The MCU has tried its hand at many genres. There have been action, drama, comedy, fantasy, and adventure, but never before had it attempted martial arts. Despite being new to the MCU, it is not new to Marvel Studios, who had already attempted martial arts with the Netflix show Iron Fist, the first series of which received generally poor reviews. Critical and audience opinion was more favourable with the second series, where both the action and the pacing had improved. This did not prevent Netflix from cancelling the show and all other Marvel projects on the streaming service in 2018, however there is a continual interest from MCU Head Kevin Feige in reviving these projects as part of the MCU. The most interesting link between Shang-Chi and Iron Fist is not that it shares a genre, but that it almost shared an actress. Jessica Henwick, who portrayed Colleen Wing, was offered the role of Shang-Chi’s sister Xialing but turned it down in the hopes that one day she could return as Wing.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (often shortened to just Shang-Chi) follows the titular hero and his best friend Katy as they reunite with his sister Xialing and attempt to stop his father from opening a sacred gate in a mystical land that will unleash a horde of demons. The film handles its lore extraordinarily well, expositing it in a way that feels natural. Like The Lord of the Rings, it opens with narration but unlike The Lord of the Rings it is being given in-universe as a story to our hero at a much younger age. All of the lore is provided in-universe and it never feels clunky, forced, or complicated. It also never feels like it doesn’t fit within the parameters of the MCU, although that universe has been beyond absurd for quite some time now. It may have started out as a slightly more fantastical version of our own universe but it entered a realm all of its own years ago. Films like Guardians of the Galaxy and Doctor Strange pushed the MCU into a world of oddities and magic, with Avengers: Endgame changing it forever. As the film itself remarks, this is now a universe where half of the world’s population could vanish at any moment.
Both Katy and Shang-Chi are at a similar stage in their lives, although the ways in which they arrived at that point couldn’t be much more different. Katy bounces from job to job, never settling because she is trying to find the one thing that she is passionate about getting good at. When she arrives in the mystical village of La Pao, she discovers that she is a skilled archer. She is an entertaining character, even if she is too skilled for a novice and the role of archer in the MCU is already filled by a more likable character. She aptly provides comedy to Shang-Chi’s more serious life. He starts as Katy does, bouncing from job to job, but he does so because he is trying to hide from his dark past. His father, leader of the criminal organisation The Ten Rings, trained him to be a killer from childhood, which is a life he refuses to live. He’s a man in hiding, although he’s not doing a particularly good job of it, so it isn’t long before his father finds him and forces him to fight for his life.
Given that this is a martial arts film, the fights themselves are an important aspect to discuss. They are, by no means, close to the greatest fights ever choreographed, but they are still more entertaining than the majority of action setpieces elsewhere in the MCU. The issue is that they are still shot like action sequences. Classic martial arts films knew that the fighting was the main draw of the piece, so the camera often lingered on shots, allowing the mastery to be witnessed. There were very few, if any, alternate camera angles, which is something that Shang-Chi fails to take into account. The first fight sequence is the best by far because it takes place on a bus, which restricts the amount of space that can be used. More than this, it allows for the bus itself to become a part of the fight, with the standout moment being a camera pan along its length, in an homage to the Korean film Oldboy. Unfortunately, very little of this martial arts prowess is present in the final battle which, once again, comes down to fighting a big CGI creature. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, but when it makes up the majority of conclusions in the MCU and the conflict between Shang-Chi and his father has already closed the emotional arc, it is a tad unnessecary.
The MCU connection is everpresent. This is an origin story but the universe in which it takes place has changed drastically since the origin stories of old. It can no longer focus primarily on itself, although considering how important the titular organisation has been, it was never going to. They first appeared in 2008’s Iron Man before seemingly playing a pivotal role in Iron Man 3 and, because the MCU hates having loose threads, the latter’s plot is fully explored. This is done through a small monologue from Shang-Chi’s father, as well as bringing back Sir Ben Kingsley as Trevor Slattery, in a move that I’m sure everybody loved. Having been imprisoned at the end of Iron Man 3, Trevor was broken out and brought before the real leader of The Ten Rings, who allowed him to survive as a sort of court jester. This escape was shown in the Marvel One-Shot All Hail the King, but that short is not necessary to understanding his presence here. Trevor acts as the comedic sidekick, despite that role already being filled by Katy, although he is probably just here to bring his story to a proper close. As mentioned, it is something the MCU often likes to do, although it is becoming more frequent by the year because so many loose threads were left in the franchise’s early days. You will often hear that there is a “Grand Plan” for the MCU but this plan is a lot vaguer than the company will ever admit. If a project does poorly then the plot is rarely ever addressed again, and if a film does particularly well then it is guaranteed a sequel or spin-off. Disney/Marvel are still a company, beholden to the opinions of the audience and the money they provide, even if they pretend not to be.
The MCU has a “Grand Plan” but the precisions of that plan are likely still to be mapped. I don’t think anybody was expecting to see The Abomination make his return in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.