There’s nothing wrong with being a valet. Absolutely nothing.
It’s honest work. Well, mostly. You get to drive some really cool cars—even if it’s technically just to the other end of the parking garage and back. But if your co-valet worker and best friend convinces you to take a slick BMW for a quick spin around the block … well, who’s going to be the wiser?
And let’s be honest: Valet work is way preferable than being your father’s right-hand assassin.
Yep, that’s what Shawn was supposed to be. His dad, Wenwu, had been training him to kill since Shawn was just a toothpick-armed kid. He was called Shang-Chi back when he was sparring with Wenwu’s seemingly endless store of warriors. And by the time he was 14, Shang-Chi could defeat almost all of them.
That’s still pretty good for a 14-year-old. And at an age when most teen boys are just starting to shave the peach fuzz off their upper lips, Shang-Chi was being sent on his first lethal assignment.
He never came back to Pops, though. Instead he fled for the U.S. and made a great best friend., Katy. Together, the two became valets. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
But some careers are notoriously hard to leave, especially if they’re family businesses.
One sunny morning, while Shawn and Katy are riding the bus to work (ironic, no?), several skilled martial artists and a guy with an energy sword for a hand attack them. It’s soon clear that they’re after the amulet Shawn wears—the same amulet his mother gave him just before she was killed. “Whenever you get lost,” she told him then, “this [will help] you find your way home.”
Clearly, the attackers were sent by his father. Obviously, dear old Dad wants the amulet for some nefarious plot. And obviously, he’ll be looking for the amulet’s matching twin—the one worn around his estranged sister’s neck. Shawn knows he’ll need to warn her, even if the two haven’t spoken for years.
Nothing wrong with being a valet. Not in the least. But someone else’ll have to park the cars for a bit. Shawn—Shang-Chi—has a sister, and a world, to save.
Anytime you’re saving the world, you’re doing good work—and indeed, that’s the position Shang-Chi (along with some helpmates) is in. He’s willing to give it his all to prevent his father from making a terrible mistake.
Which brings us to the movie’s second big positive—and one that undergirded fellow Marvel movie Black Widow, too. This is a movie about family. And as messy as this family is, the film says some pretty nice things about it, too.
In a flashback, we see how father Wenwu met Shang-Chi’s mother, Jiang Li—and how that relationship proved, for a time, to be a catalyst for positive change.
Wenwu, who had been literally on the warpath for 1,000 years (thanks to the lifegiving, magical power of 10 bracelet rings he always wears), gave up his immortality to be a loving husband and father. Jiang Li (Shang-Chi’s mother) gave up something for the relationship, too, but neither of them had any regrets: They loved each other, and they loved their kids. “After all those years, I found something worth growing old for,” Wenwu says tenderly. And even in the aftermath of Jiang Li’s death, Wenwu still loves her deeply—so deeply that the loss and grief twists him terribly. But the love, despite all that, remains. He’s as much a father as an evildoer, and the movie never loses sight of that.
As mentioned, Shang-Chi gets some help, too. Katy dives into this adventure, risking her own life when she would’ve been much safer parking cars. And while Shang-Chi and his sister, Xialing, are not exactly on the best of terms for much of the movie, they come together for a common goal—and they still share a lot of affection for each other.
We also hear lots of good messages about striving to reach your potential. While there’s nothing wrong with being a valet, characters stress that both Shang-Chi and Katy could do better. “If you aim at nothing, you hit nothing,” someone tells the latter.
The movie’s very title hints that we’re moving into a mythical space here. Magic is very much in play, and we hear mention of “gods” and people with god-like power.
None of the people we see here are gods (though the rings do give Wenwu “the strength of a god and the gift of eternal life”). But Shang-Chi and his pals do visit a hidden, magical realm associated with a dragon—a creature that, in Chinese culture, is deeply spiritual, and one that comes across here as something of a supernatural protector.
And the powers on display here among several human characters often seem to bridge the gap between really skilled martial artistry and the manipulation of matter and energy. Some movements seem to harness the very air. And, of course, the rings themselves are quite magical.
In addition, there’s a hint of yin-yang dualism here, as Shang-Chi is encouraged to embrace both the light and the dark aspects of himself (though its ultimate manifestation seems unquestionably good).
We see a couple of shrines dedicated to Jiang Li, surrounded by candles. During a memorial ceremony, people float paper lanterns on a lake—recalling a Japanese ceremony in which the lights are said to help guide the souls of the dead to the spirit world. People express a belief in the eternal souls and ghosts.
[Spoiler Warning] The real villainy at work here, by the way, feels pretty demonic, too, and it’s sometimes referred to as such. It even eats the souls of the dead to grow more powerful. (Souls are depicted as a bright ball of energy being sucked from people’s bodies.) A villainous entity uses trickery—the voices of people long dead—to trick the living.
Despite some prodding from a relative or two, Shang-Chi and Katy are just good friends (though Katy does ogle him a bit when he removes his shirt).
The main romance here is between Wenwu and Jiang Li, and it all takes place in the form of a series of flashbacks. When the two first meet, they “fight,” but the battle feels more like a dance. They twist and move almost in unison, and moments when their hands touch prompt glances that are charged with suggestive romantic energy.
The two do soon marry, and we see them in moments of domestic happiness, including some kisses and caresses.
As mentioned, Shang-Chi goes shirtless a few times. His sister wears a top that reveals a bit of midriff. During a quip, Katy crudely mentions her mother’s vagina.
Superhero movies are violent. Martial arts flicks are violent. And this, my friends, is a superhero martial arts movie.
Some of this violence is mitigated by the film’s fluid, dance-like choreography. Even the most frenetic fights (between people, anyway) carry a tang of poetry with them, fists and feet taking on rhyme and meter. But none of that keeps people from getting hurt or killed: Both happen with some frequency.
Wenwu’s rings are especially dangerous. They enable Wenwu to blast through walls, throw people around and (off-camera) execute at least one person with extreme prejudice (an act witnessed by a very young Shang-Chi, though we do not witness what he does). The rings are even used to defeat a monstrous creature in perhaps the movie’s most visceral scene.
But other weapons do damage, too. Xialing uses a blade at the end of a tether that does some serious damage. A man wields an energy sword attached to his handless wrist. More traditional swords, staves, electrified scythes and throwing implements are used, too—sometimes with lethal results—and a number of warriors use bows, both on an archery range and in battle. And in a gladiator-like fighting arena, men and monsters battle until one is knocked out. Someone is kicked in the groin,.
People fall from massive heights—sometimes painfully landing on a solid surface, while others plummet to their (unseen) deaths. Motorcycles crash, sending their riders flying. A killer forest sends an SUV careening off a cliff, presumably spelling the end for its remaining inhabitants. People tragically die off-screen.
Tentacled, fanged monsters attack people, leading to grotesqueries on both sides. A creature sucks out and absorbs souls. A bus is torn apart, and the people inside it are tossed about violently. We see explosions. As a child, Shang-Chi beats a wooden post until his knuckles bleed.
We hear about a half-dozen s-words and a sizable collection of other profanities, including “a–,” “b–ch,” “d–n,” “h—” and the British profanity “bloody.” God’s name is misused six times, once paired with “d–n.” We also hear a couple of uses of the f-word stand-in “freaking.”
Shang-Chi and Katy sing with abandon at a karaoke bar, both looking as if they’ve likely had a bit too much to drink. (In a later scene, the two are joined by another seemingly drunken singer.)
A woman insists that people live on after death. As proof, she talks how she left a bottle of whiskey on her husband’s grave. “The next day it was gone,” she proudly concludes. Some liquor bottles can be seen in clubs and dives.
Xialing runs a presumably illegal fight club. We hear about someone vomiting.
While Marvel’s television shows on Disney+ have allowed fans to dip their toes into the post-Avengers: Endgame Marvel Cinematic Universe, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings jumps into the deep end. It introduces moviegoers to a new hero (though the character himself debuted in 1973) and sets us up for a long and (Marvel and Disney hope) lucrative road ahead.
As a movie, Shang-Chi unquestionably works. It’s an engaging, action-packed story that blends the lineage of martial arts movies with Marvel’s multilayered bombast, and it even throws a few massive creatures into the mix to give the film a kaiju-type feel at times. And it feels a lot more open to MCU newcomers, too. While being familiar with the 24 (!) previous Marvel movies will certainly add to the experience here, moviegoers don’t need to be particularly familiar with any of ’em to enjoy this one.
But if Shang-Chi is friendly to MCU novices, it’s not quite as friendly for families.
First, of course, you’ve got plenty of violence to contend with here, as well as some language. None of that is a new thing in the MCU, of course: The PG-13-level action feels very much in line with what we’ve seen before.
But the film feels surprisingly spiritual, too, and it uses Eastern spirituality as its template. While most of what we see here is a mythos of Marvel’s own making, we can certainly see the sensibilities of Taoism, Buddhism and other streams of traditionally Eastern faith flowing here. And though you could suss out some Christian themes here—themes of fighting against temptation and darkness, the willingness to sacrifice for the greater good, etc.—those would be likely secondary or wholly unintended by the filmmakers themselves.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a satisfying, fun superhero movie, no question. But families—even families already familiar with the MCU—still might want to pause before grabbing this ring.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.