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REVIEW: ‘Shang-Chi’ Is Marvel’s Most Emotionally Resonant Solo Film To Date

While Black Widow was the first theatrical film from Marvel Studios for Phase 4, the standalone film felt more like a throwback to the pre-Avengers: Infinity War era of the MCU. With their newest film Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, audiences finally get a more significant glimpse at the big screen future of the franchise. What’s the result? We get not only a thrilling martial arts fantasy adventure that honors Asian culture, but perhaps the most emotionally resonant MCU solo film to date.

Right off the bat, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings introduces audiences to a section of the MCU that feels so distinct, with world-building that is comparable to the introduction of Wakanda in Black Panther. The film’s opening sequence is so unique, that if you were to remove the Marvel Studios intro preceding it, it stands on its own as an exciting fantasy adventure where the thought of the God of Thunder and a man with incredible shrinking abilities would exist in the same realm.

The film’s prologue will also catch some audiences by surprise as it is mostly subtitled, an element of the film that is more prominent than the trailers have led audiences to expect. As we are given the context behind Shang-Chi’s childhood and upbringing with his parents Wenwu (Tony Leung) and Jiang Li (Fala Chen), we then cut to Present Day in a post-Blip world where we’re introduced to Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), who now goes by Shawn.

When we meet Shawn, he is shown to be living a quiet working-class life as a valet driver along with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina). The two enjoy their lives, despite some of their friends and families decrying them for their lack of ambition. However, the Ten Rings organization comes in to interrupt Shawn’s quiet life, to which he must confront his past and reunite with his estranged father.

Much like what Marvel Studios accomplished with Black Panther, which showcased quality African and African American representation in a modern superhero film to the masses, Shang-Chi accomplishes it as well in its Asian representation. The film’s screenplay, which was written by director Destin Daniel Cretton along with Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham, exudes authenticity, much of which is thanks to Cretton’s experiences growing up as Japanese American and Callaham growing up as Chinese American.

As mentioned earlier, much of the film’s dialogue is in Mandarin with English subtitles, and the use of language and its significance to the characters involved is even touched upon when both Shang-Chi and Katy encounter Jon Jon (Ronny Chieng). In the scene, Katy mentions that her Mandarin isn’t strong, but Jon Jon acknowledges that he understands “ABC,” which refers to her being “American-born Chinese.” The use of such lexicon serves as one of the film’s many wonderful elements in its authentic portrayal of Asian characters – especially for those that came of age in the West.

Obviously, most audiences are drawn to Shang-Chi not only for its ties to the MCU, but for its martial arts fight sequences. Thankfully, the film more than delivers. The in-camera stunts on display are bar none the best in any MCU film, much of which is thanks to the work of the late Brad Allan, who served as the film’s supervising stunt coordinator and whom the film is dedicated to in the end credits. The fight choreography combined with the mystical imagery inspired by the comics brings in sights and sounds that are refreshing to a franchise that can sometimes get stale with its action scenes.

But above all, what places Shang-Chi as a top-tier MCU film is its intimate portrayal of the interpersonal relationships the titular hero has with every character — particularly with his father. Destin Daniel Cretton’s previous films Short Term 12, The Glass Castle and Just Mercy showcase his knack for complex characters, and his storytelling sensibilities are implemented with such skill within the MCU framework. Along with his narrative instincts, he brings out remarkable performances from his cast.

Simu Liu, who is most known for his role as Jung Kim in the Canadian sitcom Kim’s Convenience before joining the MCU, brings Shang-Chi to life in one of the most exciting debuts for a superhero. He brings such charisma to the role and a physical presence that fits effortlessly for the big screen. His camaraderie with Awkwafina throughout the film makes them an enjoyable pair, which is made all the more exciting when they encounter his sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) as well as a certain character that despite their role being publicly reported, is best kept a surprise for fans unaware of their presence in the film.

But out of all the cast, audiences will leave the film most impacted by the legendary Tony Leung and his portrayal as Wenwu, AKA the real Mandarin. In a departure from the original Master of Kung Fu comic book series, Shang-Chi’s father’s identity is updated for the film given that the original incarnation was Fu Manchu, who was rooted in racist stereotypes. Turning Shang-Chi’s father into the real Mandarin adds more to the world-building of the MCU, but while that works as solid fan-service, none of that would matter if the performance was lackluster. Thankfully, Tony Leung is incapable of delivering a performance that’s less-than-excellent. The legendary Hong Kong actor brings gravitas to Wenwu, with a performance that’s powerfully subdued and yet full of the most emotional weight of any villain in any MCU film, not only rivaling Josh Brolin’s Thanos and Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger, but perhaps surpassing them.

The familial conflict between Shang-Chi and Wenwu is a timeless story of fathers and sons, and its in that specific relationship where the film is at its emotional peaks. The film lives and dies on their relationship, and thankfully, it hits all the right notes, culminating in to a third act confrontation that is just as emotionally cathartic as it is visceral in its spectacle.

Overall Thoughts: Marvel Studios’ Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings successfully introduces the newest Avenger to audiences through spectacular action sequences, memorable characters, and above all, an emotionally resonant narrative. The film will not only enthrall viewers, but will certainly hit home with Asian audiences thanks to its celebration of authentic identity.

Grade: A-

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