With each new addition to Marvel’s behemoth catalog (this being number twenty-five if we are just counting films), it becomes more challenging to create a superhero story that feels rooted in an original vision, to surprise audiences with the wonder of their gifts.
While “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” might not completely stray from the Marvel formula, it’s genuine tenderness seeps through its rich characters and stunning action (at times, some of their best) until it reads like something fresh.
Shang Chi (played by a charismatic Simu Liu) isn’t the kind of guy you expect to be a runaway assassin, boosting cars at his valet job for joy rides with his coworker and best friend Katy (the always delightful Awkwafina).
However, when Shaun (the name he chose to hide his identity) and Katy find themselves confronted on the bus by a devious group of thugs demanding Shaun’s pendent, the film kicks into a hand-to-hand spectacle that rivals much of what you’ll find on the market, showcasing what a budget this colossal can do when the film’s identity can be so free.
The person after Shaun’s pendant is quickly revealed to be his father Xu Wenwu (a movie-stealing Tony Leung), the wielder of the titular rings and after the death of their mother, returns to being the abuser of their power. He has a long history of frightening those with his magical armbands, including his children who fled and went into hiding.
It’s a large, complicated picture littered with lore and tired tropes in equal measure, but director Deston Daniel Cretton finds plenty of places to make them fun and Leung goes above and beyond to ensure Wenwu isn’t one of them. His stoic coolness and glimmers of pain and confusion make him one of Marvel’s most human villains inside of one of their most empathetic releases.
The movie does stall a little as we reach the exposition-heavy second act, trading the crisp fight scenes and sweet banter for an unnecessary amount of flashbacks. It’s not enough to ever straddle the line of boredom, but the past never feels as exciting as the punchiness of the now.
Similarly the third act falls victim to the CGI muddiness that has plagued their recent outings, trying so hard to be their biggest display yet that it ends up going fuzzy in your mind mere minutes after the climax has ended.
It’s one of the few moments where the film’s refreshing individuality becomes restricted by the bumpers the MCU has installed for what a finale should look like. It also tussles with wanting to be both a grounded family drama and a mystical fairy-tale epic, never truly finding a smooth seam to sew them together.
“Shang-Chi” always wears its heart on its sleeve, so much so that it occasionally comes across as trying to coax you into feeling emotions it hasn’t entirely earned, but the lively characters and loving embrace of its cultural influences make it easier to forgive the bumps along the road when the journey feels so truthful in its sincerity.