Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings debuted in theatres in September 2021, dominating the box office and setting the world ablaze. While Shang-Chi was a character with a problematic written history, the new film aimed to adapt the racist tones in which the character was originally written. However, Chinese-Canadian actor Simu Liu was able to bring the character to life and make it his own in a way that was truly special.
The action sequences in the movie are some of the very best we’ve seen from Marvel, with great character dynamics and breathtaking visuals. This combination had me wondering, where does Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings stack up with Marvel’s debut solo movies?
The Long History of the MCU:
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has a storied filmography, which leaves me comparing a total of 12 movies in the MCU. None of the films are sequels, zero which will be large group crossovers, and all of them are either the debut of a character or their first solo film.
Just outside of the top 10, we have The Incredible Hulk and Thor. Marvel’s often forgotten MCU movie, The Incredible Hulk wasn’t hard to leave off the list, despite being a better movie memory serves. The Incredible Hulk would be much higher on my list if it was Mark Ruffalo in the role. However, it has always felt disconnected to me no matter how much ThunderBolt Ross we continue to see in the MCU. Thor sticks on the outside of the list to me for comparable reasons. While Thor’s debut film features Chris Hemsworth, after seeing what we get from Chris Hemsworth in the future, it feels like a different character.
Despite this, the beauty of recent Marvel films is that even the lower-ranked movies are still very solid films. Rotten Tomatoes scores for all the MCU movies can be viewed here.
10. Captain Marvel
Rotten Tomatoes: Critic Score – 79%, Audience Score – 45%
Brie Larson’s debut in the MCU, Captain Marvel soars in at number 10 on our list. The 79% Rotten Tomatoes score is a solid score for an origin story. The film only had such a low audience score, due to a large group of misogynists being upset at seeing a female hero so powerful.
While the movie threw comic book lovers’ classic understanding of the Skrull race on its head, it remained slightly predictable, which shouldn’t be the case with a plot centered around a race of shape-shifting aliens. Despite this, Brie Larson and company make this film very enjoyable to go back to, time and time again. Even though this one is near the bottom of my list, it still left me excited to see more of Brie Larson as Carol Danvers for years to come.
9. Captain America: The First Avenger
Rotten Tomatoes: Critic Score – 80%, Audience Score – 74%
Although it may be the lowest ranked of the Captain America trilogy, Steve Rogers’ origin is still a terrific film. Seeing Steve go from the scrawny kid getting beat up in an alley, to becoming the Captain we all know and love is inspiring. The film does struggle with pacing at times, as we see the film give us long explanations and backstories to set up the characters. While these are indeed necessary and beneficial in the long term, the film falls into the classic origin story issues with pace. The film gives us snippets of wonderful action sequences that pay off in the future, however, the slow pacing keeps this movie at number 9 on the list.
8. Black Widow
Rotten Tomatoes: Critic Score – 79%, Audience Score – 91%
Scarlett Johansson’s long-anticipated solo film certainly didn’t disappoint. The movie was a perfect ode to Black Widow, giving us everything we love from the exceptional action to the great back-and-forth humor. However, the movie lost a touch of gas in the third act, when it transitioned away from the grounded action and family dynamic that made the first two acts so spectacular.
The flying Red Room fortress left fans quite puzzled by its existence. However, the painful and emotional final moments between Natasha and Dreykov saved everything. The movie delivered some of the most elite action in the MCU, while also giving us one of the most anticipated new characters in Yelena Belova. The sisterly dynamic between Natasha and Yelena was the highlight of the film, and the new Black Widow’s future in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is incredibly bright.
Rotten Tomatoes: Critic Score – 83%, Audience Score – 86%
One of the best comedies in the MCU, Ant-Man was a project that over delivered on expectations. Not only was Ant-Man one of Marvel’s lesser-known characters (despite being part of the original Avengers team), but it was also a risk to base the film on one of the lesser-known Ant-Man iterations. Although, since Hank Pym has such a problematic history in the comics, this was a great choice. Paul Rudd brought humor and charisma to the character of Scott Lang. Luis and Cassie brought crucial elements of heart and comedy to the film that made it a feel-good classic.
6. Doctor Strange
Rotten Tomatoes: Critic Score – 89%, Audience Score – 85%
Doctor Strange came spiralling upside down through the mirror dimension into our lives in 2016, providing us with visuals that were brand new to Marvel. Although later diving deep into the mystic arts, Doctor Strange begins slowly in typical origin story fashion. Rachel McAdams as Christine Palmer was an amazing addition to the film, and it was sure nice to hear her voice again in What If, even if it was in a very questionable fashion. Doctor Strange brings us totally unique action sequences to our screens, and Benedict Cumberbatch proved to be the charismatic actor needed for the role.
5. Spider-Man: Homecoming
Rotten Tomatoes: Critic Score – 92%, Audience Score – 87%
With great power comes great responsibility. The power that comes with revamping the Spider-Man franchise is a very, very large responsibility. Tom Holland swung into the role in impressive fashion, nabbing Steve Rogers’ shield in Captain America: Civil War. Holland continues to portray all aspects that make us love both Peter Parker and Spider-Man.
While pulling off being an awkward and nerdy kid like Peter, his quips as he takes down his enemies as soon as he dawns the mask embodies the role perfectly. While the movie is heavily criticized for making Spider-Man “Tony Stark’s sidekick”, it was clear that Iron Man really didn’t have all that much screen time, and Peter was often having to compensate for Tony’s lack of communication. Michael Keaton’s Vulture brought one of the MCU’s very best villains to date and debuted the Spider-Man franchise back off in Amazing fashion.
4. Iron Man
Rotten Tomatoes: Critic Score – 94%, Audience Score – 91%
There is no Marvel Cinematic Universe four words spoken by Robert Downey Jr. during the film’s finale in 2008, “I Am Iron Man”. While we didn’t know the impact those words would have on our lives, the excitement remained. Marvel took a big risk debuting the MCU with Iron Man, as the character wasn’t exactly an A-list comic book character in the ways Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, or the X-Men were. In addition, RDJ has a well-documented history of difficulties, so their gamble wasn’t only on their main character but also on the actor. The gamble paid off in a very big way. Few castings in the history of cinema are considered as synonymous as Robert Downey Jr and Iron Man.
The film allows us to cautiously fall in love with Tony for his charm, and see that caution turn to unrivalled affection. Along his journey, he changes from a spoiled, war-mongering brat to a selfless leader throughout a dozen years of films in the MCU. Iron Man set a blazing fire igniting the comic book movie world, while also leaving us with a giant arc reactor-sized hole in our hearts without him.
3. Guardians of the Galaxy
Rotten Tomatoes: Critic Score – 92%, Audience Score – 92%
A film no one saw coming, Guardians of the Galaxy was a resounding success. While Iron Man was mentioned as not being as notable as certain other characters from comics (prior to the MCU), the Guardians of the Galaxy are the Cleveland Cavaliers to Iron Man’s Los Angeles Lakers. Fans had next to no knowledge about the Guardians entering the film in proved to be beneficial, as no one knew the bundle of joy coming from director James Gunn’s debut Marvel film.
The movie came with laughs, tears, and most importantly a soundtrack that has frequented playlists worldwide. Comic fans may have been concerned with Kevin Feige’s choice to center a movie on such unknown characters, but those concerns were quickly squandered as we all left the theater in tears, crying We Are Groot.
2. Shang-Chi And The Legend of the Ten Rings
Rotten Tomatoes: Critic Score – 92%, Audience Score – 98%
Upon first watch, I was thinking to myself that I had to be swept up at the moment, the recency bias was in full effect, and I wasn’t thinking straight. Shang-Chi was simply too high on my MCU ranking. Theater trip number two however didn’t make me more skeptical, it confirmed my previous thoughts. Simu Liu flew onto the scene in a monumental way, giving us THE VERY BEST hand-to-hand combat a Marvel movie has had to date.
Tony Leung’s Hollywood debut was phenomenal, and I sure hope we can see him reprising the role of WenWu in the future. I once again have small complaints about a movie getting too CGI-heavy. However, these complaints are overshadowed by my love for the characters, how beautiful the visuals are, and how wonderfully the story was put together.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings left me feeling like I could’ve spent hours watching him go toe-to-toe with the Death Dealer and Razor-Fist. In addition, who didn’t leave the theater pining to go sing karaoke with Shang-Chi, Katy, and Wong?
1. Black Panther
Rotten Tomatoes: Critic Score – 96%, Audience Score – 79%
Black Panther is not only an amazing film, but its debut in 2018 became a worldwide phenomenon. The cast was an incredible mixture of renowned legends and up-and-coming actors, headlined by the late Chadwick Boseman. Like Robert Downey Jr with Tony Stark, Boseman’s portrayal of T’Challa left fans so enamoured, that any other actor dawning the mantle still feels impossible to visualize. Chadwick Boseman portrayed Prince T’Challa perfectly, from his graceful movements to his courage and heart. Although T’Challa’s Black Panther certainly was the star of the film, we also fell in love with his sister Shuri, the warriors Okoye and Nakia, and even the head of the Jabari tribe M’Baku.
Michael B. Jordan’s performance as Killmonger was one of the most exhilarating Marvel villains we’ve seen. The antagonist perfectly tiptoed the line of good intentions, mixed with extreme actions. Black Panther sparked a necessary conversation about representation in Hollywood. The film also showed not only that it is necessary, but it can be wildly successful. An origin story that I will never tire re-watching, Black Panther tops my list of Marvel Cinematic Universe debut solo films.