It shouldn’t be possible. None of it. Not for this long at least. And yet here we are on the verge of yet another dynamite go-around. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which will introduce Marvel’s first new lead character since 2019’s Captain Marvel and serve as the MCU’s first linear origin story since 2015’s Ant-Man, puts to bed any concern fans might have had about a drop off in Phase IV of the sprawling Marvel Cinematic Universe.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the MCU is the single-most consistently successful creation in Hollywood history. No other series or franchise has enjoyed the same uninterrupted string of critical and commercial victories. Thirteen years, 24 feature films, $23 billion at the worldwide box office and the superhero genre’s first-ever Best Picture nomination. It’s like Mount Olympus and Mount Rushmore combined forces for pedestal supremacy.
Yet after the decade-in-the-making Infinity Saga culminated in Avengers: Endgame, the highest-grossing film of all time, a resetting of expectations was the only logical next step. Not every title could be a billion dollar grosser or an Oscar nominee. As we moved away from Iron Man, Captain America and the other founding members of the MCU, it’s only natural that interest would wane for new characters. Momentum is a finite resource.
But Shang-Chi is shockingly good, emphasizing a deep commitment to themes of family and inherited legacy, while also perhaps being the funniest Marvel movie since 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok (Awkwafina is a scene-stealer start to finish). Steeped in martial arts and mysticism, it boasts the best fight choreography this side of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Daredevil. Marvel’s pedestrian action sequences can often leave you waiting impatiently for the next quip to be fired. But like Taika Waititi and Ryan Coogler before him, director Destin Daniel Cretton infuses the set pieces with a real sense of style and fluidity (though Shang-Chi is plagued by some shoddy CGI). Star Simu Liu gives Marvel a homegrown non-powered human ass-kicker that needs to be trotted out for punch ’em ups on a regular basis starting now.
Refreshingly, Shang-Chi allows its characters to be flawed and hide shameful secrets without bending over backwards to fix our heroes or ameliorate their mistakes. It also features the single weirdest third-act climax in Marvel history. In a sea of sameness, this critic respected a swing-for-the-fences move in the pursuit of something new, but it’s sure to lose certain viewers.
The script doesn’t do Shang-Chi the character many favors, doling out the best lines and bits to his surrounding compatriots. But by doing that, it also uses the character as Marvel’s best audience surrogate in recent memory. There is a hilarious dynamic to be further mined from Liu’s bewildered badass playing against other familiar MCU heroes used to the daily grind of abnormal shenanigans.
Most importantly, Shang-Chi continues to defy expectations for Marvel. It closes out an unofficial trilogy of groundbreaking new solo lead films that began with Black Panther, a touchstone of blockbuster representation with a predominately African American cast, and continued with Captain Marvel, the MCU’s first female-led superhero title. Shang-Chi is Marvel’s first Asian-led film. Beyond the much-needed infusion of diversity, it helps prove Marvel’s knack for character and world-building. Just when we thought momentum might slip with core characters threatening to overstay their welcome, the MCU crafts a compelling new hero that firms the support beams of the future.
Much like serialized television, it’s difficult to introduce new characters after a couple seasons in and earn the same level of audience affection and critical acclaim that the originals accrued. Yet Marvel keeps rolling out successful new iterations of our hero archetype, each with their own unique backstory and characterization. Instead of growing stale with its constant self-reference and inward exploration, the MCU manages to twist and recreate that dynamic by balancing it on the edge of a new character that brings something fresh to the franchise. In this case, the mysticism of Shang-Chi promises further inviting adventures that will intersect with other corners of the series in exciting ways.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings isn’t just a good movie (it is). It’s a thesis statement for the post-Infinity Saga Marvel universe. As long as new would-be franchise-starters can be this creative and entertaining, we need not worry about Phase IV and beyond.