It's been a while since we've gotten a pure origin story movie in the MCU, especially for a character that had never actually been mentioned prior to their introductory movie. Even Captain Marvel, who was the most recent character to be thrust into the MCU, had a brief preamble in the post credits scene of Avengers: Infinity War, while characters like Spider-Man and Black Panther were all given supporting roles in other films prior to their big solo debuts. Enter Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
With that in mind, it's easy to see just how much this movie has to deal with as both a solo origin story and as the second--and most chronologically recent--entry into Marvel's Phase 4. The end result, however, does a good enough job weaving together rapid-fire world building and introductory exposition while also avoiding the pitfalls of similar movies from back in Phase 2 and 3. In reality, the MCU has never actually had a movie like Shang-Chi, despite the obvious associations that can be drawn to movies like Doctor Strange and Ant-Man.
Put lightly, Shang-Chi is a movie with a lot of ideas. Stylistically, it skews more closely to an epic Chinese Xianxia or Wuxia fantasy film like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (which it doesn't shy away from nodding to) than a western superhero movie. There are sweeping, beautifully choreographed fight scenes that are absolute joys to watch, especially when they pit actors like Tony Leung and Fala Chen against one another. The world building, though marred with the requisite over-reliance on VFX and CGI (the one MCU tradition it can't seem to shake), is expansive, engaging, and decidedly unlike anything we've seen in the MCU before. Shang-Chi doesn't introduce sci-fi buzzwords like the "Quantum Realm" or alien races like the Kree; instead, it leans heavily into a homegrown mythology full of monsters and immortals and hidden realms. The closest comparison to draw would be to something like Asgard or Kamar-Taj, but it's not quite that either--if anything, it feels bigger.
Unfortunately, the vast amount of work being done here also makes for some obvious top heaviness. Not all of its many, many ideas are articulated well and you're more than likely going to find yourself pausing to say "wait, hang on a second" as a character blows through some rapid-fire exposition about a magical system or creature that you'll just need to accept and move on from or risk being left in the dust. Also, while the MCU is certainly known for its in-movie car commercials and product placement, Shang-Chi is home to some particularly egregious examples that border on distracting. Both Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) and Katy (Awkwafina) start the movie working as valets for a hotel and about midway through, it starts to become obvious that the only reason this was set up was to justify a number of drawn-out car chases with the BMW logo featured prominently in the shot.
The good news is, the chemistry between the cast makes the vast majority of these moments palatable. Liu's Shang-Chi is charming and relatable, and his friendship with Katy is sure to be one of the MCU's new fan favorite buddy dynamics while Awkwafina herself gets some of the most laugh-out-loud punchlines in the movie. Meanwhile, Tony Leung's Wenwu makes a fantastic, sympathetic villain. Leung gives a memorable physical performance, carrying some of the movie's very best fight scenes with grace and swagger. Meng'er Zhang plays Xialing, Shang-Chi's estranged sister, who will be an extremely interesting presence to watch as the MCU continues on--though to say too much more would be a spoiler.
Even with its flaws, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a signal of the MCU's increasing willingness to break out of the mold and to simply try new things. Would things have been slightly less expositionally clunky had Shang-Chi gotten the Black Panther or Spider-Man treatment and been introduced as a guest star somewhere else? Probably, but that could have pigeon holed him into a more traditional (and more western) superhero story and, compared to what we got instead, he's much better off for it. He, and the other characters introduced in this movie, are sure to be exciting parts of Phase 4 and beyond.