Families are hard. Some are harder than others. I listen to several true crime podcasts and there are numerous episodes about horrible parents and/or horrible children wreaking havoc on each other or their communities. For instance, Jennifer and Sarah Hart adopted six children and then killed the children and themselves by driving the family van off a cliff. Crime boss John Gotti brought his son into his criminal empire, which could be considered a form of abuse. Some serial killers have brought their children along to assist in their crimes, leading the child to consider the deviant behavior normal. It doesn’t take long searching podcasts to find horrific descriptions of abuse and neglect. Fortunately, the family in “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” while dysfunctional, isn’t quite as depressing as that.
Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), known to his friends as Shaun, parks cars for a living with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina) in San Francisco. Shang-Chi is the son of Wenwu (Tony Leung), the leader of a worldwide terrorist group called the Ten Rings. Xu Wenwu has been alive for over a thousand years, thanks to the powers of 10 mystical rings. Despite amassing immense power and wealth, Wenwu wants something more. He thinks he’ll find it in the mystical city of Ta Lo that is supposed to house mythical creatures. Making his way through a living, moving forest, Wenwu meets Ying Li (Fala Chen) who is more than a match for his martial arts and the 10 rings. They meet more times and fall in love. Ying Li convinces Wenwu to give up his life as a criminal to raise a family, having Shang-Chi and his younger sister Xialing (Mang’er Zhang). After Ying Li dies, Wenwu resumes his criminal life and teaches his son to be an assassin, while his daughter watches and trains herself. Both Shang-Chi and Xialing run away at their first opportunity. Several years later, the Ten Rings captures both Shang-Chi and Xialing as Wenwu claims he hears the voice of Ying Li calling to him to release her from behind a gate in Ta Lo. His plan is to take his army into the village and, if they won’t release Ying Li, he will burn it to the ground. Neither sibling wants any part of destroying their late mother’s village and they try to stop their father’s quest.
There’s a great deal going on in “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.” I’ve only given about 10 percent of the story to avoid spoilers. It’s a plot-heavy introduction to the first Asian hero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with a cast comprised mostly of Asian actors. Marvel was slow to introduce heroes of any color other than white males. Black Widow didn’t get her own solo movie until this year, more than a decade after she was introduced as a side character in “Iron Man 2.” “Captain Marvel” is the first female lead character. Supporting heroes Falcon and War Machine are the first African American heroes introduced into the MCU (not counting Nick Fury as he isn’t a hero), and Falcon will be the lead in the next “Captain America” film, with the late Chadwick Boseman being the first African American to lead an MCU film as “Black Panther.” Marvel is slowly introducing more heroes representing more diverse groups, reflecting the makeup of the world. But none of these efforts to create a rainbow of heroes would matter if the movies weren’t any good. I’m happy to announce “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is very, very good.
Simu Liu effortlessly inhabits the skin of Shang-Chi. Liu has an easy-going style that makes his scenes with Awkwafina’s Katy believable and relatable. Shang-Chi is just a guy, trying to find his place in the world, when this enormous family bomb gets dropped in his lap. Shang-Chi has kept his family history a secret from everyone and is ashamed and embarrassed by his past. Liu’s scenes where he divulges Shang-Chi’s secrets is painful to watch. Not because Liu isn’t a good actor, but we empathize with his plight and pain. While none of us have likely have such deep and dark family secrets, we can relate in other less extreme ways. Liu provides an emotional depth to a superhero character we rarely see.
Awkwafina’s Katy acts as the conduit for the audience. Katy is like that person turning to you saying, “That’s crazy, right?” While Awkwafina is there to provide some laughs, her character also possesses a depth that she and the audience discover as the story plays out. Katy grows almost as much as Shang-Chi, and we enjoy her victories as much as his.
Given the martial arts aspects of the character, the fight scenes in “Shang-Chi…” are amazing. The first big battle on a bus introduces the audience to Shang-Chi’s amazing abilities developed due to years of brutal training. The confined nature of a fight between five guys on a city bus keeps the action up close and personal. The creative uses of poles and other bus architecture for Shang-Chi’s escapes and avoidance of his enemies is a marvel (pardon the expression) to behold. Liu’s years of both gymnastics and martial arts training in Canada served him well in this role.
“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and language. There are numerous fights, some on massive scales, but very little blood. There are bat-like creatures that suck out your soul. One character has a glowing machete for a lower arm. Foul language is scattered and mild.
While the usual Marvel third act mayhem takes place, everything that comes before it in “Shang-Chi…” feels new and unique. We have an appealing hero, a goofy but nuanced sidekick, a compelling and complicated villain, and an enormous backstory of mystical creatures and magical powers to explore. It works as an intriguing and very entertaining introduction to a new character in the MCU. By the way, stick around as there is both a mid-credits and end-credits scene suggesting what’s coming up in Phase Four of the MCU. The addition of Shang-Chi and Katy makes me very excited for what’s to come.
“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” gets five stars out of five.
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