Marvel’s ‘Shang-Chi’ Is a Bland ‘Black Panther’ Retread
But the superhero epic is almost saved by the great Tony Leung’s charismatic turn as its power-hungry villain.
Like Black Panther, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a representational pioneer—in this case, it’s the first Marvel Cinematic Universe entry (and the rare slam-bang studio extravaganza) to feature an Asian lead. Unfortunately, that’s not the only thing it has in common with Ryan Coogler’s 2018 superhero effort. A stew of dead parents, childhood trauma, lush and secret magical worlds, ancient armies, quasi-sympathetic villains, and an upright hero who must embrace his noble birthright over the course of an adventure in which he’s surrounded by formidable female warriors, Destin Daniel Cretton’s film follows its predecessor’s template to an enervating degree—a somewhat apt scenario, given the constant lip service it pays to the importance of legacy.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (in theaters Sept. 3) also shares with its MCU brethren an affection for elaborate mythology that’s explained in great big gobs of exposition, and an aesthetic marked by uninventive compositions and the franchise’s stock color template (i.e. an array of flat, glowing blues, greens, yellows and reds). That assembly-line form allows this newest series installment to feel right at home in the larger MCU, such that its notable cameos are sprinkled seamlessly throughout its narrative proper and mid-credits scene. Yet it contributes to a general seen-this-all-before quality to its tale, which hits every familiar beat in the Marvel playbook, and only distinguishes itself through the very element that’s customarily the studio’s most standard: its action.
While there’s something unimaginative (if not stereotypical) about Marvel making its first Asian-headlined movie a martial-arts spectacular, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is best during its highly choreographed combat set pieces, which are lucid, creative, and muscular. To be sure, by its conclusion, Cretton’s film resorts to the usual energy-blasting, roaring-monster CGI mayhem. Initially, though, this origin story packs a considerable wallop, highlighted by a prolonged, multi-stage skirmish on a San Francisco city bus that serves as the virtual coming-out showcase for Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), who to that point is known to us, his neighborhood, and his high school BFF and fellow valet Kate (Awkwafina) as simply mild-mannered, going-nowhere Shaun.
Through a herky-jerky plot structure in which intermittent flashbacks divulge its protagonist’s history, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings reveals itself to be a saga about fathers and children. Shang-Chi is the offspring of Wenwu (Tony Leung), a famed conqueror whose thousand-year-long quest for wealth and power—enabled by ten magical rings that he procured via barely explained means, and which make him immortal and virtually invincible—was interrupted when, during a search for the mystical city of Ta Lo, he met wind-controlling warrior Jiang Li (Fala Chen) and decided to settle down with her. Together, the couple had two kids, Shang-Chi and his sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), with Wenwu training his son to be the deadliest member of his lethal Ten Rings army. In the aftermath of his wife’s untimely demise, however, Wenwu went back to his evil ways and the family fell apart, with Shang-Chi fleeing to America and Xialing, spurred by her father’s sexist treatment of her, opting to become an imposing entrepreneur.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings kicks into gear once Wenwu goes looking for his son and daughter, whom he believes are the key to reuniting with his dead wife. Alas, the more it develops its characters and their relationships, the more Cretton and Dave Callaham’s script gets bogged down by overstuffed literal and thematic preoccupations. At various points along its journey, the film proves to be about family, grief, independence, self-confidence, greed, power, revenge and Shang-Chi’s self-actualization—a conventional smorgasbord of “finding yourself,” “seizing your destiny,” “letting go” and “honoring the past” that’s never very original. A brief early nod to Asian American discrimination and a cornucopia of Asian-inspired imagery (much of it involving dragons) strive to give the material a distinctive cultural identity. Too often, though, they come across as window dressing for a venture that wants to keep things on a well-worn MCU track.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ finest sequences wear their cinematic influences on their sleeve (be it House of Flying Daggers, or the work of Jackie Chan) while delivering the superhero-flavored insanity its audience craves. However, what the film boasts in superficial style (at least at the outset), it sacrifices in personality. Liu is suitably stout and athletic as Shang-Chi, but like Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa, he’s also the least dynamic figure in his own movie. Liu seems most comfortable during jokey bookending scenes opposite Awkwafina, and the same goes for Awkwafina herself, whose conventional comedy-relief sidekick schtick grates almost as soon as Shang-Chi and Kate depart San Francisco for Macau and, afterwards, the mountainous headquarters of Wenwu.
As with all Marvel endeavors, there are quite a few memorable touches, from a forest maze that hungrily closes in on those who attempt to navigate it, to Wenwu’s uniquely employed power rings (which he wears on his forearms), to a bizarrely furry, faceless creature that’s best friends with a surprise-appearance individual who’s closely related to Wenwu. Unfortunately, things mostly move along in a mechanical manner. Whether in Western or Eastern metropolises, or in far-off lands that are home to giant beasts that threaten the stability of the entire universe, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings frequently feels small and safe, save for those sporadic moments when it enthusiastically indulges in its love of martial-arts and provides Liu with opportunities to flaunt his fearsome fighting skills.
Still, if it’s too much to expect the MCU to break the mold that’s made it the 21st century’s reigning pop-culture king, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings at least continues the studio’s track record of enlisting the talents of truly great artists. Here, that would be the commanding and charismatic Leung. As a man tormented by loss and corrupted by dreams of vengeance and reunion, the venerable Hong Kong actor brings as much depth to Wenwu as the project will allow, all while relishing the chance to wreak havoc—and kick superpowered ass—in a variety of elaborate brawls. Equally despicable and empathetic, his entertaining baddie is a breath of fresh air in an otherwise been-here, done-that affair.