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" A dead plaintiff is worth as much as one who is alive but who is severely maimed "
— John Travolta, A Civil Action

MRQE Top Critic

Aladdin (2019)

Narrative nudges include Jasmine's leadership ambitions and a romantic entanglement for the genie. —Matt Anderson (review...)

Aladdin (2019)

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Shang-Chi presents a host of fresh faces that take the Marvel Cinematic Universe into an exciting new realm of possibilities.

Shaun Begins

Katy and Shaun
Katy and Shaun

Forget Black Widow. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings should’ve opened Phase 4 of the MCU. While Black Widow could easily be written off for telling an unnecessary tale shamelessly put in service as merely a segue to a Disney+ series, Shang-Chi provides reinvigorating ideas and a whole lot of stunning action.

As the stage is set, it becomes clear where this one is headed. Think about movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It’s hard not to. There’s the genteel, ballet-like aspect of a fight scene during the back story. But there’s also Michelle Yeoh as Ying Nan, Shang-Chi’s aunt.

The tracking of Shang-Chi’s story and the recurring glimpses back into his childhood is reminiscent of the approach taken by Christopher Nolan in revealing Bruce Wayne’s troubled youth in Batman Begins. There are the lessons learned and the need to seek out a new life.

For Shang-Chi (Simu Liu, Kim’s Convenience TV series), that means heading out to San Francisco and rebranding himself as Shaun. It’s a move that even his best friend, Katy (Awkwafina, The Farewell), is quick to tease; the sound-alike Americanized name of “Shaun” is a silly way to try to go undercover, she posits. They both are taking life as it happens, working to live rather than living to work, they’re content with their lives as valets, despite Katy having graduated from Berkeley with honors and Shaun being fluent in four languages.

In Shang-Chi’s case, while his mother was brutally murdered, his father is a sinister overlord who centuries ago had — for all intents and purposes — sold his soul for eternal life and the power of a god that ripples throughout world history. It was the love for his wife — Shang-Chi’s mother — that led Wen-Wu (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung, The Grandmaster) to settle into a more domesticated way of life. Shang-Chi, then, is the son of a man who’d been dubbed “the Warrior King” and “the Most Dangerous Man in the World.”

Wen-Wu is a villain who’s hard to read — in a good way. He’s best summed up in one specific line of dialogue and its delivery. While talking about his menacing desire to burn a village to the ground, he says it with a nice, nurturing voice. He sounds so fatherly. After uttering those words, though, he then does an about face and confronts his own flesh-and-blood son with a body blow of martial arts. That makes for pretty cool bad guy.

Hotel California

As the action unfolds and enters the modern era, other influences like Enter the Dragon, Ip Man and even Skyfall come to mind.

But the most important movie to consider is Iron Man 3. While it was a $1.2 billion blockbuster at the global box office, it was underappreciated by many. Now the events of Tony Stark’s battle with the Mandarin — and the terrorist group known as the Ten Rings — comes back into focus. Without wanting to spoil anything, that includes the very entertaining return of Ben Kingsley as Trevor Slattery; the whats, whys and hows won’t be divulged here. All of this, though, ties into goosebump-inducing mid-end-credits and post-credits teases of things to come.

Yes. It’s fun to be back in the MCU and the interconnectedness of the storytelling that now takes it all right back to Tony in a cave in the very first MCU entry, Iron Man. This one doesn’t go heavy-handed with racial messages or other political leanings that have weighed down some of the Disney+ efforts. Shang-Chi keeps things on the more entertaining side of the spectrum, with some appropriate cultural jabs thrown in — including the perpetual coverage made possible by social media and the thought that (perhaps) life in modern America had made Shaun go soft.

In transitioning from the mythic-like aspects of the back story to the modern era of extended busses and skyscrapers, the fight and action sequences here are fantastic, and the menace is balanced with Awkwafina providing an avenue for the movie to keep a sense of humor about itself.

Both Simu Liu and Awkwafina fit right in as the MCU’s newest stars. Liu presents a wholly approprite grounded charisma and charm. At first blush, Katy is merely the typical “best friend” sidekick, but by the time those end teases roll around, she’s grown into a character with a whole lot of potential to be explored in future MCU installments alongside any number of the other MCU characters who make terrific cameos here.

To that end, there’s a valuable, inspiring message driving the character arcs of Shang-Chi and Katy: if you aim at nothing, you’ll hit nothing. Stop hiding and go out there and make some things happen.

Bus Boy

Martial arts on scaffolding
Martial arts on scaffolding

Marvel has the interconnected storytelling aspect down pat. It’s staggering to take in the totality of what’s happened during the past 13 years and now 25 MCU movies (plus the added complexity of the Disney+ streaming series). Having Shang-Chi connect to some key pulse points and bring in several familiar faces is phenomenal.

Included in that is the timeline considerations of the overall MCU story arc. Watch closely for posters promoting a hotline for those suffering from post-blip anxiety.

One thing Marvel still needs to figure out is how to end a movie without a big ol’ boss battle. In this case, it’s cool enough. This one involves massive, soul-eating dragons. But the story starts out with the promise of an adventure, a quest to find the fabled land called Ta Lo and – maybe, just maybe – bring Shang-Chi’s mother back from the dead. There’s a wonderful setup involving moving trees that create a dynamic, constantly shifting maze; it’s the kind of thing a Jedi would use the Force to navigate. But, rather than focusing on the challenges of finding Ta Lo, a strategy is put into place and quickly executed as the movie barrels toward the next big boss battle conclusion.

How much more powerful could Shang-Chi have been had it found a totally new path for telling its story? Something fitting for the mythology, the zen of the lead characters. The Indiana Jones adventures each conclude with a confrontation, a major peril, a big reveal, but none of them should be described as a boss battle.

Marvel got the title right — Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings — for setting the tone. What’s on screen here is terrific, no doubt about it, and it’s a fresh, modern take on the Marvel “Master of Kung Fu” character that first appeared back in 1973.

What’s a little disappointing is co-writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton, who previously collaborated with co-writer Andrew Lanham on The Glass Castle, and David Callaham, who effectively side-stepped the boss battle with Wonder Woman 1984, weren’t able to find that alternative story hook to end the movie.

If they had accomplished that super feat, then this one could’ve moved from great to groundbreaking and truly set a whole new narrative template for the MCU.