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Review: 'Shang-Chi' makes the Marvel Cinematic Universe feel fresh again

Leaning more on fantasy elements than previously seen in past releases, Marvel provided a fresh take on the classic superhero film

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A poster promoting Marvel Studios' "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings" is shown on display outside of AMC Arizona Center 24 on Friday, Sept. 17, 2021, in Downtown Phoenix.

"Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,"  Marvel's newest Labor Day release, is a refreshing take on the classic superhero film.

The titular character, Shang-Chi, was first introduced to Marvel Comics in 1973 and again to the big screen in September as the first Asian superhero lead in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

In the past, Marvel movies have experimented with combining different genres including action, comedy and science fiction in movies like "The Avengers," "Thor," and "Guardians of the Galaxy" series. 

"Shang-Chi" shined in its individuality, featuring more fantasy elements than past Marvel releases. From the strong influence of legends and stories, which were vital to the hero's journey, "Shang-Chi" seems to introduce a new start for the Marvel film franchise. 

The fantasy feeling extends past the structure, with aspects ranging from a sentient forest serving as a barrier for entry into Ta Lo to the unfamiliar mythical creatures from the magical village. 

Throughout the film, the contrasting backgrounds of Shang Chi's parents, Xu Wenwu and Ying Li, present a constant internal struggle between good and evil — his mother and her teachings on one side and his father's cruel and criminal work on the other.

Li comes from the mystical village Ta Lo, a city that draws significant inspiration from Chinese mythology. On the other hand, Wenwu is the wielder of the famed 10 rings and the head of a clandestine crime syndicate of the same name.

Where this movie really stood out was in its dynamic cast, especially the performances of Simu Liu as Shang-Chi, Tony Leung as Xu Wenwu and Meng’er Zhang as Xu Xialing, Shang-Chi’s entrepreneurial younger sister. 

Liu, known for playing Jung Kim on "Kim’s Convenience," held the leading role, really exemplifying everything his character needed to be. 

He encompassed the essence of someone so powerful actively trying to reject the responsibilities of being an assassin and a potential heir to the Ten Rings, an organization that used the power of the rings throughout history for criminal and terrorist goals.

Leung, a staple in the Hong Kong film industry and the internet's new obsession,  came in with an over 40-year-long acting career. He has also won five Best Actor awards at the Hong Kong Film Awards, the most for any actor.

In becoming a father and grieving the death of his wife, Leung’s character brought vulnerability to a man fueled by a lust for power and revenge.

Long-time Marvel fans may remember the organization Leung's character heads, the Ten Rings, from the original "Iron Man," as the group that captured Tony Stark and set him on the path to becoming Iron Man and with it the creation of the entire MCU. 

Through Zhang’s performance, she made it clear how isolation and neglect drove Xialing to become better and stronger than everyone else around her. 

For a rather unrelatable premise, this movie also succeeded in its portrayal of immigrant families. 

The pressure on the older child to live up to their parent's expectations, which in this case are much different from the average viewer — unless their parent is also secretly running a global criminal syndicate — and the family dynamics that stemmed from that are extremely resonant to the immigrant experience. 

Shang-Chi’s best friend, Katy Chen, a first-generation Chinese-American played by comedian Awkwafina, came from a more conventional upbringing.

Despite their differences, the families of both Shang-Chi and Katy wanted to see their children thrive to their own versions of success.

For die-hard Marvel fans and casual watchers alike, "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings" ushers in a new era for Marvel by creating new implications for the already existing characters and revealing another element of what a comic book hero can be.

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