My Marvel cup runneth over, and Black Widow was a bore, so it was with a somewhat trudging gait that I took myself to see Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, whose title sounds like a drive-in movie from 1974. Yet the 25th offering in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a pleasant surprise: The action scenes are nifty, and the underlying family drama has a lot of heart. I would have shifted the balance a bit from spectacle to emotion, but then I would have been fired for failing to spend enough money on digital effects.
A cheesy prologue gives us the backstory of a thousand-year-old Chinese immortal named Wenwu (Tony Leung) who gains superpowers from ten magical rings. If they’re worn on the forearms they’re not rings, but I guess “Legend of the Ten Bracelets” doesn’t sound very badass. Charged up with the rings, Wenwu slays his enemies by firing blue lightning at them. If there had been two hours of this, I wouldn’t have made it to the end.
But! As artfully directed and co-written by an Asian American named Destin Daniel Cretton, who made the heartfelt indie Short Term 12 (2013) and the injustice drama Just Mercy (2019), the movie proceeds to a disarmingly lovely forest scene, worthy of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon that is both a fight and a seduction, in which mighty Wenwu falls for a similarly super-powered lady, Jiang Li (Fala Chen). Decades later, in San Francisco, we meet their son, Shaun (Simu Liu), whose buddy Katy (Awkwafina) has lost touch with her Chinese roots and barely speaks the language. In a long, inventive martial-arts fight with a gang of attackers on a city bus, we learn that Shaun is a bit more than he appears to be, and from then on, the movie is a spirited blend of action, comedy, and family drama. A mysterious message brings Shaun (whose real name is Shang-Chi) to reconnect with his estranged sister, Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), to Macau, the Las Vegas of the east, where the siblings’ dad tells both kids that he needs them to join him to invade and possibly destroy the magical forbidden civilization in the forest from which their mother came.
The family dynamics hold the film together; Leung’s character Wenwu, driven by the loss of his wife, has a completely understandable motivation: to get her back, if necessary by going to extremes. His anguish makes him the best kind of villain — one who is directionally sound and even slightly sympathetic. Meanwhile, the arc of Awkwafina’s character, a resolutely 21st-century American girl who leans into her heritage and learns ancient skills as the movie goes on, is both a source of comic energy and something more profound than that, lending this blockbuster some of the same warmth and respect for overseas ancestry that characterized The Farewell, in which the actress played a Queens girl who learns to appreciate the old country. The film is being hyped as a breakthrough because it has an (almost) entirely Asian cast, but that matters less than its genuinely plugged-in feel for Chinese culture, with its hushed respect for nature, its superstitious fixation on communing with the dead, its yearning for hidden lost kingdoms from a nobler past, and even its karaoke jokes. (Don’t write in to tell me karaoke is Japanese; it has tremendous valence among Chinese as well.)
Still, I wish Shang-Chi had respected its audience a bit more. As it is, the movie assumes that no one can possibly be expected to endure more than 20 minutes without a ginormous fight scene, regardless of whether it advances the plot. As in Black Widow, in which two sisters who haven’t seen each other for a while catch up by having a mega-bout instead of just opening a bottle of Pinot Grigio like everyone else, there’s a completely pointless epic throwdown between Shang-Chi and his sister. The movie never really does nail the emotional bond between the siblings that should be near the center of the story; a single, quiet, well-written five-minute scene with the two of them just talking would have done it.
There are also so many comic-relief moments (including a surprising return of a minor character from way back in MCU history) that they tend to the cloying, and as is usually the case with these movies, the screenwriters are so generous in handing out superpowers to everyone that the characters don’t seem to be trying very hard, nor to be particularly vulnerable, both of which flaws undercut the supposed excitement of the many fights. One such clash ends with the two sides saying, in essence, “Never mind, let’s be allies. Good thing we didn’t hurt one another.” So Shang-Chi isn’t a must-see (and its ties to the rest of the MCU, as revealed in a couple of post-credit sequences, are weak), but it’s an engaging action movie brimming with both style and soul.