September 13, 2021

The latest addition to the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe is Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. A comic book story inspired by Chinese mythology and centered on a martial arts-trained assassin, Shang-Chi’s slick hand-to-hand fight scenes bring a fresh palette to the genre.

Humor has always been an awkward element for Disney’s Marvel franchise. The film conglomerate aimed to bring the superhero cinematic universe to the big screen in a format accessible to the whole family. This meant making certain sacrifices — namely, eschewing the dark and serious tones that color much of the DC Comics world in lieu of grand action set pieces driven by lighthearted, banter-laden dialogue.

This formula worked well with some of Marvel’s earliest offerings, with Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark in Iron Man and even some later additions such as Guardians of the Galaxy. But at other times, Disney’s aversion to genuine emotion proved detrimental. In Infinity War, for example, all the tension from the lead-up to a scene where two characters finally kiss was swiftly butchered with a slapstick quip.

Shang-Chi takes a slightly different route. Largely inspired by Jackie Chan’s martial arts classics from the ’80s and ’90s, the film cleverly laces its action sequences with humor instead of just seasoning its dialogue. In one scene, you’re on a bus, barreling down San Francisco streets as Simu Liu deftly jumps and ducks, punches and kicks his way around the moving platform while a passenger parodies a social media livestreamer: “It’s your boy Cliff, coming at you live from the bus. I actually did take a little bit of martial arts as a youth, so I’m gonna try and rate this fight.”Blending classic martial arts films with Marvel’s own CGI, Shang-Chi sets up some of the best sequences in the Marvel canon.

Afforded immortality and supernatural powers by the magic Ten Rings he found eons ago, Shang-Chi’s father, Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung), has slowly become a servant to the rings’ lust for power. If this sounds familiar, it’s no coincidence — this part of the film feels heavily drawn from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

Similar to a waning Michael Corleone circa The Godfather: Part III, Xu eventually retires his rings in favor of raising a family. As the retired mobster cliche goes, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” Xu’s retirement is short-lived as the gangs he’d conquered soon find him to exact their revenge, killing his wife.

Shaun, aka Shang-Chi, played by Liu, is a hotel valet, aimlessly wafting through life. It isn’t until a cadre of mercenaries attacks him on a bus that he’s revealed to be a deadly spy with a backstory. The film follows Shang-Chi back to his late mother’s fabled village, where he mustdefend the inhabitants from his bereaved father.

Though Shang-Chi’s main cast is no slouch, Leung in particular, it’s the supporting cast that carries the film. Awkwafina as Shaun’s Americanized friend Katy stole nearly every scene she was in — an impressive feat for a character with no superpowers in a superhero film. At 77 years old, Ben Kingsley was another highlight, surprisingly present for most of the film, delivering some of the funniest dialogue.

Whereas with humor, Marvel found the right balance for the film, its overindulgence in CGI felt superfluous and ultimately hindered Shang-Chi’s third act. The film’s forte is its slick martial arts fights, each choreographed with the precision of a chess game between two grandmasters. But such scenes were vexingly lacking in the film’s final act.

To its detriment, toward the end, Shang-Chi jettisoned the hand-to-hand combat in lieu of trying to appear grander than it needed to be. It introduced giant CGI set pieces as the main actors took a backseat to their computer-generated and 10-story high counterparts, duking it out with magical Marvel weaponry. Sometimes the best things are the simplest.

Despite complaints from critics about indifference toward Asian-fronted action films, the latest Marvel blockbuster brought in a whopping $100 million on its opening Labor Day weekend, with a strong subsequent week. Its few shortcomings aside, Shang-Chi remains an enjoyable and fresh addition to the Marvel universe.

Originally Published at The Washington Examiner