Whether they come from a wuxia novel set in the distant past or a contemporary kung fu movie, Chinese martial-arts heroes—with their commitment to a moral code, not to mention their incredible abilities—offer a counterpart to Western superheroes. In 1973, Marvel Comics combined the two archetypes with the introduction of Shang-Chi, a character whose powers came from a lifetime of training in the fighting arts. Now the industry is poised for another convergence, as Marvel debuts its first Asian-led superhero movie, Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings, a project that blends Chinese and North American storytelling and star power.
The MCU is extraordinarily popular in China, which helps explain why so much of this new film takes place there. That said, at its core, Shang-Chi is an Asian American superhero story. Themes of homecoming, legacy, and balancing cultures and identities run throughout the movie. The soundtrack is multicultural, featuring both traditional Chinese music and southern hip-hop. The script, by director Destin Daniel Cretton and co-writers Andrew Lanham and Dave Callaham, retcons some of Marvel’s more insensitive depictions of Asian culture, while crafting an inspirational message about creating your own destiny and embracing the things that make you you.
For Shang-Chi (Canadian television actor and stuntman Simu Liu) and his sister, Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), that’s a loaded proposition, considering that their father, Wenwu (Tony Leung), is a thousand-year-old supervillain who has used the mystical ten rings of the title to build his reputation as a fearsome underworld kingpin. After the death of family matriarch Jiang Li (Fala Chen), an accomplished martial artist from a secluded, fantastical village, Wenwu dedicated himself and his son to revenge, while neglecting his daughter. (Leung’s heavy is an original character, a composite of two problematic Marvel Comics adversaries—including one whose earlier, divisive appearance in the MCU is addressed via a revisionist callback and subplot.)
Ten years after a teenage Shang-Chi was sent abroad to hunt down his mother’s killer, he’s going by the name Sean and working as a valet in San Francisco alongside best friend Katy (Awkwafina). But as usually happens in these movies, fate has bigger plans. Driven mad by grief, Wenwu has retreated into a delusional quest to save his wife by destroying her sacred ancestral home, which will unleash unstoppable forces of darkness in the process. So Shang-Chi, Xialing, and Katy depart on a journey between realms, on a mission to save their family—and the world—with the help of their long-lost aunt, Jiang Nan (Michelle Yeoh), and a menagerie of magical beasts.
In some ways, Shang-Chi is a mixtape of martial-arts movie genres: An early scene pays tribute to the balletic, graceful films of Zhang Yimou, while a dramatic bus chase later on apes the derring-do of an early Jackie Chan vehicle. Shang-Chi’s reunion with his sister takes place at an underground fighting ring with a ’90s raver, Mortal Kombat type of vibe, and later on, father and son will walk into a grimy, fluorescent-lit gangster hangout straight out of an ’80s John Woo movie. But where those films (Mortal Kombat excepted, of course) emphasized practical effects and the amazing skills of highly trained stunt people, Shang-Chi insists on either interrupting or burying the stunt work—spearheaded by Chan protege Brad Allan, who tragically died earlier this month—with mountains of blatant CGI.
This isn’t always the case. Although Shang-Chi cuts away from a punch as often as it lands one, an extended fight sequence set in a half-built skyscraper observes Liu and Zhang from above in longer takes that allow for at least a few seconds of unbroken fight choreography. And while the climax of this film is as chaotic and unintelligible as any other MCU movie, at least Shang-Chi has benevolent dragons and brave lions instead of the ugly metal detritus of Black Widow. The first half of the movie is funnier and more down-to-earth than its second, which transitions from modern action to mythical fantasy with an emphasis on Chinese folklore—some actual, some imagined.
But while Shang-Chi ekes some awe—and some “awwws,” in the case of a winged, faceless, oddly cuddly critter named Morris—out of its fantasy elements, in the end its greatest assets are human. That refers to the stunts, yes, but more often to Tony Leung, who exudes the type of movie-star charisma critics sometimes complain is on the decline. Leung isn’t exactly being challenged here, but he brings soul to the scant emotional depth of his character, a classic Marvel villain in the sense that he’s sympathetic until he’s not. Among the younger actors, Awkwafina stands out thanks to her natural gift for comedy. Yeoh’s talents, on the other hand, are mostly wasted. Cretton, making his first blockbuster after a run of human-scaled dramas like Short Term 12 and The Glass Castle, knows to let the comedian be funny. So why hire a legendary action star, then dedicate most of her screen time to exposition?
Living up to the expectations of Asian American Marvel fans hungry for an MCU movie of their own must have weighed on Shang-Chi’s writers and director. This anxiety is reflected in the story itself: After being given extraordinary power, Shang-Chi’s first instinct is to run away from it. That moment of human vulnerability suggests that there’s a point of view somewhere inside this gigantic, sprawling, tightly controlled slab of blockbuster product. For every earnest emotion, however, there’s a concession to the formulaic demands of the genre and the studio. Shang-Chi’s hero is on a journey to become himself, but the movie is lost inside of the machine.