Review: Rousing 'Shang-Chi' flexes heart and soul
Courtesy of Marvel Studios
The 25th entry in the elongated Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” exemplifies Marvel Studios’ credibility and is supplied with plenty of heart and soul. Bogged down by the usual CGI antics, Destin Daniel Cretton’s stamp on the Marvel universe welcomes a worthy Avenger into the mix: Simu Liu’s Shang-Chi, an ancient warrior with an expansive family lineage, and a sacred pendant to protect. “Shang-Chi” follows similar MCU trajectories in terms of corny dialogue, wry humor, and brawl shakedowns, but there’s an elegance conjured from the picture’s roots, delicately choreographed martial arts scenes with “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” callbacks stand out, but the subtle balance of spectacle and emotion represent some of the studio’s finer works.
Marvel is in reset mode, having dug through the archives of adapting A-list comic book properties: “Iron Man,” “Black Panther,” “Thor,” and “Captain America.” And if you pay attention to the series’ (“Loki” and “WandaVision”) happening at home, you’re well aware of where things stand and “Shang-Chi” will do little to disrupt the flow, but Cretton (“Short Term 12” and “Just Mercy”)-like Takia Watiti and Shane Black before him-gets to tinker with a monstrous budget and cultivate solid character work. Marvel loves plucking rising indie filmmakers and handing them huge paydays where a signature touch can give characters their spunk or, in the case of Waititi’s “Thor Ragnarok,” redefine existing ones.
With that, “Shang-Chi” is an origin tale, and one of the better iterations save for “Iron Man” or “Black Panther,” which can be a steep hill to climb. It’s never easy creating worldwide sensations (sorry “Ant Man”), but “Shang-Chi: and the Legend of the Ten Rings” births an engaging backstory for the titular character, not to mention the influence it’ll have on younger generations witnessing their first Asian-American led superhero film. Credit where it’s due.
In any case, there’s buckets of exposition to unload (some more important than others) as a cheesy prologue lays the foundation for “Shang-Chi;” where legend tells of a thousand-year-old warrior named Wenwu (Tony Leung - commanding in all the best ways) who gained his powers from ten magical rings (are they rings if they rest on the forearm?) The beholder of the rings is usually unstoppable, bending and contorting objects to their will and can slay enemies by firing lightning bolts. Glorified infinity stones if I ever saw them.
Decades later, in present day San Francisco, we meet Wenwu’s son, Shaun (Liu), parking cars with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina), having strayed from the family business. In the film’s best scene, an energetically rousing tussle on a speeding city bus where several goons try to snatch his pendant that rivals the elevator sequence in “Winter Soldier,” we learn Shaun is more than meets the eye (and he can throw a punch!). From here, “Shang-Chi” settles into the vintage Marvel blend of classic zingers and family drama. An encoded message lures Shuan (aka Shang-Chi) back to his estranged sister, Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) where their father recruits them to unlock a secret pathway he believes is the miracle elixir that’ll bring their deceased mother back to life. A small caveat includes the possible decimation of mom’s hometown village, which doesn’t sit well with our heroes and the eventual battle of good vs evil arises.
The family drama stitched into the fabric of “Shang-Chi” amplifies character development, and Wenwu makes a compelling villain where his motivations-trying to resurrect the love of his life-offers sympathy. It’s the type of anguish that raises the stakes and gives the final battle some umph, plus they’re are some cool looking dragons too. Such appreciation of Chinese culture, from communicating with the dead to cracks about karaoke bars, ground this supercharged adventure with a healthy dose of realism. It helps that Liu radiates everyman charm, an easy hero to root for in times of peril despite his obscure character arc being explained and then re-explained again.
Though “Shang-Chi: and the Legend of the Ten Rings” might suffer from Marvel fatigue and the film’s goal of establishing a new primary player for future installments isn’t lost on the casual viewer, at least Cretton knows how to build intimate character drama from scratch and work alongside the MCU's ecosystem. Even when these filmmakers are honing their vision within producer Kevin Feige’s carefully curated blueprint, the good ones always land on their feet. “Shang-Chi” proves the studio’s heavily modified and meticulously crafted formula is starting to show cracks, but taking unknown characters and pairing them with excellent filmmakers, turning the movies into must-see events as a result, remains sound.
“Shang-Chi” in all its savvy, unsung glory is no different.
SHANG-CHI: AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS is now playing only in theaters.