“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is probably the Marvel film I’ve been the least excited to see since “Black Widow”, which I passed on seeing in theaters, but will watch once its free to view on Disney Plus. This is mostly because I have no connection to Shang-Chi — I didn’t read his comics, and before watching this film, I had no idea who he was — and because this year we’ve been gifted with many fine MCU shows in the form of “WandaVision”, “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” “Loki” and now “What If … ?”.
But I was slightly interested, as this film boasts the true Mandarin (Tony Leung), also known as Xu Wenwu, the 1,000-year-old leader of the Ten Rings (which Marvel’s own wiki describes as a terrorist organization), who was previously impersonated by the actor Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley) in “Iron Man 3”. Wenwu is the father of the titular Shang-Chi (Simu Liui), or as he is known in America, Shaun, which is a central driving factor the film.
Shaun/Shang-Chi went into hiding in America at the age of 14 when his father ordered him to kill the leader of a group of men that killed his mother, Ying Li (Fala Chen). Adopting the name Shaun, he spent the next decade getting his education and growing close to his bestie and fellow hotel valet Katy (Awkwafina), until his father’s men come looking for him, led by a guy with a machete for a hand named Razor Fist (Florian Munteanu). Razor Fist is after a pendant his mother gave him before she died, and Shang-Chi resists, but in the process gets in a huge fight on a bus that goes viral online. Even though Shang-Chi gets away safely, Razor Fist steals the pendant, which leads Shaun to seek out his sister, Xu Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), who runs a huge underground fight complex where people bet on fights on the darkweb (this is where we see Wong [Benedict Wong] from “Doctor Strange” fight Abomination [Tim Roth] from “The Incredible Hulk” in the film’s trailer).
Long story short, Wenwu’s men get the other pendant, which opens up a path to Ta Lo, his wife’s village that’s technically in another dimension that’s full of magical dragons and lions and other creatures straight out of Eastern mythology. He has a bone to pick with them, as he believes that his wife is in fact not murdered and is being held hostage by the Ta Lo villagers, who previously rejected him, as despite the fact that he managed to reform himself, they were fearful that his past would destroy them. He hears her voice in his head, which is actually a giant soul-eating dragon imprisoned in Ta Lo called the Dweller-in-Darkness, but despite being 1,000 years old, he doesn’t question it, and leads a campaign that nearly destroys the village.
Oh, and then there’s the titular Ten Rings Wenwu yields that gives him eternal life that function as ten bracelets connected by energy he can manipulate. Honestly, they’re pretty lame, but they compliment the martial arts fight scenes and allows the user to launch themselves into the air for a short time and launch energy blasts strong enough to kill people, so there’s that.
The best thing this film has going for it is its dazzling visuals and excellent martial arts fight scenes that take advantage of the environment around them. One of the most creative scenes takes place on the outside of Xialing’s compound, which is surrounded by rudimentary platforms meant for workers, which aren’t too stable, and sees Shang-Chi and company have to deal with the fighters in front of them without falling to their deaths.
Its locations are also varied and colorful, and it’s truly a beautiful film to watch.
However, as these films tend to go, it does eventually devolve into a terrible CGI-nightmare during its third act, when Shang-Chi awakens a water dragon called the Great Protector to fight the Dweller-in-Darkness. And as much as I hate to say it, these dragons and the hordes of copy+paste CGI creatures that accompany the Dweller dragon really keep this film from being great.
One villain too many
As cool as it is to see dragons in this film, we did not need the Protector dragon or its evil counterpart, the Dweller. Neither are properly introduced, developed, or built up — they just sort of show up in the climax, because Marvel can’t help themselves — and even the film itself makes fun of their battle after the fact, as if director Destin Daniel Cretton really did not want to put it in, but was contractually obligated to do so.
The Dweller dragon sucks as a villain, and should have been left on the cutting room floor. Wenwu already was the perfect villain — he’s a 1,000 year old tyrant who has done unforgiveable things, but is still human and cares about his son. If anything, the Dweller dragon’s presence in the film actively makes Wenwu a worse villain, as his ultimate demise and conflict with Shang-Chi is less about him being a flawed and even awful person, and has more to do with him being duped into thinking a magical talking dragon is his dead wife.
CGI not needed
This film really did not need an over bloated CGI-stuffed climax, because the most interesting parts of the film are when Shang-Chi is just fighting normal humans with no superpowers but killer martial arts skills. There’s stakes, a believable baseline of reality, and stunning creativity you just don’t see in these superhero fights where anyone can do anything and nothing matters.
Overall, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is a pretty good film, and probably one of the best MCU origin stories. But it loses focused late in the film, and as much as seeing the real Mandarin was worth it, the character isn’t as great as it could be had he not had to share antagonist duties with the bland and forgettable Dweller dragon. Hopefully in future appearances of Shang-Chi, Marvel will tone the CGI down a bit and stick to one great villain at a time as opposed to many forgettable ones.
“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” gets an 8.5/10