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(L-R): Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) and Katy (Awkwafina) in Marvel Studios’ SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

So, did you think we’d bid adieu to the Summer of 2021 without a second visit to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU)? Happily, the answer to that is no, “true believers”. Though we usually get the first flick at the start of May, well, things have changed since the MCU’s beginning in 2008. And that’s why we finally got to learn of the backstory of the BLACK WIDOW this past July. Now, this was her eighth feature appearance, but this holiday weekend sees the very first screen outing for a character who wasn’t part of that 1960s creative explosion that birthed Spidey, the Hulk, and so many others. This hero was part of the big Marvel Comics expansion (a new distribution deal allowed for more titles) in the 1970s and reflected one of that decades’ big pop culture trends: the martial arts TV shows and movies (Bruce Lee on the big screen, ABC’s “Kung Fu” on the small). And so the MCU expands and becomes even more diverse (we’ve explored Africa, Russia, and, well, outer space) with SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS.

This tale’s prologue gives us a back story on those title “rings”. In ancient Asia, a mighty warrior named Xu Wenwu (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung) possessed a set of ten magical mysterious (were they from another world) rings (worn on his forearms rather than his fingers) that made him near-unstoppable. He and his army (known as the “Ten Rings”) conquered much of the land, but one area eluded them: a strange wooded land that supposedly was the home of real creatures of myth, TaLo. After much effort, Wenwu makes it into the woods and is confronted by its protector, the beautiful maiden Li (Fala Chen). Their combat leads to ..a romance. After several return visits, Wenwu proposes to Li and returns with her to his castle home. They become parents of a boy and a girl. When the now teenage son leaves, Wenwu gifts him with a jade jewel that he wears about his neck. Cut to modern-day San Francisco as that lad, now a twenty-something named Shaun (Simu Liu) works a menial job alongside best pal Katy (Awkwafina). When brutal thugs try to grab the jewel, Shaun’s martial arts skills are revealed to Katy (and later she learns his real name: Shang-Chi). He now believes his sister (who he hasn’t seen in many years) is in danger from this gang. Getting an address from an odd postcard ( a dragon sketch) from her, he and Katy travel to Hong Kong for a family reunion that may lead to a spectacular battle, all part of Shang-Chi’s destiny as a skilled defender of the whole planet.

With a casting choice harkening back to the first THOR, the MCU masterminds have wisely chosen a largely unknown actor (although he’s had many supporting roles on TV and features) to play their “master of martial arts” (though “Iron Fist” preceded him on Netflix in 2017). Liu as Shang-Chi/Shaun has an easy-going average guy quality, especially in the early San Fran scenes, while balancing mush of the powerful action/acrobatic stances of (dare I say) young Bruce along with the comic slapstick reactions of Jackie Chan. But Liu still conveys a tender vulnerability as he tries to face the tragedies of his past while attempting to process the awesome responsibilities of his future path. . I look forward to seeing the actor and character mature in future film adventures (and as part of the “greater MCU”). Plus, he’s an endearingly sweet straight man to the warrior queen of comedy, Awkwafina. Yes, she’s very funny and steals scenes with what seems like little effort, but there’s more to Katy than the wisecracks and caustic “burns”. Katy’s truly adrift, just trying to coast through life before her BFF opens up new possibilities for her. Awkwafina subtly balances her amazement over her pal (“Dude, who are you?!!”) while his secret life fuels some sadness. After her somewhat abrasive voicework in RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON (far too much use of modern slang), Awkwafina shines as a real “fish out of water”.

Hey Marvel-maniacs, here’s the cover to Shang-Chi’s first Marvel comic appearance!

As for the supporting players, kudos for giving the film a most complex and conflicted villain. Leung starts as your standard power-mad baddie, but we see how his quest opens his soul to new ideas, like truly caring about another person. It all adds to his devasting loss, as Leung shows us that the sparkle, the light of love has left his eyes. His final master plan is created out of love and despair (much as with Thanos and Loki), making us hope that he’ll come to his senses. Hard to think I’d be rooting for the Mandarin (One of the many names attached to Wenwu is also the great 1960s Iron Man arch nemesis). Meng’er Zhang is quite compelling as Shang-Chi’s estranged sister Xialing, letting us question her loyalties and outlook. Chen has an ethereal beauty and a quiet dignity as the princess that actually rescues a king. Much the same can be said about the always engaging Michelle Yeoh as her sister and current protector of the wonders of TaLo, a compassionate aunt and a stern taskmaster. And, since it’s already been revealed online, I can praise the great Ben Kingsley who is hysterical as he reprises his role of Trevor Slattery, the self-absorbed dimbulb actor who “played” the Mandarin in IRON MAN III. His “riff” on a classic sci-fi movie series will stick with me when another entry or reboot is made. Maybe Trevor and Katy can team up for a future flick.

Oh, and here’s another example of the MCU “thinking outside the box” (much like casting Liu in the lead). Rather than going for one of the name “big action” directors, they entrusted the launch of this new franchise with a director mainly known for indie-like dramas (SHORT TERM 12, THE GLASS CASTLE, and JUST MERCY), Destin Daniel Cretton. Smart move as he lets the emotions bubble up subtly in-between the astounding stunt showcases. We embrace Shang-Chi, Katy, and surprisingly Wenwu even as they appear to defy the laws of physics. Hey, about those stunts….truly astounding, perhaps surpassing the face-offs in BLACK WIDOW. The film has not one, but two of this year’s greatest action sequences (one had me smiling as it reminded me of a favorite iconic arcade video game). And somehow, during the mayhem, we’re gobsmacked by the beauty of the imagery, even rivaling CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON. giving the story a fairytale-like feel. Much of that is due to the scenes in TaLo, which joins the MCU atlas of locales that we wish were real (Wakanda, Asgard, etc.). The script by Cretton, along with Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham has almost the perfect mix of heart, action, and humor….almost. Hate to be a bit of a “wet blanket”, but the big CGI-overloaded final battle takes the focus off the folks we care up and tries to emulate the recent kaiju re-dos as pixels fight pixels in a choppily edited free-for-all. So, they don’t “stick the landing” darn it. Ah, but the journey there is so engrossing. And (need I say) the mid-credits bonus scene will leave you smiling. Maybe all the way until the anticipated (I’m there) and very warranted follow-up to SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS. Perhaps an even dozen next time?

3 Out of 4

SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, September 3, 2021


Jim Batts was a contestant on the movie edition of TV's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in 2009 and has been a member of the St. Louis Film Critics organization since 2013.