When the Marvel Cinematic Universe uses its tremendous power to run a manufacturing line, it’s telling. It’s just as telling when one of their projects has a genuinely personal spark to it, allowing franchise values like great spectacle, spectacular performances, and intricate family portraits to triumph. The most recent entry in this category is Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, following in the footsteps of earlier Marvel films that offered a vision and became benchmarks, such as “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” “Black Panther,” and “Thor: Ragnarok.” This film, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, fits within the Marvel universe in its own way, yet it has the soulfulness that few other films have.
Shang-Chi, played by Simu Liu, is a vital piece of a fractured family with a history of infighting. The ten rings confer such great power to Shang Chi’s power-hungry father, Wenwu, who has lived for 1,000 years and founded a society known as the Ten Rings that has destroyed kingdoms and manipulated events worldwide more essential than the dysfunctional family relations.
There was happiness when Wenwu married Jiang Li (Fala Chen). They tied the knot and began a family. However, once Shang-Chi’s mother died, a newly hideous Wenwu tried to mature his son by turning him into a murderer, prompting the young boy to abandon Wenwu and his sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang). Cretton directed “Short Term 12,” an Avengers-style exhibition with up-and-coming indie talent. (Brie Larson, Keith Stanfield, Rami Malek, and others), keeps the visceral, personal stakes in this script (written by himself, Dave Callaham, and Andrew Lanham), so the superhero context is a bonus to the drama. The picture is a lavish dance that glides and hovers over a chasm of sadness.
When Shang-Chi, now an adult in America, rides the bus with his companion Katy (Awkwafina) up and down the hills of San Francisco, the narrative unfolds. Shang-Chi is attacked by a group of goons for a green pendant he wears around his neck, and Shaun’s enormous courage is revealed in a beat that is prefaced like a power-up (much to Katy’s amusement). His fighting skills, meanwhile, contribute to an astonishing melee sequence of hand-to-hand combat, with the camera gazing for long shots and freely entering and exiting the rolling bus, much like its impromptu hero.
The moment lacks a wow factor (especially in contrast to how “Nobody” did the same thing with appropriate blood earlier this year). Still, it compensates by being fast-paced, even longer than you expect, and highly amusing. It’s the beginning of Liu’s career as an action star, as well as a great premiere for a character that will appear in many more tense battle scenes in the future.
However, the strength of this picture comes through in the eyes of his father, Wenwu. One of the film’s most creative moves is casting Tony Leung for him to recreate the same magic he’s had in countless Hong Kong romances and dramas. This film belongs to Leung. With the same silent passion and serenity that made “In the Mood for Love” one of the greatest romances of all time, Leung defeats armies, raises a family, and strives to overcome terrible grief. His presence is made all the more potent by the ten blue rings that assist him in catapulting around and dismantling whatever is in his way.
When Wenwu hears his wife’s voice from behind a rock, he transforms into a Darth Vader-like tyrant. He then begins to rampage through the mother’s enchanted house, Ta Lo, to reach a cave that everyone else (even his son and daughter) knows contains an apocalyptic, soul-sucking dragon. Because the fury and anguish it portrays are fittingly Leung-sized, it’s one of the best performances from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Cretton can carry this compelling film from one scene to the next with a strong understanding of a brother and sister attempting to prevent their father from ruining everything because he cannot move on. It’s a more deadly menace than the traditional prospect of world dominance, and it echoes the script’s painful past of Shang-Chi and his equally talented and aggrieved sister, Jiang Li. With a few intense twists along the road, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” transforms into an adventure and a return to a serene land from another era, with Michelle Yeoh giving a charming, mesmerizing performance. As graceful as the rest of the film, these scenes tell how Shang-Chi learned two contrasting fighting styles—or, more accurately, life philosophies—from his mother and father.
It doesn’t seem like an accident that a big Hollywood tentpole focused on character-based kung fu would have such grandiose battle scenes, which only adds to the film’s novelty. When it comes to coordinating a fight set-piece that shocks the audience, Cretton and his team constantly play with height, illumination, reflective surfaces, and staging and then foreground the choreography as the main spectacle; it’s not just about who’s chucking the punches and kicks. An unintentional film nerd reaction, several beats in these sharply edited segments blew me back in my chair.
The exhilarating embrace of clarity in “Shang-Chi,” nudges your imagination rather than doing all the work for you. It spreads the fantastic special effects that enrich the magic of this story and the universe of its protagonists. Water spills from walls hovers in the air, and forms a map of icicles, a dramatic way of expressing a moment that a hologram would generally represent. The film even has a lovely animated cute sidekick that deftly subverts the stereotype of plush-looking sidekicks with pretty faces. The most prominent use of CGI—the kind that requires black clouds, as seen in the huge battle in “Avengers: Endgame”—is saved for the final massive climax, which is such an over-the-top, euphoric bumpy ride that you can’t help but cheer for.
The Avengers, at least the new lineup, are present outside “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” but Cretton’s picture gains from developing its deeper familial and friend bonds as two valet workers thrust into another adventure, this one more intense than their karaoke nights. As two valet workers, Liu and Awkwafina enjoy endearing platonic chemistry. As the film progresses to a major conflict, Awkwafina, in particular, becomes a critical source of comedy for the narrative and a welcome viewer surrogate. In comparison to the story’s darker themes, she makes the humor pop, even more, making various passages in the film not only thrilling but also charming and humorous.
When it comes to Shang-Chi himself, if you take away the comedic relief that his parents shower on him or the competing schools of combat that swirl within him, the figure lacks identity. When one considers Liu’s performance, there’s an apparent vacuum, considering how he blends a striking, hefty presence with sweet naivety, similar to Channing Tatum’s own box office dominating days. The fact that the primary character in this script’s sequel needs more focus reveals the script’s faulty balancing act; the same could be said about other intriguing characters like Xialing, a spiteful badass in her own right who isn’t given enough screen time.
Without giving anything away, the film attempts to address Marvel’s previously problematic portrayals of Asian characters. While the scenes are amusing, they remind me of two things: how impossible it is for these Marvel films to exist in a void and how much more work needs to be done. Even those who contributed to the film’s creation have difficulty talking about it, as when Disney CEO Bob Chapek insensitively stated that it was an “interesting experiment,” a phrase that denotes a secondary position, something unauthorized. The comment is foolish in many ways, but especially after seeing “Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten” triumph so many times. It celebrates big and tiny ideas, whether in integrated action scenes, embracing platonic friendships in a high-budget film, or introducing a new thrilling hero. He also needs to teach his friend (and the viewer) how to say his name correctly. Marvel and Disney are not doing something new with this film. It’s a hopeful model for how they can get things back on track.