It’s the privilege of so many Chinese Americans to disappoint our parents in ways both big and small, with some of the classics including quitting the piano after years of begrudging lessons, swapping majors from premed to sociology after hitting the wall of o-chem, dating a white person, and not dating a white person. Shang-Chi, the soon-to-be superhero played by Simu Liu in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, is no different, though the filial angst he contends with is appropriately blockbuster-size. His dad is Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung), the head of a shadowy criminal organization, the Ten Rings, named after the mystical weapons Wenwu always wears — ones that have made him immortal and almost impossible to defeat in combat. Trained since childhood to avenge his murdered mother before inheriting both leadership and ownership of the Ten Rings, Shang-Chi has instead opted to hide out in San Francisco, changing his name to Shaun and getting a job as a valet. He works with his best friend, Katy (Awkwafina), a Cal grad who is equally content to park cars by day and sing karaoke by night, despite her family’s fond needling.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which was directed by Destin Daniel Cretton from a script he wrote with Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham, is approximately half a good movie, and it’s never as fleet on its feet as in its first act, when Wenwu gets an introduction out of a hot-blooded wuxia movie, only for his son to pop up, the master martial artist as cheerful failson carving out a far less epic life of his own. One of the best sequences is the one in which Shang-Chi first reveals his fight prowess after being attacked on a city bus by a machete-armed mercenary (Florian Munteanu) and his henchmen, the thrill of the action balanced out by the undignified nature of the setting, with its tight quarters and passengers scurrying out of the way or livestreaming the brawl with color commentary. It’s second only to the setpiece that precedes it by a few minutes, one in which Wenwu’s ongoing quest for power leads him to the entrance of Ta Lo, a magical village where warriors live alongside creatures out of myth. Guarding the way is a woman named Jiang Li (Fala Chen) who engages Wenwu in a fight that is soon downright sultry, every feint and countered blow serving as an act of flirtation. Li has also been narrating the opening scenes, which we realize right around the time she hands Wenwu’s ass to him and admits in voice-over, “That was the first time I met your father.”
Daddy issues have been central to the Marvel Cinematic Universe from its inception, from Tony Stark’s baggage about Howard Stark’s legacy to Loki’s striving to prove himself to his adoptive father, Odin, to Peter Quill’s discovery of his absentee planet of a parent. But Shang-Chi’s feelings of fear of and reverence for Wenwu don’t just serve as an outsize evocation of a generational immigrant divide — they inform the structure of the movie itself, which is driven more by Wenwu than its title character. And why wouldn’t it be? There’s something cruel about putting Liu, an athletic performer who lacks the timing and the boundless charisma superhero parts all but demand, up against a legend of Hong Kong cinema who is the very embodiment of what it means to be a movie star. Leung is so irresistibly watchable, bringing so much conflicted presence to his character, that he pulls the camera’s focus as though exuding a gravitational force. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings may be a superhero origin story in description, but in practice, it’s about Wenwu as a tragic anti-hero, a mesmerizing sociopath who has everything except what he wants: the woman who uncovered his long-buried humanity, the woman he is willing to destroy the world to bring back.
Liu’s shortfalls as a lead actor aside, Shang-Chi isn’t a hopeless addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe fold. But the movie feels as racked with a sense of inadequacy about its main character as that main character is about himself — to the point that Shang-Chi’s estranged sister, Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), a self-trained martial artist who is just as formidable as her brother, is around mainly to express how exasperating it was to see him get all the attention just because he was the son. Cretton, who is still best known for his ridiculously well-cast group-home drama, Short Term 12, does just fine as a first-time director of action, holding his takes a little longer, making the placement of the bodies of his fighters clear, and only toward the end surrendering to the standard incoherent digital finale (this one has monsters!). In an unexpected but welcome development, the film cribs from Stephen Chow as much as it does from Zhang Yimou, and it includes some nifty kung-fu-by-way-of-the-MCU touches — like kitting out members of Wenwu’s underground army with electrified hook swords and deer-horn knives and having the Ten Rings themselves be worn not on the fingers, the way they are in the comics, but around the wrists, styled after the iron rings used in martial arts.
They still look deeply uncool when in use, though, whatever that use is. It says something about Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings that it’s never entirely clear what the Ten Rings do, sometimes creating beams of power and sometimes flying through the air themselves. Mainly, they’re an asterisk marking the film for the superhero genre, rather than just the martial-arts one — though the further it gets from being a martial-arts movie, the less engaging it is, bogged down by lore and a need to raise the stakes, the expository responsibilities for which fall to poor Michelle Yeoh. Shang-Chi may go through the movie feeling dwarfed by his father, but the movie itself feels dwarfed by its own Asian cinematic touchstones, acknowledging their achievements and influence and then turning abashedly to a post-credits scene in which a few members of the Marvel Establishment show up to remind us that this was all just part of a larger plan. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings may give us the franchise’s first Asian American superhero, but what may be the most Asian American thing about it is the way it’s caught between the legacy of its forebears and a still-developing sense of self, its protagonist yanked away from that journey and enlisted as the face of the latest representational win, without ever seeming entirely decided on what he’s representing.
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