Marvel’s ‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ is brilliant celebration of Asian excellence

Scene from the movie Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Marvel Studios/Courtesy

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Grade: 4.0/5.0

One of the first things you’ll notice about “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” the newest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU, is that it opens in Mandarin Chinese and remains in Mandarin for several minutes. This immediately exhibits one of many things done right in this glorious film: Marvel isn’t afraid to force audiences to read captions.

This may not seem too notable, but Asian, and specifically Chinese viewers, know that this is a rare occurrence — even rarer than seeing an Asian lead and cast in the first place — in an entertainment world that prioritizes Westerners’ convenience over respectful and accurate portrayals of Asian cultures. Besides being a well-executed, riveting superhero movie, a huge factor in what makes “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” so amazing and necessary is the fact that it unapologetically tells an Asian and Asian American story.

The film is the origin story of the titular Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), the son of Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung), also known as the Mandarin — the real one, not the impostor from “Iron Man 3” — who has kept and mastered the power of the destructive, immortality-granting ten rings since discovering them thousands of years ago. After being attacked by members of his father’s organization, the aptly named Ten Rings, Shang-Chi returns to Macau with his friend Katy (Awkwafina) to reconnect with his estranged sister, Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), and confront their father for the first time in roughly a decade.

It is almost impossible to understate the importance of the film’s portrayal of the modern Asian American experience. The film recognizes and celebrates the existence of Asian Americans in a modern United States, painting them as friendly, smart, hilarious individuals while capturing the nuanced blending of American and Chinese cultures. It is refreshing to see Asian Americans cast in more than stereotypical or token roles or as the friend to a white lead; the film shows viewers that Asians can be powerful, self-determined and heroic — a much-needed reminder for us all.

“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” also naturalizes other truths about Asian individuals and shows aspects of Asian life seldom seen in popular media. The film contains a multitude of bilingual characters and emphasizes the importance of putting in the effort to accurately pronounce Asian names. One scene in which Shang-Chi visits Katy’s family includes a conversation between the characters jumping back and forth between English and Chinese nearly every line — a familiar experience for Asian Americans. Wenwu’s explanation for the name “the Mandarin” also warrants appreciation; his opinion on the surface-level, almost offensive name spins its shortcomings into a point of pride for him.

All its wonderful work for Asian representation aside, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is a thoroughly enjoyable superhero film. The martial arts fight scenes in this movie are some of the most dynamic and entertaining you can find. The choreography team pulled inspiration from Jackie Chan and Jet Li films — with some having choreographed for Chan — and it shows. Each physical conflict is high-stakes, clever and excellently performed, shot and edited. With the addition of magic and the physical capabilities of the ten rings, some fights are unlike anything Marvel has done before.

The film is also a breath of fresh air from the typical MCU aesthetic; although it maintains a Marvel feel, something about the world-building in “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” makes it a little more noticeably beautiful and mystical. The film incorporates some beautiful Chinese imagery and breathes colorful life into many Chinese mythological creatures. It’s refreshing and exciting to see Marvel experiment and branch off in new directions in Phase Four.

“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is also probably the most relatable Marvel film for young Millenials and old Gen Z-ers. The writing in the film is witty, and the dialogue between Shang-Chi and Katy is up-to-date and accurately reflects banter between American twenty-somethings. Liu and Awkwafina have fantastic on-screen chemistry, and all scenes in which they share the spotlight are so genuine and unscripted, watching them feels like listening in on a real conversation between two best friends. Awkwafina in particular is hilarious — her comedic timing and spot-on delivery are truly effective in extracting laughs.

An enthralling watch for all and a must-see for Asian audiences, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” swiftly and eloquently carries the Marvel torch. This one checks off all the boxes to make a fantastic film; it’s truly legendary.

Contact Joy Diamond at [email protected].