- The Magazine
Digging into its deep depository of comics characters and lore, Marvel pulls out a cool, composed, kickass action hero first introduced on the page in 1973, but brand-spanking-new to the MCU. Martial arts master Shang-Chi, portrayed by Chinese-Canadian TV heartthrob Simu Liu, springs from his hitherto unknown pocket of the post-Blip universe into Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (★★★☆☆), the first Marvel entry to feature a predominantly Asian cast. Directed and co-written by Destin Daniel Cretton (Just Mercy), the film expands the franchise mythology, while leaping feet-first into its own style of wuxia action superhero fantasy steeped in Chinese culture.
The plot still relies on the regular go-to of a villain coveting magical talismans — in this case, the titular ten legendary rings. But, with its blend of brilliantly choreographed martial arts combat, broken-family drama, and effects-laden depictions of enchanted realms and creatures, Shang-Chi commits to offering something different. The action style hits hard, yet flows like ballet, as best seen in a tense battle across bamboo scaffolding wrapped around a skyscraper. After two dozen Marvel feature films, and half as many TV series, that kick in the genre pants feels as refreshing as it does necessary.
Different doesn’t equate to better in every regard, though. The live-action and CGI elements aren’t always seamlessly combined, resulting in whiz-bang fight scenes — coordinated by Andy Cheng, of the Jackie Chan Stunt Team — embellished with some cartoonish-looking special effects. And the pacing overall is stalled by too-frequent lapses into exposition. Martial arts flicks are prone to unfolding legends, but it takes a lot of explaining to relay the multi-generational tale of Shang-Chi, who, in the present, jets from San Francisco to Macau to protect his long-lost sister, Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), from a lethal criminal army ruled by their estranged father, Wenwu the Warrior King (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai).
But first we learn of how Wenwu hoped to use the magical Ten Rings to invade the mystical, Oz-like village of Ta Lo — until he fell in love with the village’s powerful sentry, Jiang Li (Fala Chen). Then, the couple had Shang-Chi and Xialing, and Wenwu built his criminal empire, and… there is so much backstory. Fortunately, Cretton has assembled an eclectic cast of Asian superstars, from Leung to timeless wonder Michelle Yeoh, to put across the many layers of the legend. As Shang-Chi, Liu brings a calm, centered magnetism both in his fight style and playing off of co-star Awkwafina, portraying Shang-Chi’s mouthy high school pal Katy.
His best friend for years, Katy had no idea that the guy she knows as Shaun is actually a martial arts master, born of ancient magic. Between flashbacks and battles, she tries to make sense of who her friend and his family are, while also seeking her own purpose in Shang-Chi’s fight. The movie employs Katy as comic relief and a crucial real-world perspective on the fantastical goings-on. Yet, in typical Marvel fashion, there’s a palpable hesitation to define hers and Shaun’s friendship as anything more than platonic, even though she can see he’s hot, and they seem like more than platonic friends.
Marvel movies don’t get sex and romance. Rather, they thrive on superhero world-building and characterization, both of which are solidly accomplished here, abetted by Leung’s standout performance as a complicated, villainous father figure, and several MCU cameos sprinkled throughout the film and end credits. One such cameo marks the film’s other standout performance, as well as a wily means of connecting Shang-Chi’s lore to events before. As the franchise’s phase of mostly Chris-less adventures rolls forward, Shang-Chi steps up to demonstrate that there are entire worlds of experience yet to be explored.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings opens in theaters everywhere Friday, Sept. 3. Visit www.fandango.com.
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