When Iron Man kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2008, few would have predicted just how big the MCU would become. I remember wondering how filmmakers could possibly make Thor work, not only in a film but within the burgeoning cinematic universe. How on Earth do you get audiences to buy into that level of weird fantasy alongside a set of ‘regular’ superheroes?

And yet Thor has become one of the brightest lights in the MCU, even managing to spin off Loki into one of the most compelling characters into his own hugely impressive series.

I wondered the same thing about Doctor Strange – how do you make audiences give a crap about this excellent, but hardly ever popular, B-list hero (at best); how do you make the cheesy mysticism work? My concerns and questions were answered, obviously – and I certainly didn’t mind being proven wrong.

I had the same concerns about Shang-Chi. An obscure Marvel character from the 70s, springing up to cash in on the martial arts craze sweeping the world at the time, Shang-Chi also featured Fu Manchu, legendary pulp novel villain – widely regarded as an offensively stereotypical racist caricature these days. It’s worth noting that Marvel didn’t own the rights to Fu Manchu for long, however, so the character and his supporting cast were often renamed, retconned or simply no longer used.

In any case, I failed to see how Marvel could make Shang-Chi a compelling character for audiences who hadn’t heard of him, but I should long ago have learned that Marvel really know what they’re doing.

In Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, we’re first introduced to the warlord Wenwu, who’s discovered ten rings that grant him great power and immortality. The power and influence he wields is never enough, however – and in seeking ever greater wealth and strength over the next thousand years, Wenwu discovers a way into a mystic village, whereupon he’s stopped by a woman who captures both his attention and his heart. From this love, Shang-Chi and his sister Xialing are born – but it doesn’t take long for Wenwu’s long, dark past to catch up to him. In the wake of tragedy, Wenwu ruthlessly trains his son to be an assassin, but Shang-Chi flees to America to start an entirely new life. Just as Wenwu’s past came back to haunt him, however, so too does Shang-Chi’s destiny catch up with him.

Just as with Thor and Doctor Strange, any concerns I had about making the more mystical elements of Shang-Chi work were completely unfounded; it all just works.

Director Destin Daniel Cretton brings us beautifully staged action, both of the loud, frantic kind and the quieter, more dance-esque Wuxia-style sequences. In both cases, fights are shot with clarity and inventiveness, the camera swirling around combatants or utilising dizzyingly vertiginous locations.

The characters and performances are pitch-perfect throughout, with Shang-Chi actor Simu Liu impressing both with his physicality – in the genuinely impressive fight, superbly choreographed fight scenes – and his emotional range. He’s superb. Playing brilliantly alongside Liu is Awkwafina as his best friend Katy; it’s genuinely refreshing that there’s no romance angle shoehorned into the plot either. Shang-Chi and Katy are just really great friends – their bond and platonic, sibling-esque dynamic is really well handled. The villainous Wenwu is given depth not just by the excellent script but also in his portrayal by Tony Leung – he makes for a superb, compelling and complex antagonist. Michelle Yeoh and Meng’er Zhang round out the supporting cast, as Shang-Chi’s aunt and sister respectively. Both are excellent – and I have no doubt that we’ll be seeing them in the MCU again.

Shang-Chi’s backstory is cleverly woven through the film in flashbacks, saving the story from feeling like another standard superhero origin, though the cultural differences in the lore and visuals almost assure that anyway. Without going into too much detail – there’s a lot in the film that’s been held back from promotional material – there’s some genuinely funny cameos (including one that deals with some messy Marvel history in the Iron Man films), some absolutely stunning creature work and two post-credits scenes that push the film’s events off in some very interesting directions.

The climax does the usual MCU/superhero movie thing of becoming a bit of an overload of CGI mayhem, but the saving grace of Shang-Chi is the subject matter and the visuals; it does feel like something we haven’t seen before and it’s on a much bigger scale than may be expected.

All of this is without even mentioning how important the film is from a cultural point of view, as the first Asian superhero main character, as well as a majority Asian cast (and director Cretton being a Maui-born Asian-American himself).

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is yet another example of Marvel’s expertise at nailing the whole blockbuster movie ethos; though Black Widow felt like a female-led superhero film that came too late for its main character and consequently, felt like a film that didn’t really matter in the grand tapestry of the MCU, Shang-Chi more than justifies itself as a standalone movie and a piece of the ongoing narrative that’s arisen from the ashes of the Infinity Saga.

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