How do you grapple with a legacy? For the average person, that question usually doesn’t weigh that heavy on them. To someone like Shang-Chi, it is the defining thing motivating their actions. And for the MCU, legacy has to be a motivating factor behind the scenes, at least a little. Marvel has managed to define its own legacy of popcorn flicks with familiar beats since 2008 but do they want more? The answer is unclear. They also seem unable to let go of their legacy of always teasing the future which is still a thing here.
That brings us to Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Borrowing from the past (that legacy thing again), the movie blends its influence of Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee inspired and Wuxia influenced films to craft a superhero movie that is both new and familiar. Our titular hero (Simu Liu, Kim’s Convenience) is initially no hero at all, living in San Fransisco, working as a valet with his friend Katy (Awkwafina, The Farewell) under a different name. Then his father comes calling, dispatching henchmen to steal something from his son, delivering the movies best action scene and the one that was heavily marketed. This forces Shang-Chi to realize he can’t escape his past and he has to deal with his father. So with Katy tagging along, he seeks out his sister Xu Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) for help. Their father, Wenwu (Tony Leung, The Grandmaster) eventually catches up with them and takes them all to his compound.
There he reveals his plan to deal with his own legacy. Wenwu possesses the titular Ten Rings, which have granted him a long life and immense power. Known through history as many things, he knows that he will be remembered as a monster, except to his wife, Ying Li (Fala Chen), who died because of Wenwu. He wants to use his power and his knowledge to get her back, because he believes he was a better person when she was around. Suffice it to say, without getting too spoilery, his plan eventually leads to a showdown and some standard MCU CGI. But Shang-Chi eventually accepts his legacy and becomes a hero, pretty standard stuff if we’re being honest.
The end battle and the movies own inability to follow through on some of its promised action, front loading a lot of the fighting, show that maybe Marvel isn’t comfortable redefining its own legacy like it wants for its characters.
But that doesn’t mean the stars of the movie don’t deliver. Liu gets his star making turn, after a public campaign to play an MCU superhero and he does his job. He’s not quippy but he rightfully carries his concern about the legacy of his family. Awkwafina is here for the comic relief, allowing all of the MCU snark to flow through her generally (which is a good thing so as not to make every other Asian character a potential stereotype) but is also allowed some more serious moments. Meng’er Zhang gets to play the badass who is generally more competent than the hero at pretty much everything (think Letitia Wright as Shuri in Black Panther). Michelle Yeoh shows up to unload some exposition on you and remind you that for a while there in the 90s and 00s she was Hollywood’s go to female Asian action star. But the best job here is done by Leung, who adds nuance and pathos to his character, giving Wenwu a believable motivation and giving the MCU its best villain since Killmonger. I take a little issue in some of the developments to this motivation towards the last 1/3 of the movie but that’s for Spoil Sports or the comments section.
Ultimately, (spoiler alert) this is not a movie that’s going to end with a one-on-one fight at the Coliseum or with a freeze frame while shots ring out. This is a Marvel Superhero movie and its final fight is going to end with some CGI. And that’s the MCU’s legacy.