ten Rings is fast-paced and lore-heavy, making ample use of flashbacks and convenient expository devices to cram in as much information as possible.

Despite having quite a bit to get through, the first hour of Shang-Chi really works: the first two major action setpieces are slick, well-choreographed fight sequences that make interesting use of setting and fighting styles: combining typical MCU combat fare with classic martial arts film techniques. The unique (at least to the MCU) fight scenes, combined with a heavier emphasis on humor (though it may not always land) helps inject the first act with more than enough vivacity and promise to set the film up for a satisfactory second half, but once the plot kicks into gear, that’s where things take a turn for the uninspired.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is remarkably sluggish for how quickly the first act moves, but once Shang-Chi, Xialing, and Katy arrive at Wenwu’s compound, everything from that point forward just feels like an arbitrary wild goose chase that goes a significant disservice to both the characters and the narrative itself. The central conceit of Shang-Chi‘s dramatic tension is that it’s a family affair: both Shang-Chi and Xialing care deeply about villain Wenwu, and vice versa – even if he’s a mass-murdering immortal warlord with a secret army of elite warriors, he’s still their father, and the one thing he wants more than anything else is for their family to be happily reunited – and he’s willing to go to any means necessary to make sure he, his children, and his dead wife can come together again.

It’s a deeply personal connection between hero and villain (the closest we’ve ever come is Thor, and even there the conflict is a little more predestined considering Loki’s heritage), which should make for a devastating last act regardless of the outcome – all three major characters have skin in the game and care deeply about each other and their wellbeing, even if they’re on opposite sides. Shang-Chi fumbles this concept entirely, though, instead making Wenwu a cartoonishly single-minded baddie (despite Tony Leung’s many attempts to bring depth to the role) and dodging every opportunity to explore the rich tension between father, son, and daughter.

What’s worse is that after two acts of grounded, clever, well-directed action that easily shoots to the top of our MCU fight scene rankings, Shang-Chi tosses its tone out the window entirely and the third act is a CGI-heavy mess of a fight that’s more interested in ginormous flying dragons and Awkwafina learning how to be an archer than Shang-Chi or Xialing having any particularly interesting confrontation with their father.

Though the aforementioned Tony Leung is without a doubt the cast’s high point, Simu Liu makes a bland, by-the-book leading man, try as the film might to inject him with any sort of personality. His backstory, while incredibly dark, doesn’t seem to impact him as an adult beyond surface trappings, and Shang-Chi instead opts to deliver most character beats through humor, usually playing off of Awkwafina’s Katy. Unfortunately, though, a vast majority of the jokes fall flat, and Awkafina’s one-note comedy shtick gets old fast. They make a passable duo, but when your leading man’s only real moments of charisma come when playing second fiddle to the comic relief, it’s difficult to feel invested in the character.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings certainly isn’t unforgivably bad, nor is it even terrible – but it’s also not confidence-inspiring when it comes to the MCU’s ability to craft a new, engaging generation of heroes to fill the shoes left by the original avengers. While an interesting villain and creative fight scenes help set Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings apart from typical genre fare, a lousy third act, and confused character beats leave much to be desired for a superhero origin story.

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Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings hits theaters on September 3, 2021.