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Saturday, September 4, 2021

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings



Instantly upon meeting Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) and Katy (Awkwafina), it's clear that they are the best platonic friends in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a title previously held by Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson). Steve and Nat are both gone now but nature abhors a vacuum and so Shang-Chi and Katy seamlessly slide into their spot. They even top Rogers and Romanoff because Shang-Chi and Katy know how to have fun, whether it's jacking luxury rides in their day jobs as hotel valets or refusing to go to bed at a sensible hour and staying up all night getting drunk and singing karaoke. With these two as the focus of director Destin Daniel Cretton's entertaining adventure yarn, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, we're in good hands even when things get really weird, really fast.

Before Shang-Chi goes viral by fighting off assassins from the Ten Rings, including the hulking Razor Fist (Florian Munteanu), on a speeding San Francisco bus, Katy only knew him as "Shaun." (Katy rightfully gives Shang-Chi shit for his unimaginative choice of alias). Shaun has been in America for ten years and, like Katy, he's content to go nowhere while enjoying his life as it comes. But Shaun has a secret: He's really a master of kung fu and a super-assassin trained by his father, Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung), the leader of the Ten Rings, China's most powerful criminal organization. The Ten Rings was the Middle Eastern terrorist outfit Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) fought in Iron Man and Iron Man 3, but faster than you can say "retcon," Shang-Chi reveals their true origins as the network led by Wenwu, who is a thousand years old and the master of the mysterious Ten Rings, which are ten powerful bracelets of alien origin. Wenwu always knew Shang-Chi was in San Fran but he decided it's time to summon his son home.

Shang-Chi and Katy, who is also caught up in this mess, travel to Macau to find Shang-Chi's sister, Xu Xialing (Meng'er Zhang), who runs an underground fight club like she's the Chinese Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). Only instead of the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), one of Xialing's prizefighters is the Abomination (Tim Roth), who makes his return to the MCU after his lone appearance in The Incredible Hulk 13 years ago. Shang-Chi and Katy also meet Wong (Benedict Wong), one of the Masters of the Mystic Arts, who has basically become the new Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) since Wong seems to know everybody in the Avengers now. These are Shang-Chi and Katy's first steps into the larger, crazy world of the MCU, but it turns out Shang-Chi's China is pretty goddamn crazy itself. 

The forward movement of Shang-Chi's plot is interrupted by numerous flashbacks showing how Wenwu met his beloved late wife Ying Li (Fala Chen), their happy early years of marriage, and Shang-Chi's childhood before and after Ying Li is murdered. Lots of family secrets are spilled, including Shang-Chi's shame that he let his father turn him into a killer. Meanwhile, Xialing harbors her own resentments at being her father's forgotten and ignored child, but she turned herself into a self-made crime lord all her own, so she's a chip off the old Ten Rings. Shang-Chi also makes a big deal of both of Wenwu's kids having jade pendants given to them by their mother. Wenwu goes to a lot of trouble to take the jade pendants from his children but there's no real payoff for it. But at its core, Shang-Chi is about family, the one you're born into and the ones you make your family, and living up to your potential while staying true to yourself.

There's also a lot of exposition in Shang-Chi's bonkers third act, which takes place in the magical Chinese village of Ta Lo, an enchanted land that has all manner of exotic mythological beasts, including a dragon called the Great Protector. In Ta Lo, Shang-Chi learns how to use his mother's powers to enhance his martial arts abilities thanks to his aunt, Ying Nan (Michelle Yeoh). Katy also turns out to be an incredibly quick study with a bow and arrow and basically becomes another Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) in a day. Weirdest of all, Shang-Chi learns that thousands of years ago, a great evil soul-sucking dragon attacked Ta Lo from another universe and all that's keeping it back is a door in a mountain that the lovesick Wenwu wants to bust down because he thinks his dead wife is on the other side. It's a lot of bizarre data to absorb and there's no time because there's kung fu fighting and CGI flying monsters the movie has to get to. Shang-Chi's third act is a scaled-down version of the Battle of Wakanda in Avengers: Infinity War mixed with Mulan with as much dragon-riding as the final season of Game of Thrones.

In the comics, Shang-Chi is known as "The Master of Kung Fu," but the MCU's Shang-Chi isn't necessarily the greatest hand-to-hand combatant in the world (although he probably will be the best eventually), and it's a little disappointing when he uses the Ten Rings to explode the soul-sucking evil dragon but he doesn't deliver a cool kung fu blow to the beast as a coup-de-grace. Then again, in the comics, the Ten Rings are actually rings worn by a Chinese supervillain called the Mandarin, but Iron Man 3 changed the Mandarin into a blundering actor named Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley) who posed as a terrorist and almost dismantled the U.S. government. Trevor returns in Shang-Chi, which has to do MCU continuity clean-up for Iron Man 3, but Kingsley's guest spot is just wacky comedy from an otherwise unnecessary character. Overall, Shang-Chi's terrific martial arts action scenes compensate for its paint-by-numbers origin story and plot, and the movie becomes a bewildering CGI spectacle in its third act. However, the charming camaraderie of Liu and Awkwafina as Shang-Chi and Katy holds the whole thing together, while Leung's Wenwu is an emotionally-driven villain who's more interesting than a lot of Marvel bad guys.

The title Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings seems like a bit of a misnomer since we learn very little about the Ten Rings themselves. The bracelets are weapons of immense power, we're told, but mostly, Wenwu just uses them to leap long distances, throw super punches, and make energy whips. Despite a thousand years of wielding the Ten Rings, they jump from Wenwu to Shang-Chi pretty easily, and the latter figures out how to use them maybe too quickly. The Ten Rings don't actually get interesting until Shang-Chi's first end-credits scene, which is one of the best MCU stingers: Wong summons Shang-Chi and Katy to analyze the bracelets' alien design and the best friends meet Bruce Banner and Carol Danvers (Brie Larson). It's an obvious set-up for Shang-Chi to join the Avengers and it's pretty awesome. Hopefully, Shang-Chi and Katy bring karaoke nights to the Avengers' get-togethers. We know Wong is down for it.