It might be a little bit of an understatement to say that Marvel Studios is on a roll these days — when is it not? — but the sheer volume of content the franchise has put out in 2021 is impossible not to notice. Starting with the premiere of “WandaVision” in January and set to culminate with the upcoming “Spider-Man: No Way Home” in mid-December, no less than ten new installments will have been added to the Marvel saga across film and television by the end of this year. Squarely in the middle of it all is “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” the studio’s first introductory standalone movie since “Captain Marvel” and easily one of its best.
In “Shang-Chi,” the eponymous hero (Simu Liu, “Kim’s Convenience”) is the son of Wenwu (Tony Leung, “Theory of Ambitions”), who is the megalomaniac owner of ten magical rings, which grant him power and immortality, and the leader of a mercenary organization named after them. Raised as an assassin following the murder of his mother (Fala Chen, “Secret Treasure”), Shang-Chi escapes from under his father’s thumb at 14 and starts a new life. Ten years later, he’s an aimless hotel valet named Shaun, who goes on joy rides and does drunk karaoke with his co-worker/best friend Katy (Awkwafina, “The Farewell”). The central action kicks in when he’s dragged back into his old world at his father’s insistence that his mother is alive and in danger.
Narratively, there’s a lot riding on “Shang-Chi.” It has to introduce a rather obscure comic book character and establish him as the first in a new generation of cinematic heroes outside of the familiar Avengers framework. The terms “Avengers movies” and “Marvel movies” have become all but synonymous by now, but “Shang-Chi” does good work of reminding viewers that there is a difference. Outside of one reference to “The Blip” and the return of a few minor characters, mostly for comedic purposes, the movie stands on its own, free from worries about continuity that bogged down some of the franchise’s previous offerings. If it weren’t for the familiar, invariable Marvel cinematography hanging over every shot, it might possible to forget you’re watching a Marvel movie.
The film’s broader themes are nothing new in terms of superhero fare — dead mother, daddy issues, an internal struggle between light and dark — and it’s absolutely packed with the action sequences one would expect from the genre. “Shang-Chi” doesn’t put a new spin on all of them, but it still finds ways to make itself feel fresh. Director Destin Daniel Cretton (“Just Mercy”) makes good use of wuxia elements that make the film’s many fight scenes visually interesting but also incredibly specific. The mixed styles of kung fu aren’t just impressive to look at: They’re defining character traits that make an impact on the way the story unfolds. At first, Shang-Chi fights like Wenwu, but then learns from his aunt (Michelle Yeoh, “Crazy Rich Asians”) how to fight like his mother. His estranged sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang, debut) doesn’t fight exactly like any of them, but for good reason. These physical features are inseparable from the narrative and its overarching themes of family and filial piety, which saves all of the fighting — and there’s a lot of it — from feeling completely gratuitous.
The stacked cast does great physical work alongside inhabiting the new world they’re introducing with ease. Liu makes a good leading man, but the strength and presence of the actors around him — Leung, Yeoh and Awkwafina in particular — often lead viewers’ eyes elsewhere. “Shang-Chi” marks Leung’s first appearance in Hollywood, but he’s an actor of legendary proportions on the international stage. He is, as always, intensely charismatic, and he pulls attention so significantly that Wenwu’s dogged but futile quest to bring back his wife — and, by extension, his humanity — becomes the film’s real emotional center.
There’s also a certain amount of cultural pressure on the movie and its cast by virtue of “Shang-Chi” being Marvel’s first Asian-led entry, one that also has to re-contextualize a hero outside of 100-year-old racist origins. It’s been subjected to the same inane conversation that pops up every time someone who is not white and/or male leads a superhero movie, a conversation both DC’s “Wonder Woman” and Marvel’s “Black Panther” were saddled with — if the movie fails, what might it mean for other women, other Black, other Asian superheroes? It’s an unfortunate, tired, monolith-making but inevitable burden which anything that tries to add diversity to a white and male-dominated canon has to carry.
Thankfully, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” succeeds. It’s fun, manages to inject a good amount of cultural specificity and effectively establishes a character who we’ll no doubt be seeing a lot of over the next decade. If anything, see it for the extraordinary cast and the eight-minute bus fight scene everyone’s talking about. It lives up to the hype.
Daily Arts Writer Katrina Stebbins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.