Marvel Comics have been around for a long time now, and their comic book characters, historically a diverse palette of heroes coming from all areas and realms of imagination, have evolved and changed through the times. As the Marvel Cinematic Universe now moves into its Phase 4, a seemingly even more ambitious version of the already intricate yet varied array of stories and characters that have captivated the world, progenitor and guiding hand Kevin Feige is flexing in unimaginable ways. The latest entry, ‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’, impossibly takes what began with a relatively unknown Bruce Lee rip-off property from the 70s, and crafts a stunning, captivating, martial and mystical arts epic around him, while christening a new action star to boot in the charismatic Simu Liu.
The character of Shang-Chi has a fraught and troublesome history, stemming from Marvel’s gaining of the rights to the historically problematic character of Fu Manchu, the mustached “yellow menace” caricatured Chinese villain. In the 1970s comics, Manchu was the ancient father of Shang-Chi, the proclaimed Master of Kung Fu, and the stories centered around their conflict. The new film plays off this dynamic, reinventing it in fact, setting up a fantasy world in a pre-title sequence with Tony Leung’s Wenwu, a power hungry warlord who magically extends his life after procuring the “ten rings”, artifacts of unknown origin that grant him enhancements. The wrench in his reign of dominance is his failure at the gate of a mystical realm, a beautifully rendered wushu battle where he loses to the graceful hands of Fala Chen’s Li, Shang’s mother. It is their love that causes him to lay down his ultimate weapons and she to give up her own mystical powers to raise a family.
It’s a busy and involving initial setup, handled in the compelling Marvel exposition manner, showing and telling with true stakes and gravitas. The movie then shifts to modern day San Francisco, with a twenty-something Shang-Chi (going by Sean), who is valet parking choice cars with his best friend Katy, the always amazingly charismatic Awkwafina. As our hero is pulled into the web of Kung-Fu action and adventure instigated by his father’s ruthless organization, so is an enraptured audience, starving for this kind of perfectly choreographed martial arts extravaganza. The first few major set pieces of hand-to-hand combat, including a fight on a moving bus, and a death-defying scaffolding battle in Macao, are some of the greatest fight scenes in any Marvel movie – invigorating, inventive, and unbelievably energizing.
In addition to being electrifying sequences that captivate a primed audience, they advance the plot of unfolding intrigue, carefully revealing a heretofore unknown character in the MCU with Shang-Chi. While Shang-Chi is reluctant to return to the dangerous world of his youth, it is immediately apparent that his core is inherently heroic. Inhabited by Liu, Shang-Chi is a welcome audience catalyst into this unfolding magical corner of the MCU steeped in Chinese mythology and ancient lore. He is a breath of fresh air, as adept at carrying this movie as he is at working alongside a stacked cast of legendary Asian actors, including Michelle Yeoh (‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’) and the aforementioned Leung. Tony Leung may not be known to a wide American audience, but based on his stellar work here as one of Marvel’s most complex villains, it would not be surprising if people seek out his previous work, particularly his films with Wong Kar-Wai (‘Chungking Express’ and ‘In the Mood for Love’ among others).
As with the best origin stories, ‘Shang-Chi’ effectively takes the audience on an engaging trip where every destination and character interaction allow the hero’s backstory to unfurl. While this truly is a stand alone entry in the ever burgeoning MCU, there are plenty of ties to other established familiar denizens, as well as connections to its past and allusions to its current state. None of this distracts from the core figure at the movie’s center, and his own compelling supporting cast and unique setting. More importantly for Marvel, and any critics thinking this well has to dry up sometime, ‘Shang-Chi’ represents a bright and exciting future . . .
Directed By: Destin Daniel Cretton
Written By: Dave Callaham, Destin Daniel Cretton, and Andrew Langan
Running Time: 132 min.
* * * * (out of 4 stars) -OR- A