This review of “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” was first published on August 23.
Marvel Comics creators Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin originally conceived martial-arts hero Shang-Chi as a loose composite of the imagery and mythologies of Bruce Lee, Caine from “Kung Fu” (whom Lee created), and Sax Rohmer’s pulp villain Dr. Fu Manchu. If Marvel Studios has thus far made slow progress in developing solo adventures for its many superheroes of color, it takes another successful stride, if not quite as sizable as “Black Panther,” with “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” a film that builds simultaneously on the lexicon of 50 years of Hong Kong action films and the thematic boilerplate of MCU origin stories.
Simu Liu (“Kim’s Convenience”) injects an earnest, charming humility to the character’s introduction into Marvel’s world of larger than life conflicts, while Tony Leung and Michelle Yeoh provide Hong Kong bona fides as his father and aunt, both of whom are eager to indoctrinate him in the secrets of wuxia storytelling.
We meet Shang-Chi (Liu), hiding in San Francisco as a hotel valet under the name Shaun, an obfuscation his best friend Katy (Awkwafina) later rightfully points out is a lazy way to keep a low profile when his father Wenwu (Leung) is a thousand-year-old warrior with super-powered bracelets, endless resources, and foot soldiers around the globe working for his organization, the Ten Rings.
After defeating a team of henchmen that came in search of a necklace given to him by his late mother Jiang Li (Fala Chen, “The Undoing”), Shang decides to reconnect with his estranged sister Xialing (newcomer Meng’er Zhang), worrying that she will be targeted next. He arrives in Macau to discover not only that she does not need his help, but she has also established a not-so-secret empire of her own as a fight broker; the postcard that he thought she sent is actually a decoy from Wenwu to obtain her matching necklace as well.
With Katy in tow providing a running commentary for each new development, Shang and Xialing get captured by their father, who brings them to his stronghold to divulge his reasons for seeking their childhood keepsakes: Wenwu hopes to find a path to a village hidden deep in a neighboring forest where he believes Jiang Li is being kept prisoner. Despite their troubled upbringing under Wenwu’s alternately merciless tutelage of Shang and seeming indifference to Xialing, the two of them are torn about whether or not to help him. But when they find an opportunity to access the village — and learn from their aunt Jiang Nan (Yeoh) the real secret behind the voice summoning their father — Shang, Xialing, and even Katy join the fight to stop Wenwu, in the process confronting a family legacy that their father hopes to fulfill and that they are determined to rewrite.
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton (“Just Mercy”) and cowritten by Cretton, his frequent collaborator Andrew Lanham, and David Callaham (“Mortal Kombat”), “Shang-Chi” oozes with lore from classic Asian martial arts movies (themselves drawn, in turn, from classic cultural storytelling tropes) from the ‘70s to today and enhanced with the best computer-generated imagery that money can buy. You can see echoes of everything from “The Big Boss” to “House of Flying Daggers” (and plenty of Shaw brothers and Tsui Hark movies in between) in the storytelling and set pieces; for the uninitiated, it offers an overview of the genre, almost like a Quentin Tarantino movie, whose influences and inspirations will be fun to uncover and explore on their own after future viewings.
More importantly, the writing trio has created a fully fleshed-out character with Shang-Chi rather than a caricature or pastiche of the martial-arts icons on whose shoulders stands their hero, who possesses the abilities to defeat any opponent coupled with a motivation to avoid fighting at any cost.
At the beginning of the film, Shang is torn between wanting to forge his own path and yielding to the filial piety baked into his upbringing and reinforced through years of grueling martial-arts training. Indeed, it’s receiving his first “adult” assignment from his father (to murder the man responsible for his mother’s death) that instigates his journey of self-discovery. What the film does well is to showcase how Shang discovers that he’s able to achieve fulfillment not by ignoring the past but by confronting it head on, and eventually seeking balance between his father’s indefatigable thirst for power and his mother’s pursuit of harmony.
That this is represented in some really extraordinary fight choreography only adds dimensionality to Shang’s journey; as Simu Liu exploits his opportunity as a relative unknown on screen to the advantage of a character who audiences are watching discover himself, Cretton also leverages Tony Leung’s veteran status (not just as an occasional Asian action star but as one of the most accomplished and gifted actors in the world) to lend gravitas to the choices that lead Shang towards his inevitable path to superhero-dom.
Put simply, Leung never does too much in a scene, and he conveys subdued romantic longing better than almost any actor in the last 40 years. Here, he gives what is probably the best-ever performance in a superhero movie, certainly for a villain; with his possession of the Ten Rings, Wenwu has all he could ever want, fears nothing, and desires only that which transcends all human abilities, enhanced or otherwise — his wife back by his side. Leung conveys effortless authority leavened with a distant sadness, and it makes viewers care, both about him and about the overall stakes of Shang’s evolution, so that when the film pivots into world-ending sequences where monsters and martial-arts choreography become more important than the characters, audiences can still be invested, or at least less put off by familiar climactic tropes.
The action is all terrific, from Shang’s first display of skill in an accordion commuter-bus brawl to a showdown with the forces of evil on the back of a mythical flying dragon. Unfortunately, “Shang-Chi” does not always flow smoothly between its scenes of exposition and setup and these explosive set pieces, as Cretton repeatedly prefers first to study the characters and their motivations and then to put them through their paces, instead of doing both at the same time. It’s honestly an admirable choice in a genre designed quite literally for cutting to the chase, but it’s a pacing better suited for “Crouching Tiger” or one of Zhang Yimou’s action-oriented films than Marvel’s. Some of these reflective moments undercut the urgency of the final battle, much less Shang’s encroaching self-discovery.
Still, Liu leads the cast with a workmanlike understatedness that evokes the sturdy invisibility of someone like Matt Damon, a comparison that seems more apt since Cretton has indicated that he took inspiration from “Good Will Hunting” for the hero. As his platonic best friend Katy, Awkwafina rides a thin line between appropriately pointing out the incredible nature of each new situation in which they find themselves and undercutting the emotional weight of a story that needs to be at least a little bit serious, but she delivers a youthful charge that better connects this film to, say, Paul Rudd’s “Ant-Man” entries and the other Marvel films better than reams of interconnected mythology ever could. Meanwhile, Meng’er Zhang is a great acting discovery playing Xialing, a character who deserves to be lionized and spun off like Shuri was after “Black Panther,” and Yeoh once again supplies a unfussy, stabilizing presence both on screen and as a performer that grounds all of the mystical mumbo-jumbo and makes it seem believable.
Following the cathartic reset of “Avengers: Endgame,” Marvel’s Phase Four films cannot help but feel a little bit like they are struggling to recapture their predecessors’ magic and narrative momentum. Even if it was long overdue, or maybe precisely because it was, “Black Widow” still felt like the remnant of a timeline before heroes had reached total market saturation. “Shang-Chi,” by comparison, feels like the new beginning that its predecessor was meant to be, as much as anything, because it truly ventures in a new direction — building distantly on the world that has now become common moviegoer knowledge, but adding stylistic flourishes and an unhurried pace from Cretton that suggests it’s content to be its own story instead of a cog in a larger machine. (Truly, the only letdown comes during a post-credits scene where you’re reminded that this character will have bigger obligations to a story that’s not his own later on.)
Marvel is, of course, working tirelessly to construct the next stage(s) of its universe, but like the bamboo scaffolding that surrounds a Macau high rise, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” offers a good reminder that it’s nice to slow down and take a little extra time to explore what’s already built instead of firmly affixing your view on stories that haven’t yet been reached.
“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” opens in U.S. theaters September 3.
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