Marvel's Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings leaps into Asian-American mythos in much in the way that Black Panther brought Afrocentric freshness to the indestructible Marvel universe.
I don’t know if Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings will have the same impact as Black Panther — either commercially or culturally. But this latest Marvel movie has enough positive elements (action, humor and a story with deep family roots) to constitute an entertaining addition to Marvel’s apparently endless stream of movies.
Shang-Chi gets off to a lively start. Sean (Simu Liu) -- later to become Shang-Chi -- works as a valet in San Francisco along with pal Katy (Awkwafina). It doesn't take long for the two to take a dizzying ride in a borrowed car.
Sean and Katy also encounter a group of thugs on a bus, a sequence in which clever martial-arts maneuvers are augmented by the excitement of watching a large vehicle careen through the streets of San Francisco.
Sean, we learn, has a secret. He was raised in China by a father (Tony Leung) who schooled him in martial arts. Leung's Wenwu was no pipe-and-slippers dad. Centuries ago, he acquired the fabled 10 rings which gave him superhero powers and eternal life. He expected his son to take his place as head of a powerful secret force of warriors.
Shang-Chi had other ideas. He fled China when he was 14.
Upon his return to Macau 10 years later, Shang reunites with his younger sister Xialing (Meng'er Zhang). She's still upset that Shang left her with a father who didn't treat his daughter the way he treated his son.
The plot eventually takes Shang and Katy to the mythic land of Ta-Lo where they meet Shang's aunt Ying Nan (Michelle Yeoh), a wise woman who makes positive use of her martial arts-skills.
Like most Marvel movies, Shang-Chi gobbles up comic-book mythology as if were popcorn. Wuwen, who gave up his powers when he married Shang's mother (Fala Chen), believes that he can reunite with his late wife if he penetrates a seal that separates an evil soul-sucking dragon from humanity.
The meeting of Wuwen and Chen's Jiang Li produces some of the movie's more intriguing and well-choreographed action. Li's the only person who's able to subdue Wuwen's fighting spirit.
It makes more sense to see all this in a theater than to write about it in a review. Besides, the mythic elements of the story are supported by recognizable emotions: a husband's inability to accept his wife's death, a son's struggle to accept his true identity, and a sister who can't totally abandon her sibling resentments.
The Ta-Lo sequences include an element of cuteness in the form of a furry faceless, winged creature that struck me as more Disney than Marvel, a little too precious perhaps.
But Shang-Chi never skimps on action. A fight that takes place on scaffolding attached to a high rise offers vertiginous fun.
I've read that Liu wanted to model his fighting style on Jackie Chan. The fight sequences contain elements of Chan-like humor but, in my view, don’t rise to the level of Chan’s best work, which admittedly makes for a high bar.
Director Destin Daniel Cretton and his team were smart to give Shang-Chi a sidekick and the movie suffers a bit when Awkwafina is off-screen. Liu masters the physical aspects of the role but sometimes comes up short on personality. Oh well, that's probably a marginal criticism considering that Shang-Chi is an emerging character.
The supporting cast -- particularly Yeoh, Leung, and Zhang -- offer more than window dressing. They really supports the movie, as does Benedict Wong, whose role is smaller but still strong. Ben Kingsley adds humor as Trevor Slattery, a fading TV actor whose presence is played for laughs.
The movie's ending -- involving dragons (good and evil), a father/son battle, and lots of fiery combat -- can't entirely avoid the bloat that seems obligatory in these efforts.
Overall, though, Shang-Chi succeeds in introducing a new Marvel character to the screen and proves an invigorating addition to the Marvel universe.
Equally important in a world in which sequels seem mandatory, the movie leaves you wanting to see more of Shang-Chi and Katy, a comic-book duo with promising potential.