Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings marks the proper start of the fourth phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Black Widow being more of an epilogue to the first three). New heroes are arising to deal with a series of threats to a world which is still recovering from the trauma of losing and regaining half its population. Twenty-five movies into a franchise, you could forgive the MCU for slowing down and smelling the roses, but Shang-Chi has no interest in conforming to cliche. Instead, it acts as a breath of fresh air in telling a complete story in its own right as well as hinting at grander things to come.
The film focuses on Simu Liu as Shang-Chi, Awkwafina as his best friend Katy and Meng'er Zhang as Shang-Chi's estranged sister, Xu Xialing. Early scenes have a buddy movie feeling, with Awkwafina stealing every single scene with her impressive comic timing and everywoman WTF responses to the general insanity that goes down, but Liu holds his own thanks to a combination of natural charisma, impressive athletic skills and his own comic timing, honed over five seasons of the TV show Kim's Convenience (seemingly alluded to in a scene where he's mistaken for being Korean).
Hong Kong legend Tony Leung plays Xu Wenwu, who is contemptuous of both the nickname "The Mandarin" (feeling bemused at being referred to as an orange) and the terrorists who used his name to inspire terror across America. Leung achieves an impressive feat by making Wenwu both understandable and sympathetic, despite his undoubted crimes, and giving him a credible motivation revolving around the death of his wife Ying Li (an outstanding Fala Chen, given the small number of scenes she's in). Ben Kingsley also reprises his role as Trevor Slattery from Iron Man 3, where he impersonated the Mandarin, and although it feels like he's basically shown up to apologise for that film, he also has some great character moments showing how prison actually worked in reforming him into a more positive person.
The film's signature attraction are the phenomenal action scenes. We've seen a lot of action in the MCU but not quite like this, with a pitch-note perfect combination of visceral, in-camera martial arts performed by actors and stuntmen at the top of their game (the opening bus fight is a masterclass in mixing tight hand-to-hand combat and more fantastical effects-driven carnage), and just the right dusting of CGI to complement but not overwhelm the action, at least until the inevitable Big Marvel Conclusion. Even that works better than most of the films, with the elaborate CGI being tactically deployed in imaginative and genuinely impressive ways. There's some particularly excellent creature work in the finale which feels impressive in its scale and mythic power.
The film is not perfect. Stepping back, the story of a semi-hidden society of more-advanced-than-they-look people who rally for an epic final battle does perhaps enjoy a few closer beats with Black Panther than was strictly necessary, and the mystical hidden city in a remote part of Asia is a trope we've seen several times in this franchise already (in both Doctor Strange and the underwhelming Iron Fist series on Netflix). However, these issues feel relatively minor.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (****½) gets the MCU back on track after the disappointing Black Widow. It has easily the best action and hand-to-hand combat scenes in the entire franchise to date, some excellent comic moments and one of the best, most human villains in the franchise. Great performances, well-handled action and impressive CGI make for an enjoyable blockbuster experience. The film is on general worldwide release now and will hit Disney+ in November.