It’s all about staying in the pocket.
A big success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been its ability to adapt. Case and point: The Ten Rings. Here’s a terrorist organization utilized in the first MCU film ever, Iron Man, with a logo inscribed by Mongolian symbols that didn’t go over well. It’s been said that the idea was to tease Shang-Chi in The Avengers before giving him and Iron Man’s arch-rival, The Mandarin, exposure afterwards. So enraged by the connotations of that first use, however, the possibility that China would boycott Marvel arose if they continued down the current path. Shane Black subsequently wrote a humorously effective rug pull in Iron Man 3 transforming “The Mandarin” into a con. Suddenly The Ten Rings’ racist overtones were retooled to depict America’s prevalent xenophobic fears instead.
Not only did this deft maneuvering wipe the slate clean, but it also provided the chance to close that door until a later date. Marvel would continue their journey towards Thanos’ “snap” while figuring a way to introduce Shang-Chi via a more culturally sensitive route. They teased what that could mean with All Hail the King—a short film depicting the actor behind “The Mandarin” (Ben Kingsley‘s Trevor Slattery) getting sprung from jail to be murdered by the real Ten Rings—and bided their time until Phase Four allowed room for a new Avengers team to form due to real-life (Chadwick Boseman‘s T’Challa) and fictional (Robert Downey Jr.‘s Tony Stark and Scarlett Johansson‘s Natasha Romanoff) deaths of previous members. Enter Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
Directed and co-written (with Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham) by Destin Daniel Cretton, this entry becomes the first cinematic origin story of the post-“blip” era. It’s also only the second installation ever (following Black Panther) that dares to provide its hero a non-white and non-American lens. And it does so pretty economically too considering Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) is already an adult imbued with the powers (in this case martial arts prowess) necessary to begin his quest towards a greater purpose. No one who knows him knows this, though—he’s just Shaun, the underachieving sidekick to his high school friend of ten years Katy (Awkwafina). Only when he’s unwittingly attacked on a bus to work by Ten Rings henchmen (led by Florian Munteanu‘s Razor Fist) is his training revealed.
The son of Xu Wenwu (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung), otherwise known by many names (including “The Mandarin” because American Aldrich Killian filled the void his absence created with Slattery’s performance) as leader of the Ten Rings, Shang-Chi has been hiding in self-exile since his arrival in the United States as a fourteen-year-old assassin. How could this genial guy be a trained killer? The usual reason: fridging his mother (Fala Chen‘s Li). She was the reason Wenwu put his magical rings of unknown origin and compound of ruthless soldiers away to become a father and her death was the reason he embraced that darkness again in greater force than ever before. He took his son into those shadows with him before the boy exited them the first chance he got.
And now he’s bringing him back. Shang-Chi and his sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang)—who earns equal billing as a lead if not for an end credit stinger revealing her path is heading a different direction. The game is this: Wenwu wants to invade his deceased wife’s enchanted village Ta Lo (a hidden forest world inhabited by mythical creatures, dragons, and magic) under delusional pretenses. He believes he can recruit his children to aide him, but they know his destructive ways too well to not arrive there early enough to both warn their aunt (Michelle Yeoh‘s Ying Nan) and fight alongside her against him. Suddenly the slackers from America (Katy’s by Shang-Chi’s side) and the ignored daughter (Xialing was always an afterthought to her father) must discover their purpose.
It’s pretty basic stuff devoid of surprises. Shang-Chi gets a couple fights in the “real” world to show what he’s capable of doing (while putting Katy’s jaw onto the floor in shock). We get a few flashbacks to portray Wenwu and Li’s wuxia meet-cute and the latter’s demise. And everything eventually turns to Ta Lo for a massive climactic battle between dimensions with impressive stunt-work that more often than not is allowed to flow in decently long chunks rather than quick-cut montages to prove Liu and Zhang have the goods to go up against the likes of Leung and Yeoh. There’s about sixty minutes of story in double the runtime that’s bolstered by callbacks (Benedict Wong‘s Wong versus Tim Roth‘s Abomination, anyone?), jokes, and heartstring tugs.
While there’s a lot to like where the Asian experience and cultural touchstones are involved, there’s not quite as much heft in the drama. Black Panther was so successful because it wielded politics and history in ways that allowed its script to be as much a reckoning for colonialism as a celebration of culture. Shang-Chi does a good job skinning its plot with sights and sounds that put us into the characters’ headspace, but it never becomes more than two kids wrestling with the yin and yang of their souls (Mom as good, Dad as evil) to choose their own path rather than one in defiance of Wenwu’s demands. It’s personal, obvious, and exposition for forthcoming, bigger-scale entries. Maybe Marvel feared doing more might skew into appropriation again.
Think of it then as a contextual sibling to Iron Man 2 and Thor: The Dark World with a drive to reach the heights of a Black Panther or even Captain America: The First Avenger. The special effects and fight choreography do a great job pretending to meet the latter pair, but they’re mostly distraction from narrative deficiencies that simply can’t be ignored. Liu, Zhang, and even Awkwafina show they have what it takes to keep going in the MCU regardless (Liu and Awkwafina’s rapport is comedic gold). And Leung and Yeoh play their roles with the same gravitas they would any non-comic book film. They combine for a fun, exhilarating ride that entertains while sharing one more piece of the MCU’s still cryptic new trajectory.
 Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) in Marvel Studios’ SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved. Copyright ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.
 (L-R): Wenwu (Tony Leung) and Ying Li (Fala Chen) in Marvel Studios’ SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved. Copyright ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.
 (L-R): Katy (Awkwafina), Jon Jon (Ronny Chieng) and Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) in Marvel Studios’ SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved. Copyright ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.