If Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Avatar had a baby, it would be something like Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (hereafter referred to simply as Shang-Chi). Not being a particular Marvel fanboy, but being interested in how Marvel studiously lays out their universe and the superheroes therein, I can say easily that Shang-Chi does its job. And that is introducing a new-to-most-of-us hero that will join the others. Like Black Widow, it’s an origin story, but of someone who has (spoiler alert) passed away. Unlike Black Widow, we are being introduced to a character who will likely join the rest of the Marvel cast soon. With the film’s economic and critical success, Marvel clearly has another hero who can join the others or support a film of his own.
The film follows the usual path of a background set-up, a shocking revelation of who our hero really is, the fish-out-of-water adjustment, and then far too many fights. Fortunately, they mix things up a bit. The first part of the film moves along quickly, setting out the world of San Francisco, and the rather rudderless lives of two folks who park cars for a living. This simple fact does double duty by demonstrating how very stuck the two are in dead-end jobs, and also by laying the groundwork for some superior stunt driving later. Just enough time is spent here to establish the world of our two main protagonists, including the conflicts of cultural expectations and language.
There are loads of flashbacks that probably overtell the tale of Sean’s (Shang-Chi’s) birth and spiritual heritage. There is a huge improbability at the heart of how Shang-Chi’s parents get together, but hey, none of this is real anyway. But the fight scenes there and in the main story of the film are quite beautiful and are a fresh mix of Crouching Tiger, The Matrix, and the standard Marvel fight scenes. There is a beauty and an elegance that is rare in the Marvel universe (and non-existent in DC’s). The only gripe I have here is that the two dragons fighting at the end–one “good” and one “bad,” are occasionally hard to differentiate when they are fighting one-on-one.
Certainly this film is both introducing an Asian superhero and simultaneously aiming at a greater Asian slice of the pie. To do that, it often has to thread a narrow path of pandering on one side and a dangerous cultural appropriation on the other. Haters will hate, of course, but the film manages a mix of humor, mysticism, family tensions, and actions that usually works. There is little that is offensive unless one is looking for it, and that is because of its safe mix of a gently laid out story and its comfortable leads.
Canadian actor Simu Liu is the eponymous lead, and he’s a good choice. In the beginning, he is relatable and easy as the car-parking millennial, not something every actor playing a superhero can pull off He has quite the arc to demonstrate as the film continues, but as he takes on his real identity, he becomes visibly more confident, until he (spoiler) is believable facing off with his father. I could see him acting a few times, but for the most part, he is an Everyman the audience can easily connect with.
Comic relief is supplied at first by Awkwafina, so good in a similar way in Crazy Rich Asians. It wasn’t always the smoothest of performances, but that could as easily be attributed to the challenge of such a comic character in a generally serious superhero film as well as the actress. More comic energy comes from Sir Ben Kingsley, who will always be known for his Oscar-winning turn in Gandhi, as well as his roles in Schindler’s List and House of Sand and Fog. Here he brings back his Iron Man 3 role of Trevor Slattery, and pretty much steals every scene he’s in. He’s almost in another cinematic space here, as Bill Murray often is in his films, but he manages to build on what Awkwafina has provided him in the earlier part of the film and simply stretches the film in his comic direction.
Two legends add weight and legitimacy to the story: Michelle Yeoh and Tony Leung. Yeoh, a Malaysian actress known to most of us today as the rather strict mother of Henry Golding’s character in Crazy Rich Asians, was the lead in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon way back in 2000 after a successful career in Hong Kong action films. Here she is Shang-Chi’s aunt, and her mere presence and strong persona bring a gravitas and authority that connects this film to so many others she has been a part of, providing innumerable resonances of culture and action.
The other legend is Tony Leung, here making his first American film. The film needed a strong presence to play Shang-Chi’s father, Xu Wenwu, and Leung brings it in spades. Unfortunately, the role is the least clearly written in the film, and at times only Leung’s acting abilities can distract the viewer from the confusion about his character and motivations.
Like a good sequel (which this isn’t), Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is the same but different. It belongs to a Marvel universe that it manages to extend and re-create so it can fit in, and it brings in Asian characters and story elements that open whole new fruitful opportunities for the Marvel universe. Yes, it’s a great problem-solver for Marvel, but it’s also chockful of nerd bait for some and simply enjoyable filmmaking for the rest of us.