Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a lot of things.
It’s a huge step forward in Asian-American representation in the superhero genre, a fantastic movie that carves its own path in the saturated Marvel Cinematic Universe, and a showcase for everyone’s new favorite Marvel hero Simu Liu. It’s also, for the deep cut Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) buffs, our first real look at the long-awaited multiverse.
Most of fans’ expectations for introducing the multiverse, a transformative concept that could break the MCU wide open and allow Disney to use all of its Marvel-associated properties in the record-breaking franchise, fell on upcoming movies Spider-Man: No Way Home and 2022’s Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness. Shang-Chi’s story was expected to be more contained to a street-level hero’s powers, but Shang’s journey surprisingly took him where no MCU hero has gone before — to another universe entirely.
Shang-Chi opens on the story of Wenwu, the immortal master of the Ten Rings and Shang-Chi’s father. Bored with money and power, Wenwu travels to what first appears to be the magical land of Ta Lo, where he meets Jiang Li, the guardian of Ta Lo and his eventual wife. Jiang Li leaves her homeland behind to marry Wenwu and have two children, Shang-Chi and Xialing, before she dies defending them from Wenwu’s old enemies, the Iron Gang.
There are a few important things to pay attention to in Jiang Li’s story. The first is that Jiang Li has powers in Ta Lo. She can manipulate wind and uses it to enhance her practice of a wuxia-inspired martial art unique to her people. The second is that when Jiang Li joins Wenwu in the “real” world, she loses her powers. The third part comes later, when Shang-Chi and Xialing finally make it to Ta Lo and meet their auntie Ying Nan, who tells her niece and nephew that the great evil kept at bay in Ta Lo must be stopped before it reaches “your universe.”
Ta Lo is another universe entirely, one where butt-chicken dogs like Morris frolic freely and the birds are on fire all the time.
This is the first indication that Ta Lo is not a magical land somehow hidden in the MCU’s normal plane of existence. Ta Lo is another universe entirely, one where butt-chicken dogs like Morris frolic freely and the birds are on fire all the time. Jiang Li was not a human as we know them, but a being from another dimension who drew her power from her universe — which makes Shang-Chi and Xialing the first Marvel characters who are half–multiversal from birth.
The mid-credit scene in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings offers a tease about where the Ten Rings actually came from, which is that they’re older than anything the MCU characters have encountered before and they started acting as a beacon to something once Shang-Chi started using them in the movie’s third act. This could be a hint that the Ten Rings are calling to super old beings like the Eternals, or could suggest that they, like Jiang Li, are from another universe. The watery portal to Ta Lo is difficult but not impossible for regular people to reach, which means that there may be other accessible portals to the multiverse hiding on Earth, as well as other multiversal artifacts scattered around the world.
It’s just like Marvel to build up something huge like the multiverse over the course of several TV shows and a last-minute Spider-Man trailer, only to surprise fans with a standalone origin story that just happens to take place in another universe. As the MCU continues to charge towards the multiversal war promised in Loki, Shang-Chi and Xialing have just cemented their places as two of the most pivotal characters in the storyline.
Just imagine when the most powerful people on Earth-199999 start flipping out about traveling to other realities and Shang-Chi is looking at them like “oh, I didn’t realize this was your first time.” Now all the rest of the Phase 4 heroes have to do is get on Shang-Chi and Xialing’s level.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is playing in theaters.