Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is planted firmly in mid-tier Marvel territory and that’s to say it’s quite an enjoyable origin spectacle with humorous moments sprinkled in. The formula is adhered to, but there’s enough quality entertainment to make it worthwhile. We expect an abundance of Daddy issues in our MCU tales and we sure get it. What makes it new(ish) is the patriarchal villain is given dimensions that prevent another franchise feature where the bad guy is the weakest character (an attribute that also pertained to Black Panther).
Shaun (Simu Liu) has a fascinating backstory for a San Francisco valet. He’s rather aimless in his pursuits and seems content parking whips of the wealthy with his bestie Katy (Awkwafina, providing sturdy comic relief). He grew up overseas as Shang-Chi, the heir to his father Wenwu’s (Tony Leung) world conquering dynasty. Dad is an immortal ruler who fooled around and fell in love with Ying Li (Fala Chen). Shang-Chi is the first born with sister Xi Xialing following. After some past associates of Wenwu off Mom, our teenage title character is eventually given the choice to exact revenge or abandon his birthright. He chooses the latter but can’t escape his upbringing when Papa comes calling.
That’s when Shang-Chi is forced to show Katy that he’s a well trained martial arts master and superhero in waiting during a meticulously choreographed action sequence aboard a bus. He also tracks down his estranged sister (Meng’er Zhang) who now runs an underground fighting circuit. They’re reunited with Wenwu, whose wrists are adorned with the ten rings that give him his otherworldly powers. If you need some context for MCU purposes, think of them as like Infinity Stones but they… actually just think Infinity Stones and you should be fine.
Wenwu is convinced that their departed matriarch is still alive and being held captive in Ta Lo, a mystical place filled with CG beasts that’s only reachable through an ever shifting forest. His kids aren’t buying it and they put it upon themselves to stop Dad, his henchmen, and his Stones (sorry… Rings) from their nefarious land acquisition. In Ta Lo, they are subject to more training from their aunt (the welcome sight of Michelle Yeoh).
Like the karaoke ditties that Shaun and Katy drunkenly belt after a day’s work, this material has been covered better before. We are in rare MCU territory with nearly all never before seen characters (though there’s a few recognizable surprise appearances that I won’t spoil). The faces may change yet their circumstances remain the same. Part of Rings is told through flashbacks that feel familiar. They’re brief enough that they generally don’t weigh down the forward momentum.
Shang-Chi and Xi Xialing are clearly being set up for further duty in this universe and I’d say the jury is still out on how effective they’ll be as leaders of the new Marvel school. Tony Leung, a legend in Chinese cinema, makes for a compelling villain with more layers than your run-of-the-mill MCU antagonist.
By the time we reach the climax, Rings is hampered with some indecipherable and visually unappealing CG mayhem. That serves as an unfortunate drag on the proceedings, but much of what precedes it is a pleasurable intro to some new players that I’m anxious to see again.
*** (out of four)