A Marvel legend will rise.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the second of four scheduled Marvel Cinematic Universe movies in 2021, is far from a perfect movie. Its mythology takes an uncommonly long time to set up, its hero is somewhat bland, and it has many of the same third-act problems as most MCU movies.
That said, it boasts fantastic martial arts and action sequences, an all-time villain performance, and represents the integration of the MCU with an indie filmmaker that’s as strong a fit as any since Taika Waititi took over the Thor franchise. Overall, it’s a successful effort, one that takes some risks that pay off.
If you remember The Mandarin, the fearsome Chinese supervillain from Iron Man 3 who turned out to be a frontman actor played by Ben Kingsley? Shang-Chi delves into the backstory of the real Mandarin and gives us our first extended look at the East Asian wing of the Marvel universe.
Shang-Chi was directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, who made one of my favorite films of the current century, 2013’s Short Term 12. His subsequent films, The Glass Castle and Just Mercy weren’t close to that level, with both of the latter films unsuccessful shoehorning in the star of Short Term 12, Brie Larson.
But Cretton proves the right director for this material, despite his earlier work not having much in the way of either action or fighting.
The film begins with a setup of the “Ten Rings” mythology, which consists of a marriage between the man who would become the leader of the Ten Rings crime organization and a woman from a magical land. There are also, literally, ten rings, which can be kept on the carrier’s arms and used as weapons.
The couple’s son is the titular Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), who has run away from China to live a very non-superhero-like life in modern-day San Francisco, where he works as a car valet along with platonic pal Katy (Awkwafina, playing one of the film’s multiple comic relief characters.)
Once he’s attacked on a city bus and shows a previously unseen aptitude for martial arts, Shang-Chi, whose name had been anglicized as “Shaun,” gets drawn back into his family feud, which involves his father (Tony Leung) trying to resurrect his dead wife from her mythical land of origin.
The action set pieces are fantastic, beginning with that fight scene on the San Francisco bus. Between this and the Bob Odenkirk-starring Nobody, it’s been a watershed cinema year for massive fights on public buses, which serve as a violent coming-out party for the previously meek hero.
Not far behind is a visit to a multi-story underground club in Macau, which is overseen by Shang-Chi’s long-lost sister (Meng’er Zhang.) We’re later introduced to leading lights of Asian cinema, including Michelle Yeoh as Shang-Chi’s aunt, who is part of the final fight.
Simu Liu, in the title role, has the necessary physical charisma but not much of a personality. Awkwafina takes up more oxygen, but she’s dialed way down from her part in, say, Crazy Rich Asians.
But the strongest performance in the film belongs to Tony Leung, a giant of world cinema who, at age 59, is finally appearing in his first Hollywood role. The veteran of the films of Wong Kar-wai and Ang Lee is no stranger to North American art houses, but he makes an easy transition to the multiplex as a multilayered father character who’s more an antagonist than an outright villain.
There are times when you may forget you’re watching a Marvel film — there’s only one brief reference to The Blip and not much indication of how these characters were affected by it. But by the end, some familiar faces show up, and it’s clear that things will be connected with the characters we already know.
As for the mythology itself, its introduction is quite confusing, although things get clearer as the film goes on. Also confusing is the ending, with a final blowout that offers the same over-CGI and lack of spatial coherence that so often plague the third acts of Marvel movies. A particular nadir is a part where the dragons fight each other, which recalls that battle episode from the final Game of Thrones season in which it was impossible to tell what the hell was going on.
Shang-Chi, unlike the year’s other big releases from Disney, will not get the Disney+ Premier Access treatment and will come out in theaters only, which will represent a test of both customers’ willingness to go to the theater and of the appeal of this material. Despite some missteps, the film is a strong effort from Disney and Marvel.