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Marvel's 1st Asian Superhero Gets The Full Blockbuster Treatment In 'Shang-Chi'

Simu Liu plays a young kung fu master who's hiding from his diabolical father in <em>Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.</em>
Marvel/Disney Studios
Simu Liu plays a young kung fu master who's hiding from his diabolical father in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

The best moments in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings are the ones where you almost — almost — forget you're watching a Marvel movie. Some of the hallmarks are still there: the deft comic banter, the high-flying action, the passing references to other characters and events in the Marvel universe.

But the movie doesn't get bogged down in series minutiae. It takes place some time after the last two Avengers movies — you know, when half the world was wiped out and then brought back, and several fan favorites said goodbye. But you don't need to know or care about any of that to enjoy this mostly stand-alone story, which brings us into new dramatic terrain.

New cultural terrain, too. Nearly 50 years after the character of Shang-Chi made his comic-book debut, during the '70s martial-arts craze, he's now the first Asian superhero to get the full Marvel movie treatment. When we first meet Shang-Chi, played by Simu Liu from TV's Kim's Convenience, he's a young man calling himself Shaun and living a pretty ordinary life in San Francisco.

But one day, Shaun and his slackerish friend Katy — an amusing Awkwafina— are violently ambushed on a bus, and Shaun fends off their attackers with a dazzling array of martial-arts moves. Turns out there's a lot he hasn't told Katy, like the fact that he's a kung fu master who's been hiding for years from his father, a very evil, very powerful centuries-old Chinese warlord named Wenwu.

Now his father has found him and sent his goons after him. Determined to figure out why, Shaun flies to Macao with Katy to meet up with his estranged sister, Xialing. Once there, the movie becomes a full-blown dysfunctional family drama with darkly funny overtones.

At times I felt like I was watching a comedy about the all-too-relatable tensions between a traditional Chinese parent and his wayward Westernized offspring, though one in which, of course, the fate of the world hangs in the balance. The siblings have to put their own issues aside and unite against their diabolical father, who derives his power from the 10 rings of the title — metal armbands that have made him immortal and almost invincible.

Wenwu is the latest version of a notorious Marvel supervillain called the Mandarin who was introduced in the '60s as a mustache-twirling Fu Manchu stereotype. But the filmmakers have smartly redefined the character, who's played — in an inspired piece of casting — by the Hong Kong screen legend Tony Leung.

You might know Leung from his work in Wong Kar-wai's magnificent romantic dramas such as In the Mood for Love. Here, he gives us a more extreme vision of obsessive desire: Years ago, Wenwu tragically lost his wife, Shang-Chi and Xialing's mother. Now he's hellbent on bringing her back, with a scheme that could have devastating consequences for all humanity.

All this family angst gives Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings unusual emotional intensity for a superhero movie. Xialing, nicely played by Meng'er Zhang, resents her father for neglecting her as a child, which makes it all the more unfortunate that the movie somewhat sidelines her, too. As for Shang-Chi, he has a complicated, vaguely Oedipal rivalry with his father, who turned him into the fighting machine he is and subjected him to all manner of cruel manipulation and abuse. Liu is an appealing lead, though he doesn't always fully convey the depths of his character's trauma.

He's better in the lighter, funnier scenes with Awkwafina, and having worked as a stunt performer, he's terrific in the movie's extended fight sequences. They're a big improvement on the blandly staged, drably lit scenes that typically pass for action in Marvel movies. The director and co-writer, Destin Daniel Cretton, may not be the second coming of John Woo, but he's done a fine job of absorbing any number of Asian action influences, from the slapstick fisticuffs of Jackie Chan to the balletic grace of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Speaking of Crouching Tiger: It's delightful to see the great Michelle Yeoh turn up late in the show as a benevolent mentor to Shang-Chi. She prepares him for an epic showdown with his father that feels a bit like this series' past epic showdowns, full of apocalyptic stakes, bloodless casualties and visual-effects overkill. But the finale also has a depth of feeling that sets it apart and leaves you wanting to linger in this particular world a while longer — before the next Marvel movie comes along.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.