It can be argued that Phase One of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is the weakest slate the studio has released. “Iron Man” and “The Avengers” notwithstanding, the early movies were origin stories of now household names: Captain America, Hulk and Thor. None of them hold a candle to the films that would follow and the characterization was as flat as the comic pages they’re originally from.
The “Marvel Origin Story Problem” is well-known. When Marvel decides to break away from this mold, they create a transcendent and groundbreaking cinematic experience, such as “Black Panther.” When they stay par for the course, the average “Captain Marvel” is released.
“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” falls somewhere in the middle. The intense action choreography and beautiful depiction of Asian culture attempt to put this movie on a pedestal next to “Black Panther,” but it’s partially undermined by its predictability.
Shaun (Simu Liu) works as a valet in San Francisco with his close friend Katy (Awkwafina). One day while taking the bus to work, some goons attack the pair to steal Shaun’s childhood pendant. He realizes the robbers have been sent by his father and head of the Ten Rings organization, Wenwu (Tony Leung). Shaun must confront his past and remaining family as he discovers his true identity as Shang-Chi.
This movie serves as a retcon in multiple ways. Not only does it correct the underwhelming and problematic twist of Ben Kinglsey’s Mandarin character in “Iron Man 3,” it tries to erase the insensitive introduction of Marvel’s first Asian superhero in the comics. Director Destin Daniel Cretton (“Short Term 12,” “Just Mercy”) and screenwriters Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham approach the character and his world with sensitivity, employing an all-Asian cast — the third since “The Joy Luck Club.”
Most Marvel entries are CGI heavy — and this one suffers from that in the final third — but there are a few that stand out in their action choreography, such as “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” Australian stunt director Brad Allen (“Kingsman: The Secret Service,” “Wonder Woman”) takes inspiration from wuxia films, a Chinese movie genre that revolves around a martial arts hero, and crafts some of the best practical action set-pieces seen in the superhero genre.
A fight scene on a bus sets the tone for the incredible action to follow. As his father’s goons threaten to hurt him and the passengers on the bus, Shaun embraces his abilities and goes all John Wick on the bad guys — it’s equal parts “Speed” and “Enter The Dragon.”
Perhaps the best sequence in the movie belongs to Wenwu entering the spiritual land of Ta Lo and meeting Ying Li (Fala Chen) for the first time. She dodges all his moves in this elegantly choreographed scene. It doesn’t feel like a battle, rather, a dance as they swiftly glide across the ground, falling in love.
It’s scenes like this and the bus fight sequence that gives the viewer hope this MCU origin movie is different. However, Cretton can’t help but be drawn to those big green screens and injects the film’s climax with an overwhelming amount of CGI. Maybe it’s part of the Avengers initiation process to be in a movie with a staggering amount of special effects.
While the emotional depth is slightly lacking, Liu (“Kim’s Convenience,” “Yappie”) is great at the Marvel banter and accomplishes the main goal by being a likable superhero.
Liu’s performance is strengthened by his rapport with Awkwafina (“The Farewell,” “Crazy Rich Asians”) in a frequently hilarious performance. Michelle Yeoh (“Crazy Rich Asians,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) is effective in a small cameo.
It’s Leung’s (“In the Mood for Love,” “Internal Affairs”) melancholic Wenwu who steals the show with one of the best Marvel villain portrayals to date. It’s almost as if Leung is channeling Chow Mo-wan from “In the Mood for Love,” doing whatever he can to be with the one he loves. The Chinese film superstar is among the best actors in the world and brings humanity and passion to the role that elevates the movie.
Even with the over-the-top climax, Shang-Chi deserves to be a part of the Avengers, mainly due to Liu’s affable performance. Imagining him interacting with Spider-Man or Dr. Strange in a future movie has potential to be “legendary” in its own rights.
“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” rated PG-13, is now playing in theaters.