By Jeffrey Sanzel
Summer has long been the mainstay of cinematic superhero releases. Joining this season’s Black Widow and The Suicide Squad is Marvel Studio’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, an enjoyable, if not wholly inspired, two hours.
In the wake of the hit television show Kung Fu, the Shang-Chi character debuted in Special Marvel Edition #15 (December 1973) and starred in a solo title through 1983. Spun-off from author Sax Rohmer’s work, Shang-Chi was the unknown son of Rohmer’s arch-villain, Dr. Fu Manchu. Writer Steve Englehart stated that Shang-Chi’s name came from the study of I-Ching, with “sheng” meaning “ascending” and “chi” vital energy. After Marvel lost the rights to Rohmer’s rogue, the company renamed Shang-Chi’s father, Zheng Zu.
After a nearly five-decade history, and several attempts dating back as early as 1980, Shang-Chi has now made it to the big screen in a colorful, predictable action-adventure.
The film opens over a thousand years ago, with Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung) wielding the ten rings, bands that give extraordinary power to their holder. With his organization, the Ten Rings, behind him, he becomes a warrior-conqueror throughout hundreds of years of history.
In 1996, he becomes obsessed with locating Ta Lo, a village said to be the home of mythical beasts. He journeys through a magical forest, where the Ta Lo village guardian, Ying Li (Fala Chen), thwarts him. The two fall in love and leave the village, living in peace with their two children. Wenwu’s enemies, the Iron Gang, murder Li, causing Wenwu to resurrect the Ten Rings. He trains his son, Shang-Chi, in martial arts. When Shang-Chi is fourteen years old, his father sends him to avenge his mother’s murder.
The film jumps to present-day San Francisco. Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), now mild-mannered parking valet “Sean,” lives a quiet, unimpressive life, palling around with his best friend, the thrill-seeking Katy (Awkwafina). After an attack by the Ten Rings, Shang-Chi shares his past with Katy, and they journey to Macau in search of Shang-Chi’s sister, Xu Xialing (Meng’er Zhang).
The intersection of legend and legacy, fantasy and family, and the all-important good versus evil follows. Thematically, the writers emphasize the idea that we are all “a product of what came before,” intersecting with the more violent “a blood debt must be paid by blood.” Shang-Chi confronts that he must “face who [he is].” Much of this works because of Simu Liu’s “Who me?” charm growing into a more self-actualized and self-aware individual. With his inherent “watchability” and appealing warmth, he easily carries the film.
While the supporting roles are underdeveloped, the cast is more than capable. Awkafina makes for an affable sidekick who comes into her own. Leung brings the gravitas with a touch of underlying pain to the patriarch. One wishes that Zhang’s Xialing had been given a bit more dimension as there is a wealth of potential. Her struggle with a sense of childhood abandonment is touched upon but not fully realized. Ben Kingsley reprises Trevor Slattery, a character introduced in the Marvel One Shot short film All Hail the King. Without previous knowledge, this inclusion is a bit off. Kingsley is amusing, especially interacting with the mythical beast, whom he calls “Morris,” but lacking the background, the result is an unfulfilling cameo.
But the true raison d’être of the film is the many action sequences, which range from extraordinary pairings to epic battles. There are enough fights to satisfy the cravings of even the most eager fans. There are battles on a bus, in a fight club, a parking garage, a bar, a field, etc. There is a point where it almost feels like a demented Green Eggs and Ham—“Would you, could you in a …”—and insert a location. But they are all beautifully staged, the more pastoral echoing the landmark Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
The CGI is neatly integrated, with a range of hybrid animals and fantastical creations. While, of course, created on a vastly higher level, there are nostalgic shades in the monster encounters, reminiscent of the stop-motion animation of Ray Harryhausen or even the earlier Godzilla movies.
Director Destin Daniel Cretton collaborated on the screenplay with Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham. And while the dialogue is often stiff and declarative (with a handful of shoehorned wisecracks), the film is busy enough to keep propelling forward. With enough plot and lots of action, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings epitomizes summer fare. And, like the majority of the genre, it will most likely be the first of many in the series.
Rated PG-13 the film is now playing in local theaters.