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Review: ‘Shang-Chi’ Is Among The Best Superhero Origin Films Of All Time

Marvel Studios returned to theaters in top form over Labor Day weekend with the mythic martial arts extravaganza Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, setting box office records while enjoying universal critical and audience acclaim.

Official IMAX poster for “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”

Source: Marvel, IMAX

Writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton and screenwriters Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham deliver a spectacular action-fantasy adventure some of the best action sequences of the MCU, a uniquely awe-inspiring visual style that still fits into Marvel’s shared superhero world, and stellar performances. But before I dive into my full review, let me quickly address the box office data.

On financials, I’m publishing a separate companion article tomorrow that gets into specifics about the film’s performance, Covid, and the role of theaters. Specifically, I think films would be making more money if theaters had taken strict steps to make screenings safer, rather than their wrongheaded choice to focus on PR to encourage attendance in spite of the risks. I’ll set that all aside here, however, to focus on the numbers, but I encourage you to check out my examination of theaters and box office during Covid tomorrow here at Forbes.

Suffice to say, Shang-Chi had a huge Labor Day opening that blew past previous records, with $94 million domestic (three times the previous record-holder, 2007’s Halloween). Worldwide, the film stands at more than $150+ million. I fully expect it to top $350+ million, and to add $50+ million in additional revenue (with far higher profit margins) when it arrives on Disney+ on October 18th.

By the way, $50 million from Premiere Access rentals on Disney+ is roughly equivalent to somewhere around $90-100 million at the box office, because of profit margins, so when you see those figures for any Disney+ PA release, keep in mind this is why studios favor streaming over theaters where they have to hand over about 60% of the ticket sales to theaters and governments around the world.

In a global pandemic, no movie — even from Marvel Studios — is going to do billion dollar business like the old days, with F9: The Fast Saga’s $710 million in global receipts (enjoying a June-to-July period when Covid rates were at their lowest point and states were reopening — too soon, as we all know now) probably tipping the scales at the highest end of what’s possible until the Covid pandemic is under better control. $300-400 million looks like the range for films that used to be counted on for $700-800 million results.

I strongly suspect that, without Covid and with a better release window, Shang-Chi would have a terrific shot at $1 billion, depending on whether it winds up getting a release in China. As of now, that remains in doubt, and sadly I think audiences in China will wind up denied the exquisite pleasure of seeing Shang-Chi. So without the usually impressive ticket sales from China, Shang-Chi is likely to fall into what would typically be the $700-800 million range, as noted above.

Be sure to read my article looking deeper at the causes of box office decline during the pandemic and the role of theaters in all of this.

Now, on to my full review of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

I saw Shang-Chi at a private screening, courtesy of my good and generous friend Sean Gerber (host and producer of the MCU Fan Show). He rented an entire specially-cleaned theater for a small number of fully vaccinated family and friends who all socially distanced and wore masks. It’s the only way I’ll go to theaters until (a) the pandemic ends, or (b) theaters implement better safety protocols.

From the very start, Shang-Chi signals this is a different storytelling experience than you’re used to from the MCU. The closest comparison is probably 2016’s Doctor Strange by way of 2002’s Hero, and even a grand sequence nodding to Jackie Chan’s flavor of action-comedy. It feels less like an overtly superhero film in many regards, although it certainly doesn’t hide its comic book origins — rather, it simply seems less obviously a costumed hero tale and could largely stand alone apart from the MCU if not for a few specific tie-in elements.

I say this not because I think superhero films should try not to seem like superhero films (I am in fact usually annoyed when I hear of a film attempting to eschew its status as a superhero/comic book film), but rather to explain why Shang-Chi feels so different from other MCU films.

Simu Liu is perfect as Shang-Chi himself, disarmingly charming and relatable in ways that don’t diminish his powerful presence as an action hero capable of motivating and leading his allies into battle. Watching his character grow into the latter role through the film is one of the most engaging and entertaining character arcs in the MCU, and he is destined to be one of the most popular of the new era of Marvel heroes.

Liu deftly (and often simultaneously) balances action, drama, and comedy in ways few other stars can — and make no mistake, Shang-Chi instantly announces Liu’s status as a major cinema star. His relationship on screen with Awkwafina and Tony Leung Chiu-wai feels lived-in and genuine, which makes certain elements of those relationships — including not just affections but also dishonesty and guilt — resonate all more.

Awkwafina is instantly the among the top-tier friend-sidekicks in the MCU. Her sense of humor and her role as ally hitting all the right buttons without relegating her to simplistic “whacky sidekick” or “comedic intermission” status. Her arc is complicated, we see her family and their expectations of her colliding with her own identity crisis, and she comes into her own both as Shang-Chi’s friend/ally and as her own person.

Awkwafina is also probably the single best audience-surrogate in a superhero film. She is surprised when we are, confused when we are, asks the right questions at the right times, and makes us feel at home with these characters. This is also an extension of what I mentioned earlier about her relationship with Liu feeling genuine and resonating stronger as a result.

Tony Leung Chiu-wai as the film’s main villain — the Mandarin — gives an award-worthy performance that deserves all of the praise it’s receiving and then some. I love the brilliant John Woo film Hard Boiled (one of the greatest action films ever made and with one of the single best action sequences ever shot, if you’ve not seen it then I urge you to watch it soon) in which Chiu-wai also starred, as well as the aforementioned Hero, so his casting in Shang-Chi immediately elevated my already-high interest and expectations immensely.

Chiu-wai is never less than riveting every moment he’s on screen, and at times you can’t help but kind of want to root for him, or at least understand his passion for his chosen mission in the film. It’s rare to see characters, let alone villains, with as rich and intricate an arc as the Mandarin’s.

[SPOILER ALERT — skip the rest of this sentence if you don’t want hints about the Mandarin’s own arc!] Indeed, Mandarin’s is a path more typically seen for protagonists — the grizzled veteran warrior who sees the err of his ways and lives a redeemed life because someone dared show him tenderness and love, only to be forced back onto the battlefield to right some wrong and/or rescue a loved one caught up in danger due to the warrior’s own past, unleashing fury on anyone who gets in his way. [SPOILER ALERT ENDS.]

Michelle Yeoh is likewise fabulous every time she’s on screen, and as a big fan of Star Trek: Discovery and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (which Shang-Chi also pays tribute to) I was thrilled to learn she would appear in this film. Her screen time is limited here, but Yeoh gets the most out of it and elevates the entire proceedings with an intense performance and her always-remarkable action talents.

The rest of the cast do admirable jobs and include some surprise appearances I won’t spoil, in case you haven’t seen or heard about them, but rest assured there’s plenty to make Marvel fans jump up and clap, even while those who’ve never seen an MCU film before (assuming any such people are left nowadays) will still appreciate those characters in this story and how they bring added sense of a lived-in world to the whole affair. That the cast is almost entirely Asian and Asian-American deserves a standing ovation in and of itself.

So let’s talk now about the action. Oh my god, the action…

Shang-Chi is filled with all manner of action scenes, from shorter moments and fast shots to extended spectacle. We get action in the ancient past, in the streets of San Francisco, in secret fight clubs, in magical forests, and in elaborate training facilities. We get magic, martial arts, sword fighting, and mystic creatures. It is ingenious and gorgeous, exciting and breathtaking.

The changes in scale from the personal to the world-shattering, from one-on-one to armies and beasts, on the sides of buildings or inside a moving vehicle, is like a roller coaster in the dark — you aren’t sure what to expect next, you just know it’ll be different from what you just saw and unexpected in the best ways.

Director Cretton made the leap from character-driven dramas to blockbuster-scale action-fantasy superhero storytelling with ease. His feature film Short Term 12 deserved an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, and Cretton himself deserved a nod for Best Director. Upon learning he was directing Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, it’s not an exaggeration to say I was probably happier than I’d been about any previous director announcement for the MCU (which says a lot considering how enthusiastic I’ve been about them).

The script by Cretton and his cowriters Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham is smart, witty, and full of attention to representation and authenticity, as well as an adrenaline-fueled extravaganza disguising a story about a family torn apart and seeking to mend itself either through reconciliation or by making their own new families. I cannot stress enough how much emotional foundation was built into this tale, and how the superheroism and fantasy are built upon that solid foundation.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is top-tier Marvel superhero origin storytelling, rising to the occasion to not only live up to but exceed expectations. This is the future of the MCU, and it is glorious.

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