Hong Kong superstar Tony Leung adds a quiet soulfulness to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Wenwu, the keeper of the magical Ten Rings in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, an occasionally messy and muddled superhero endeavor that wraps up untidily but takes us on such a thoughtful, meaningful journey that one can't help but think this film has a special place in the MCU.
It's in the opening moments of Shang-Chi that we first meet Wenwu, whose immortality has allowed him to brutally capture lands far and near while becoming both incredibly wealthy and incredibly powerful.
As is rarely done in the MCU, everything then changes when he gazes upon Jiang Li (Fala Chen), a mysterious woman from the mythical land of Ta Lo, who captures his heart and leads him toward a more peaceful existence as a husband and a father of Shang-Chi and Xialing.
Of course, we know that Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is not merely a love story and eventually tragedy will strike.
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton (Short-Term 12), Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is, at its very essence, a mythological story of complicated grief and the myriad of ways in which that grief can follow us throughout our lifetimes and become a cyclical fulfiller of unwanted destinies. In this case, a teenaged Shang-Chi, played as an adult by Simu Liu, fails to honor his father's first mission for him and in both shame and fear he escapes to San Francisco where he not so creatively adopts the monker Shaun and spends his days underperforming as a valet and late-night karaoke devotee alongside BFF Katy (Awkwafina).
We are not surprised when Shang-Chi's father comes, or rather sends his men, to retrieve Shang-Chi and his empire-building sister.
The truth is that we are not surprised by a lot that unfolds in Shang-Chi, a film never quite perfects the delicate balance it's trying to find with its material yet also a film that possesses an emotional resonance I've seldom found in the MCU's 25 motion pictures to date. Of course, emotional resonance alone isn't enough to make an MCU great and Shang-Chi is a more mid-tier MCU experience but, I must confess, one I enjoyed from beginning to end.
Simu Liu is an ideal choice as a not so ordinary young man struggling to hold onto his romanticized view of ordinary life. Liu is sublime alongside the more hyped Awkwafina, whose Katy provides both comic relief and relatability. The two, while undeniably being asked to possess a bit of a romantic spark, are BFFs to the nth degree and from their opening action sequence through everything that follows you can't help but feel like these are two people you'd really like to hang out with for a little while.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is an uneven film for sure. Cretton starts off so beautifully, first with a stylized romantic ballet of sorts that defies MCU tradition and then with a San Francisco action sequence that is among the MCUs best action sequences to date, that you can't help but feel more than a little disappointed when the film is winding down and it's become perfectly clear that Cretton is compromising more than a little bit and squeezing in healthy doses of the MCU formula at the expense of narrative integrity and continuity.
While the film's early scenes set a tone that Shang-Chi never quite lives up to, the film still possesses more than a little magic when Shang-Chi heads off, with Katy in tow, to meet up with his younger, and still bitter over his abandonment of her, younger sister Xialing (Meng'er Zhang) it's obvious that we're heading into one serious dysfunctional family drama with universal implications. Leung, despite being saddled with wholly unsatisfying dialogue, adds tremendous substance to Wenwu, an otherwise wise man who has become convinced that his late wife is speaking to him and calling him to rescue her.
Shang-Chi is for the most part a new presence to the MCU and that freshness gives the character room to breathe. Early on, Cretton finds a nice balance between the quippy, dialogue-intensive relational scenes and the nicely choreographed martial arts sequences. D.P. William Pope captures the always desired Marvel pristine precision but also nicely focuses his lens on the warmth and comfort between Shang-Chi and Katy and other family scenes that unfold early on. While Cretton eventually amps up the typical Marvel stylized action, the film has a more modest nature to itself that is rather refreshing.
Shang-Chi starts to lose its way the more we become immersed in the muddled universe of Wenwu's determination to reach his wife, though it's hard to begrudge any film that tosses a dragon in for good measure. While her scenes didn't always work for me, Michelle Yeoh is an absolute gem as Aunt Nan, who sees the truth of Wenwu's delusions and who also sees the truth of the seemingly always fearful Shang-Chi.
There are, of course, the obligatory cameos and MCU tips o' the hat. Some are refreshing and welcome while others almost criminally overstay their welcome.
Shang-Chi is at its best when it's not trying to fit so nicely within the MCU and when it's content to be a more modest, engaging origin story of sorts with a meaningful story about the complications of grief and the complications of family. This family feels real, no small achievement in the MCU, and I enjoyed every moment I got the chance to experience them even though there's little denying that roles will twist and storylines will cross in the inevitable motion pictures to come.
Opening only in theaters on September 3rd, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings may not be the best of the Marvel universe but it's a refreshing change of pace that with a top-notch ensemble cast and generations of soul.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic