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SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS - The Marvel Cinematic Universe Doing What it Does Best!

SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS (hereafter simply referred to as SHANG-CHI) is directed by Destin Daniel Cretton. The film stars Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Meng'er Zhang, Fala Chen, Florian Munteanu, Michelle Yeoh, and Tony Leung. It’s the 25th feature film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The movie releases in theaters in the United States on September 3, 2021.

Shaun lives an unassuming life in San Francisco, parking cars as a valet with his best friend Katy. What those closest to Shaun don’t know is he’s actually Shang-Chi, the son of Wenwu, a power-hungry tyrant who’s lived for a millennium with the power of the Ten Rings; a source of untold power, and that Shaun ran away from the assassin’s life his father tried to pull him into. When his father’s assassins show up in San Francisco, Shaun and Katy must head east, reuniting with his estranged sister. But what does his father want, and will Shaun be cast back into the unwanted life of a warrior and assassin?

As much as I love the team-up AVENGERS movies that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has presented us with, I’m often even more excited about the films that introduce new, more obscure characters into the MCU at large (no one knew who the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY were a decade ago, and they’re fan favorites now!) I certainly appreciate that SHANG-CHI is a film that can balance its being a standalone product with the infinitely larger MCU. It’s an epic film that combines perfectly-cast actors portraying some of the universe’s most memorable new characters in years, with epic scenery, action sequences, and setpieces that show just how far along the MCU has come. It’s never boring or uninteresting, and it may just have taken a slot as one of my favorite movies in the ever-growing universe.

When you go to see a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, you know you’re getting an action epic with plenty of humor thrown in. What’s truly astonishing is how these talented casts and crews continue to turn in unique-feeling movies, set within a larger universe, but also serving as their own unique standalone films that remain strong in their own right. SHANG-CHI has some of the most epic action sequences to be found in the MCU to date, with action backdrops that include a runaway bus, the sides of Oriental skyscrapers under construction, and even mystical fantasy lands with life previously unseen in the MCU. Of course, there's the inevitable big action-packed third act climax all comic book movies have, but even SHANG-CHI finds way to keep this fresh and interesting, and the biggest miracle of all is that the film pulls these things off without sacrificing depth or character development.

As good as the action scenes are, the best part of SHANG-CHI is its casting. The mostly Asian cast consists of fantastic talents, including Simu Liu who shines as the conflicted title character, split between starting over in the modern world with a menial job alongside his best friend, and having to tap into his former assassin training to become something bigger for the good of the world. Liu was admittedly not an actor I was familiar with prior to the film (apparently most of his acting credits are in television roles) but he won me over, and I’m certainly hoping to see him in the next MCU incarnation of THE AVENGERS. Here’s hoping this is the springboard Mr. Liu needs for many bigger acting roles, as he proves his worth here and then some!

The remainder of the cast mostly consists of characters new to the MCU thus far unique to this story, but there are a few familiar faces and references that show up (as always, no spoilers here though). Another major casting feat here is Tony Leung as Wenwu, Shang-Chi’s estranged father. The leader of an assassin empire who’s lived a millennium, he’s one of the most conflicted and complex antagonists in the entire MCU; this is something desperately needed in the franchise as the villains are often the films’ weak links. Flashbacks and the present events alike flesh out his character, easily putting him within the top ten of the entire MCU’s antagonists, giving him something of a Shakespearean arc that so many villains in this universe lack. Is he truly evil or just misguided? Can he ever escape a thousand years of hungering for power and control? You’ll have to watch the movie to find out. We need more villains like this from here on out, who straddle the line between ruthless and sympathetic perfectly.

Needless to say, the other key stand out in the casting is Awkwafina. Absolutely hilarious, you can drop this young lady in any movie and she’ll automatically make it better. Playing a friend of Shaun’s in the film, she’s got a one-liner in just about any situation that keeps the movie from ever feeling too overblown or melodramatic. Yet at the same time she’s never overused, nor does she become the movie's focal point. She’s in the film just the right amount, and it’s hard to believe the MCU, especially with its emphasis often being on humor, hadn’t put her in a film prior. That said, she fits in perfectly here, and along with the title character, I hope she resurfaces in later films.

Pacing and the way everything unfolds works out perfectly due to the efforts of director Destin Daniel Cretton (JUST MERCY), who makes the run time of just over two hours breeze by. Honestly, I gladly would’ve spent another two hours exploring this newfound corner of the MCU, in that it introduces some of the most intriguing characters it’s had to offer so far. The action sequences are some of the best in the franchise, and it never feels like the production is rushed or taking unnecessary shortcuts. With its impressive sequences unfolding on camera combined with intriguing character development and cinematic influences that come just as much from Asian epics as they do past superhero movies, it’s a marvel (pun most definitely intended!) to behold as it unfolds on the big screen.

I knew SHANG-CHI would be a good film, but I walked away from it surprised still. This is powerful storytelling, to say the least. Is it an absolutely perfect film? Not quite; the inevitable final battle goes on a little too long and it’s a bit too busy at times, particularly in its flashbacks, but I won’t deny that this is an action blockbuster that’ll give fans everything they go to the movies for. Strong writing, casting, character portrayals, and some incredible action scenes ensure that when this movie’s playing, your eyes are glued to the screen as the adventure of its titular hero unfolds. You get one of the best heroes in the MCU so far, one of its best villains, and one of its best comic relief characters, not to mention the wide array of old and new faces to be had here (and if the mid-credits and post-credits scenes are any indication, Shang-Chi and company are going to be in the MCU for many years to come). Absolute highest recommendations. You won’t be disappointed here!

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