Off hand, I used to be able to tell you how any movies have been in the MCU without looking. Then, at some point in Phase 3, I used to have to stop and count, but I could still do it. Now, especially with the Disney+ entries added in, I’m not convinced I can do it without missing something. I guess my point is, here’s a movie series that is so long now I can no longer tell you how many entries there are off the top of my head, yet the latest entry, Destin Daniel Cretton’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, still has to use a remarkable amount of exposition to explain so much.
Now, don’t get me wrong, when the story is moving and not explaining, it really moves. The fight scene on the bus that’s been heavily used in the marketing (and comes surprisingly early in the movie) is dynamite. And star Simu Liu, who, let’s say, over the past year has expressed confidence on social media about his performance (a confidence, I should add, I’m quite envious of), well he backs up in the final product. He has both a swagger of a screen presence and pulls off some nifty stunt work that makes the action in Shang-Chi the best I’ve seen in an MCU movie. In that there is actual action going on in this movie, as opposed to just CGI action. (Though there’s plenty of that, too. At one point Simu Liu rides a dragon and I’m guessing that’s not a practical effect.)
Shang-Chi opens in San Francisco with pals Shang-Chi, who is using the name “Shaun” (Liu), and Katy (Awkwafina), just kind of stumbling through life: working as valets, taking the cars they were supposed to be parking on joy rides, then hitting karaoke until dawn. I honestly could have watched an entire movie about this. (Strangely, the film abruptly loses the lighthearted tone after the first act.) Shaun and Katy are on the bus when Shaun is attacked and Katy is forced to drive the bus (there’s a lot of Speed in this scene) and Katy is bewildered that Shaun knows how to fight very well.
So here’s when things get tricky. Shaun tells Katy his actual name is Shang-Chi and he tells her his whole life story about his father, Wenwu (Tony Leung, who is unsurprisingly amazing), being the leader of an international crime organization called the Ten Rings and how he had been trained since a little boy to take over the operation – to the chagrin of his now-estranged sister, Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), who feels she was ignored by her father because of her gender. (Wenwu is a new character because the comic book history of Shang-Chi’s father is, well, complicated and bad and you can go read all about that if you want.) Shang-Chi and Katy then set off on an adventure to find his sister to warn her that their father’s army just attacked him and will probably come after her next. (Katy is a weird character here in that there’s really absolutely no reason for her to be put in the danger she’s put in throughout this movie since she’s just a regular person with no fighting skills and no superpowers, other than being a good driver. Yet Awkwafina brings so much life to every scene, I also understand why every excuse possible is made to make sure she’s in every scene she’s in.)
But this movie also delves into the Ten Rings (which, yes, is right there in the title of the movie), but in the comics that was associated with the Iron Man villain, The Mandarin. Obviously, we saw a version of The Mandarin in Iron Man 3, who turned out to be an actor named Trevor (plays with delight by Ben Kingsley). So we’ve got a new hero that has a backstory that needs explaining and we have the Ten Rings, which need a lot of explaining. (You see, the Ten Rings is both a criminal organization and literally ten rings that give its owner superpowers. Oh, also, the rings are sentient.) So, as you might expect, there’s a lot of exposition in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and, for the life of me, I don’t really know how the movie could get around that and still introduce two huge plot elements that have to be explained. (And not to get too deep into the plot of this movie, but it then, about halfway through, introduces a third huge thing that needs a long explanation.)
It’s a stark juxtaposition, the long periods of exposition, then the story jumps back to life with beautiful set pieces and intense action. (There’s a scene set on the scaffolding of a skyscraper that is, again, dynamite.) And when the characters are just being the characters, instead of listening to exposition, this is a really fun movie. (And Destin Daniel Cretton excels at characters.) It’s all here. And it’s why I’m really looking forward to the next chapter now that we got all the explaining out of the way. Because the movie ends with the same lighthearted tone that it started with, and it hit me, oh yeah, that would have been nice if the whole movie could have been like that.
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