Very quickly, it’s easy to see why audience consider Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings the “Asian Black Panther.” Like the 2018 film focusing on the African superhero and Prince of Wakanda, Shang-Chi’s narrative takes a look at the American-Chinese community. But the film is less focused on the cultural aspect and, instead, stands on its own legs for both character and his journey.
But, even beyond this superficial comparison, there are some obviously familiar beats: a childhood opening, comedic interactions with a platonic female friend, the impact of being an immigrant and racial minority in the US of A, and even the travel to a vibrant, neon-tinted nation featuring illegal underground activity before the story takes us home to the hero’s native land.
That isn’t to say that Shang-Chi doesn’t, at every step, make it its own. After all, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s films have been unashamed of employing recurring narrative beats, and even story concepts over the course of various films. An obvious example would be Doctor Stephen Strange’s eventual replacement of Tony Stark was telegraphed by the beats of the Sorcerer Supreme’s debut film in 2016.
But the real magic of Shang-Chi lies in the easy and light tone of the story, building up to one of the better MCU third acts since Ant-Man and the Wasp. Simu Liu and Awkwafina both keep the narrative going with lighthearted overtones, despite the movie’s increasingly intense family drama at the core of it. Even the trademark Marvel humour is delivered in more measured doses here, without reaching into the obnoxious overt notes of Guardians of the Galaxy 2 or Thor: Ragnarok, doing better than both to deliver a story about family and separating yourself from the sins of your kin.
Unsurprisingly (though unique for an MCU movie), Tony Leung’s Wenwu, the updated take on the comics’ Mandarin, is a show stealer. While certainly a villain in every sense, Wenwu is both engaging and likeable, and isn’t as internally conflicted as some of the MCU’s other well-written villains. Wenwu’s more selfish motivations, and less tragic backstory also helps distance Shang-Chi from Black Panther. Furthermore, Leung’s talent and experience as an actor not only allows him to deliver the character with both gravitas and intrigue, but also elevate the performance of every actor he shares a scene with.
Given that it’s been thirteen years since we first heard mention of the Ten Rings in Iron Man, the use of the organisation and the mythology behind them is highly impressive, not only paying off what has been a longer tease than Thanos, but also improving on the already-awesome villainous twist of Iron Man 3. In fact, on that note, you should probably watch the Marvel One-Shot‘s All Hail The King on Disney+ before heading to theatres. Here’s a quick glimpse why:
The one explicit improvement Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings has over Black Panther is it’s stronger third act battle. Not only is it far more engaging than just clashing armies punctuated by the questionable CGI-driven battle between nemeses, it also offers a proper mid-act change in the status quo while organically increasing the stakes of our heroes’ battle… which is an almost impossible task in most superhero movies.
In some ways, Shang-Chi fits quite squarely in the tone of the Phase 1 of MCU, where the character’s journey doesn’t necessarily begin with gaining his powers, but rather with being given a reason to use them. Whether by design or coincidence, this works to the movie’s and the MCU’s advantage, allowing fans all that more reason to be fascinated by the world-building of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with both a mid and post-credit scene.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is out now in theatres!