LUKE’S GRADE: A-
Often, the factory line mechanics of the Marvel Cinematic Universe mangles the mastery of what Hollywood’s first mega-franchise – or, if not the first ever, an evolutionary product in terms of scale, diligence, and intricacy – is doing. Sometimes, however, an MCU film is released that combines its louder, blockbuster values with a deeply human center, a magnificent, empathetic spark that reminds worn naysayers (admittedly like myself) what this unmatched series is capable of.
“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is one of those movies.
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton and like the best of them, this production marks its own path into the Marvel lineup, spending significant amounts of time developing tone, character, relationships, and motivations. Here, there’s a particular focus on both family and expectations, its hero stumbling towards the crossroads of the life he wanted for himself and the one assigned to him.
Informing the CGI slugfest to come, and making it much more appetizing in the process, it’s an effective, if not obvious catalyst for the first MCU film to feature an Asian-centric story.
Simu Liu stars as Shang-Chi, the first son of a whimsical romance between two warriors: the tranquil, wind-bender Jiana Li (Fala Chen), and the brutal, power-hungry Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung). The parents first crossed paths as defender and conqueror. Wenwu, who, with ten inexplicably powerful rings, has lived for centuries, destroying every kingdom he comes across. And Li, who stands guard before her magical homeland of Ta Lo.
With theirs being the first hand-to-hand combat scene in the film, Cretton, whose last film, the courtroom drama “Just Mercy,” had little room for spectacle, makes a ferocious, exciting statement. Their duel, planted between fluid and rapid, is awe-inspiring; quick in action, but long in form, it features an impressive display of technique and tonally, it’s even romantic.
While romance with kicks is limited to this first scene, “Shang-Chi” features, without a doubt, the best catalogue of action scenes in the entire Marvel bank.
When the two fighters get together, there is peace. Wenwu hangs up the rings and starts a family. They know love and togetherness. But after Li dies, her husband not only reverts to his barbaric ways, but becomes even more monstrous, training his only son to be a killer. The transformation forces Shang-Chi to abandon his father, leaving his younger sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) behind.
Though Cretton hasn’t had much experience at the helm of major action blockbusters – not that you would know that – his experience with ensembles keeps those beats pulsating through all the characters and throughout the entire script, which he co-wrote with Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham.
In the present day, Shang-Chi is Shaun, an American adult living comfortably and at a very chill pace in San Francisco. Working as a valet with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina), his past life, a secret to everyone in the U.S., comes to a violent surface when some of his dad’s goons go after a green pendant his mother gave him. In another exhilarating, sharply-edited sequence, this time on a bus zooming down San Francisco’s many hills, Shang-Chi fends them off, exposing his past and starting what turns out to be an international adventure.
Though Katy is shocked by Shaun’s sudden courage and a bloated secret she can’t believe he was able to keep – not to mention his washboard abs and his kung fu prowess – she joins her friend to find his sister without even a second thought. One of the film’s cutest cases for their friendship comes when Awkwafina screams, “you can explain on the plane,” as she storms out of Shaun’s place.
Their mission takes them through underground fight clubs, skyscraper scaffolding, ninja rings, and magical forests. It’s an amazing debut for Liu, whose mix of bulky, technical skills as an onscreen combatant will surely find him in similar roles to come.
The crux of this film, however, comes from the father Wenwu. Played by Leung, one of China’s most prominent, immersive, and celebrated actors, this antagonistic character can be as charming and sympathetic as he is fearsome. Though the character’s power comes from the rings, which can catapult him into the air and help him destroy whatever’s in his way, the strength of his presence comes from a level of grief and exposure unmatched by anything seen in this universe.
Swayed by the voices of soul-sucking demons, which hunt for power and feed off his vulnerabilities, Wenwu becomes a blinded, uncontrollable force for the worst. In his mind, for the first time, he is doing good – he believes his wife has been trapped, held prisoner by her former clan as punishment for marrying him – and that makes him unstoppable, even when his son and daughter are pleading otherwise. All this makes for an informed, invested finale which would otherwise be another one of the franchise’s CGI messes.
Unfortunately, because of how commanding Leung is onscreen and how compelling both his character and conflict are, the weaknesses of Shang-Chi as a character are left exposed. Beyond his incredible fighting abilities, and his sweet, appealing place between charm and heroism, there isn’t much personality to him. Liu’s best dramatic beats involve the struggle between the good and the evil passed onto him by his parents, an opposites-attract romance, for sure.
As a magnetic martial artist, he is able to drive that thread through Shang-Chi’s combat – thanks to a sweet, equally magnetic performance by Michelle Yeoh – though he struggles a bit when given the chance to do so through dialogue.
That being said, with Awkwafina, who he has a strong, platonic connection with, Liu’s also able to keep the film happily in its own world. The Avengers and whatever else is happening in their galaxy of movie stars and CGI fiends don’t have much sway in this film, which instead focuses on building deeper relationships with new, all the more appealing characters.
To prove that point, if more isn’t done with Xialing, the younger, embittered sister who makes the most of every scene she’s in (though she isn’t given enough), it will be looked upon as a grave missed opportunity by Marvel. Zhang has more than earned her spot in the MCU.
It remains to be seen how seriously the top dogs will take “Shang-Chi,” however. Almost a month before the film was set to release – having announced that it would be going exclusively to theaters, an odd shift in the new norm of simultaneous releases – Disney’s CEO Bob Chapek called it “an interesting experiment.” It was a tone death display, ignorant in many people’s eyes, including Liu’s. And it will be seen as such by many more people as they witness the first true triumph of the franchise since “Infinity War.”
“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is playing in theaters nationwide.
Luke Parker is a journalist and award-winning film critic covering government, schools, crime, and business. To send a tip or question, email firstname.lastname@example.org. For updates, follow him on Twitter: @lparkernews