Shang-who? The most obscure Marvel Cinematic Universe character to get his own stand-alone movie to date, the comic book mega-company’s “Master of Kung Fu” may not be a household name (not yet, at least), but you wouldn’t know that from “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” a flashy, Asian-led visual effects extravaganza that gives the second-tier hero the same over-the-top treatment that big-timers like Hulk and Thor typically get. The result broadens the brand’s spectrum of representation once again, offering audiences of Asian descent the kind of empowerment for which “Black Panther” paved the way a few years back.
Whether in print or on screen, Marvel has consistently been a step ahead of culture at large, ensuring that women, people of color and even queer characters feature prominently in its properties. As social pressures motivated Hollywood to diversify its roster, Marvel didn’t have to look far to produce superheroes that gave more than just little white boys a chance to see themselves on-screen. Even so, the nearly half-subtitled “Shang-Chi” marks a gamble of an entirely different order: With Henry Golding already committed to “Snake Eyes” and few other bankable early-30s English-speaking actors to consider, the company cast a lesser-known leading man in Simu Liu (of Canadian sitcom “Kim’s Convenience”).
The real star here is Marvel, of course. Good on it for leveraging its popularity to help launch some fresh Asian talent (including indie director Destin Daniel Cretton). To mitigate the risk, Marvel tapped Asian action icons Michelle Yeoh and Tony Leung to play Shang-Chi’s aunt and dad, respectively, and paired Liu with bigger name Awkwafina as wisecracking bestie Katy. If the film’s a hit, it’ll send an even louder message to Hollywood than the success of “Crazy Rich Asians” did. And if it flops … well, that would tell us almost nothing, since Disney is releasing the movie exclusively to theaters in the midst of a pandemic.
Stick around for the end credits, and cameos by a few of the Avengers hint at how Shang-Chi fits into the greater MCU. For the two hours prior, however, the movie may as well be spinning its own mythology, reaching back more than a thousand years to ancient China, where Wenwu (Leung) is already in possession of the 10 rings. These powerful, immortality-bestowing bracelets are the movie’s answer to “Star Wars” lightsabers: a new form of weapon that glows blue on Wenwu’s wrists and is controlled by his mind and sweeping arm gestures, resulting in all kinds of fancy tricks.
From the outset, Cretton embraces the artificiality of CGI, establishing an aesthetic in which spectacle trumps plausibility. (These are comic book movies, after all.) Wenwu parts an army as Moses did the Red Sea in DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments,” using his magic jewelry to easily breach a walled city. Centuries pass, and the shadow villain expands his reach around the world until, 30 years ago, with “nothing left on Earth to conquer,” he goes looking for a land called Ta Lo, meeting his match in its guardian, Li (Fala Chen), whom he marries.
In the comics, Shang-Chi’s father was none other than the notorious Fu Manchu, and though that connection has been scrubbed here, the script (for which Cretton shares writing credit with Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham) maintains the idea that Shang-Chi was raised by a dastardly figure he must eventually confront: ancient-Greek dramatic tropes imposed upon the Asian martial arts genre. “From sun up to sun down,” we learn, this powermonger-turned-family man taught his son “every possible way to kill a man.” That means of all the Marvel heroes, Shang-Chi has perhaps the most dysfunctional upbringing yet.
Small wonder then that Shang-Chi ran away to San Francisco, changed his name (but barely, as Awkwafina hilariously points out) and tried to forget it all with a dead-end job as a parking valet — which is how we meet him immediately following the movie’s overlong but action-packed Wenwu prologue. Although ultra-likable Liu appears shirtless and handsome in his first scene, Shang-Chi is all but neutered compared with other studly Marvel heroes (who all get girlfriends). That could be the movie’s progressive, “Frozen”-like way of saying superheroes don’t need love interests, but it plays into a troubling Hollywood tradition of denying Asians their sex appeal — one that Marvel could remedy by making a Namor/Sub-Mariner movie.
Cretton and his co-creators are smart enough to recognize the minefield of stereotypes the movie must navigate, finding clever and amusing tactics to deal with missteps in Marvel’s pulp past (spoiler alert: the company even brings back Ben Kingsley for some self-ribbing comic relief, addressing unresolved problems with the Mandarin character in the process). But in distancing itself from the Fu Manchu trap, the film unwittingly squanders Leung’s involvement. Here, he’s an incredibly evil world terrorist turned softie, who loses his way again after his wife’s death.
Now, beckoned by what he believes to be her voice, Wenwu arranges to steal the amulets that Li had given their two kids, Shang-Chi and his far more successful sister, Xialing (musical theater actor Meng’er Zhang, making her screen debut). After fending off Dad’s goons in a thrilling donnybrook aboard an out-of-control city bus, Shang-Chi drags Katy to Macao, where he finds Xialing running an “underground” fight club a hundred or so stories above street level in a half-constructed skyscraper.
The early action scenes are the best, as Cretton and his second-unit/VFX teams collaborate to make cartoonishly extreme choreography seem acceptable within the movie’s elastic alternate reality. Whereas “Black Panther” invented the Afrofuturist kingdom of Wakanda as a fantasy answer to the Western world’s visions of its own superiority, “Shang-Chi” acknowledges China as the global superpower that it is and merely has to find a way to get its characters back to the mainland. (Marvel has been courting Sino audiences since at least “Iron Man 3,” which added China-set scenes for its Asian release.)
That works just fine for the Macao sequences, although the movie veers in a different direction — trying to incorporate familiar wushu and anime elements — when Wenwu uses the amulets to access Ta Lo, a vaguely Lost World-like parallel dimension inhabited by fantastical creatures. There, an elite brigade of trained fighters (led by Yeoh and backed by a benevolent CG dragon) defend unsuspecting humans from a hellacious soul-sucking beast. Like virtually every stand-alone MCU movie to come before, “Shang-Chi” does a fine job of presenting its hero as a relatable everyman during the first half before spiraling off into bombastic, brain-numbing supernatural mayhem for the final act.
Here, the movie has the added burden of trying to give Awkwafina something to do while giant creatures battle it out in the skies. It’s great to see her in action, but confusing that we’re being asked to view this goofball as Shang-Chi’s equal, rather than a sidekick. More confusing still is why Wenwu’s slacker son, using rings for the first time, should turn out to be more skilled than his father.
In its efforts to be inclusive, Marvel has all but obscured just how powerful its various characters are supposed to be relative to one another. Not that audiences seem to mind. Now that the Avengers’ Infinity War has played out, Marvel must figure out where this lucrative enterprise will go next. By expanding its idea of who can be a hero, the franchise appears egalitarian while bringing all new demographics under its control.