And so begins a new era of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Yes, I know some rebranding and retooling has already been underway via their Disney+ streaming shows. But this is the MCU’s first big screen endeavor that is untethered from the brand’s most iconic characters – the ones who launched the lucrative multi-pronged franchise into the cinema stratosphere. Gone is Iron Man, Steve Rogers, Black Widow and Hulk. Now enter a new wave of money-making superheroes.
To be totally honest, I find I’m not nearly as jazzed for the MCU now as I was during its previous twenty-some-odd movies. Much of it has to do with the absence of those iconic characters mentioned above. Then you have other factors such as the heart-wrenching loss of Chadwick Boseman, Thor being turned into a comedy act, the up-and-down quality of the streaming shows. And frankly, I’m just not sold that this new, freshly-picked band of superheroes can carry the same weight as their predecessors. Then again, everything Marvel Studios touches turns to gold and its loyal fan base will pretty much follow them wherever they go.
“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is the 25th big screen installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the first to feature a predominately Asian cast. The film is directed by Destin Daniel Cretton and is a huge departure from his previous work that includes smaller and more intimate dramas like “Short Term 12”, “The Glass Castle” and “Just Mercy”. Here Cretton gets full access to Marvel/Disney’s wallet and puts it to good use.
“Shang-Chi” wasn’t the easiest sell even with the MCU’s enormous clout. But Kevin Feige and his team of wizards once again show that good casting and a good story will often sell itself. That’s not to say there aren’t flaws. A few issues with the writing and the direction keep “Shang-Chi” from being top-tier MCU. But you’ll find that there is enough scattered throughout the film’s 132 minutes to keep you entertained.
The titular character is played by Simu Liu, a relative newcomer to the big screen who quickly acclimates himself to blockbuster leading man status. His Shang-Chi character is someone who has done everything he could to bury his complicated past. At 7-years-old he was trained by his father Wenwu (Tony Leung) to be an assassin. At 14 he was assigned his first hit. But rather than carrying it out, Shang-Chi fled.
That was 10 years ago. Now Shang-Chi, hiding under the name of Shaun, is in San Francisco working as a hotel valet with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina). But you can only run from your past for so long, especially when your dad is the leader of the ruthless Ten Rings organization. Before long Shang-Chi is fighting off assassins, reconnecting with his estranged sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) and of course coming face-to-face with his father who is empowered by ten magical rings. It’s funny, we never get much of an explanation for the rings – their power, their origin, how they’re wielded, etc. It’s one of several places where the Cretton skimps on the details.
Simu Liu does well in the lead role, a little stiff at times, but surprisingly witty and lights-out during the fight sequences. The film’s two best action scenes come in the first thirty minutes, one on a bus ride and other along scaffolding attached to a skyscraper. Liu’s physicality is impressive and often breathtaking. Awkwafina gets the short end of the stick. She does the best she can with a script that pins her down as the overly chatty comic relief. The rare dramatic moments we get from her are really good. But far too often she’s reserved to being the jokey sidekick.
The great Tony Leung brings several layers of emotional complexity to the reworked Wenwu. He’s not just some nefarious powermonger who’s really mean to his children. We learn he is a man driven mad by grief. He and his family fell apart following the death of his wife and Shang-Chi’s mother Jiang Li (played by Fala Chen who gives what may be the movie’s best performance). Now he’s on a misguided quest that’s driven by a relatable pain but carried out with a sociopathic edge.
Several other great faces pop up along the way. The always terrific Michelle Yeoh plays Shang-Chi’s aunt and the guardian of a hidden mystical land called Ta Lo. There are a couple more appearances that I’ll let you discover for yourself, but both are fantastic for much different reasons. On the more frustrating side, the movie introduces us to Death-Dealer (Andy Le), a lethal assassin for the Ten Rings who has an interesting history in the comics. Here he is a captivating and menacing presence through most of the film only to end up wasted. It’s similar to the Taskmaster botch in “Black Widow”.
“Shang-Chi” starts strong and sets itself up well. But then we get to the much slower middle that gets bogged down sifting through all of the old family baggage. What makes it drag is the strange choice to explain the family history through exposition only to then show it visually through flashbacks (with a few extra details). It’s actually interesting and I applaud the writing team for taking the time to flesh out these relationships. But the pacing is too slow and it leaves us hungry for the next action bit.
Later on things move to the fantastical as we’re introduced to flying soul-suckers, water dragons and the mysterious Dark Gate. As before, none of them are explained particularly well. You’re supposed to just go with it. And in keeping with the standard MCU formula, it all leads to a big, loud, CGI-soaked finale – quite possibly the most CGI-heavy finish they’ve done yet (and that’s saying something). For the most part it looks good, but the visuals can get a little murky and it reaches a point where some of Cretton’s shots start to feel repetitive.
Still, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is a nice new installment into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The awesome fight choreography hearkens back to the heyday of classic Kung Fu cinema which goes nicely with the cool nods to everything from “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” to “Jurassic Park”. The deeper story of a young man wrestling with his past and eventually finding himself is a good one and the wonderful cast help bring that story to life. Unfortunately the nagging issues do bring it down a bit. But the movie still feels fresh and it ultimately delivers where it counts most. “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” opens in theaters today.