The opening scenes of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings paint a rich portrait not of the film’s titular hero but of its villain. Played by the Hong Kong superstar Tony Leung, Wenwu (a.k.a. the Mandarin) is the owner of the magical Ten Rings. As such, he’s an immortal man burdened with, as the saying goes, the great responsibility that comes with great power. He wields his abilities brutally for thousands of years—leading armies, building terrorist organizations, and becoming less and less human as he sculpts the world according to his vision.
And then he meets a woman named Jiang Li (played by Fala Chen) from a mythical land called Ta Lo. Their first fight, a wuxia-tinged sequence set in a pale-green bamboo forest, transforms from a fierce battle into a dance of stolen glances and sensual touches. They fall in love. They start a family. He locks away the rings.
Superhero films don’t normally begin with a love story, let alone a lush, fairy-tale-like dive into its antagonist’s life. But Shang-Chi is no ordinary superhero film. Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12), Marvel Studios’ latest—and first, after 24 movies, to feature a predominantly Asian cast—is not so much an origin story as it is a mythological saga of a family torn apart by immense power and loss. The film follows Wenwu and Jiang Li’s son, Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), who runs away as a teenager after his mother’s death. He’s trying to live a normal life in San Francisco, working as a valet by day and singing karaoke by night, when his father catches up to him with a plan to bring him home.
To tell the family’s long, tumultuous tale, the film skips through time and hops across worlds, offering a delightful melange of genres and influences. Sometimes Shang-Chi is a straightforward martial-arts drama, all fistfights and meticulous choreography. Other times it’s a high-fantasy epic, full of stunning scenery and complex lore. At one point, a dragon—a dragon!—shows up.
Like the Ten Rings, these disparate elements constantly threaten to careen out of orbit; some moments in the film seem overwhelmed by the business of world building. Luckily, Shang-Chi finds its much-needed center of gravity in Leung as Wenwu. The actor, one of the biggest movie stars in Asia, may be an unfamiliar face to mainstream American audiences, but in his first Hollywood role—something he’s reportedly been searching for since 2005—he practically runs away with the film. Wenwu is a supervillain who’s lived a life of crime and conquest, and in every scene, Leung imbues him with cool confidence. He’s equal parts charismatic and menacing, as if daring his scene partner to challenge him. Every line sounds like it comes with a knowing smirk. “I told my men they wouldn’t be able to kill you if they tried,” he tells Shang-Chi after a fight. “Glad I was right.”
But Leung also deliberately softens the character. Given his looks, he has rarely been cast as an antagonist in his feted career in Asia; as the star of Wong Kar-wai’s masterpieces about unrequited love, the actor is unmatched when it comes to exuding pathos and longing. So when he does play a villain—as he did in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution—he uses his magnetism to expose his character’s vulnerabilities, deepening what would be, in another performer’s hands, an uncomplicated depiction of a monster. In Shang-Chi, Leung slowly and precisely transforms Wenwu, revealing him to be no mere crime lord but a tragic romantic lead still grieving Jiang Li, clinging to conspiratorial thinking for guidance. He’s an avatar for loneliness, a living fossil of a man who had been excavated by love only to return to a life of unknowable power and no one to share that experience with.
His performance anchors the film and expands the potential of the comic-book villain. Of the dozens of Marvel antagonists who have appeared on the big screen, few—Loki, Thanos, Killmonger—have managed to make a similarly memorable, sympathetic impression. Even fewer characters within the Marvel Cinematic Universe wrestle with the tragedy of doomed love; these movies have been notoriously prudish, often downplaying romantic story lines. Thus, rooting Wenwu’s motives in heartbreak rather than in domination, destruction, or revenge feels singular for a Marvel film: Shang-Chi’s central conflict goes beyond the classic one of good against evil, and far beyond the facile one of a son quarreling with his father.
In fact, Shang-Chi and Wenwu don’t necessarily disagree; Cretton repeatedly illustrates how the pair, after Jiang Li’s death, have coped in harmful ways. Both abandoned Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), Shang-Chi’s sister. Both slipped into old habits—Wenwu put the rings back on, while Shang-Chi ran from fights, preferring to hide. Their disconnect is, in the end, one born of miscommunication and misunderstanding, of being unable to express themselves to each other despite their shared hurt. “Stop hiding,” one character advises Shang-Chi late in the film. “It only prolongs the pain.”
This may all seem like grim territory for a comic-book movie to cover, but parts of the film may resonate for Asian American audiences in particular. Shang-Chi is careful never to identify where Wenwu’s headquarters are set in Asia, but it underlines how an emotional chasm can develop between the younger, emigrant generation and the one that stayed behind: While Wenwu has spent the years since his wife’s death living in the home they shared, Shang-Chi has settled on the other side of the world. That distance has created a gulf of bitterness that’s only exacerbated by cultural differences. Shang-Chi has Anglicized his name to Shaun, for instance, but Wenwu opposes such renaming. Shang-Chi remembers his mother by wearing a pendant that she gave him as a gift. Wenwu dutifully waits until the Qingming Festival, a holiday in Asia during which families sweep tombs and pay respects to the deceased, to visit Ta Lo. While Shang-Chi fights his armies, Wenwu pauses to light incense at Jiang Li’s shrine.
The film’s meditation on grief tracks with the MCU’s apparent thematic goals in Phase Four, its collection of projects after the Thanos-centric Infinity Saga. Shang-Chi, like the Disney+ series WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, takes place after the events of Avengers: Endgame and therefore contends with the way people recalibrate their lives after trauma. The MCU is exploring a world in which people have become hyperaware of how vulnerable they are to inexplicable events like the population-halving Blip.
Still, Cretton never lets Shang-Chi collapse into humorlessness. Liu’s charming Shang-Chi is surrounded by an ensemble of strong supporting characters, including his quippy best friend, Katy (Awkwafina); his aunt and mentor, Jiang Nan (Michelle Yeoh); and a few surprise guests who will certainly thrill longtime Marvel fans. The film revels, too, in staging its martial-arts sequences in inventive settings—a moving bus rolling down the hills of San Francisco, the scaffolding beside a skyscraper—and in getting to unveil a pivotal, previously hidden corner of the MCU.
But Shang-Chi ultimately belongs to Leung. He’s not just the star of the film’s opening—in his hands, Wenwu’s devastation catalyzes the action and permeates every frame, turning the film into a tragedy. He becomes the character around whom all others revolve, whether he’s in the scene or not. That’s how sorrow works, after all; it radiates. And Leung’s performance, like so many in his career, lingers long after the credits end.