Looking at Marvel’s long, complicated past of lore, it’s hard to keep up on every Easter egg in every movie you may or may not have seen. That’s why “Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings'' is a breath of fresh air: it’s relatively self-contained. You don’t have to be an avid Marvel fan to understand the plot or to even enjoy the movie.
Alone, the newest edition to the Marvel Universe is a visual spectacle of badass fight choreography, CGI effects and Awkwafina singing “Hotel California” on repeat.
Of course, there’s the still classic meat-and-potatoes formula of most MCU plots, but “Shang Chi” brings a bold take both culturally and narratively to the Marvel Universe 一 including one of the most badass antagonists to date.
Shang-Chi’s (Simu Liu) journey begins far from the movie’s said “ten rings,” in San Francisco, where Shaun (The “undercover” name for Shang) works as a valet with his best, karaoke-loving buddy Katy (Awkwafina). On top of doing donuts with expensive cars, Shaun and Katy spend most of their time partying, working and bragging to their more mature friends. It’s not until fighting some of his father’s men, including a 7-foot giant with a sword for an arm, that Shaun is forced to reckon with reality. Most specifically, his near-immortal father Wenwu (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), aka the Mandarin. What follows is a lot of martial arts and squabbles with Shang-Chi’s estranged sister, Leiko Wu (Fala Chen).
From the moment Shang-Chi busts out his martial art skills on a runaway bus, it’s clear this movie is all about the action. Every fight is packed to the brim with flavorful martial arts moves, reminiscent of Jackie Chan throwing wine jugs at his adversaries. The sickest part is every character expresses their personality through their moves. With each fight, Shang-Chi’s style changes ever so slightly, which alludes to his development as a character both mentally and physically.
Visually, “Shang Chi’s” cinematography still suffers from the overtop CGI that afflicts most Marvel movies. The concept of bringing mythical creatures to life via computer animation is cool, but when the whole environment is CGI-rendered, it starts to feel cartoonish. Not even the grass looks real, let alone the dragon.
If nothing else, “Shang-Chi” is still worthy to watch for the villain alone. After the trainwreck that was the Mandarin in “Iron Man 3,” the thought of reinventing the true character was not reassuring. But Leung’s nuanced performance as a disillusioned father driven by grief, who can also kick some serious ass, is worthy of the hype. Dark and light continuously mix and mingle with the character Wenwu, and Leung effectively pulls off a performance that both seduces and repulses.
Awkwafina is also a gem, even if narratively she feels like an average-joe among martial arts gods. She does crack some solid jokes — jokes white people from Montana likely won’t get. But that’s a good thing. “Shang-Chi” gives you a heartfelt, genuine look into Asian American culture. The subtle nods toward traditional Chinese culture, mixed with stylistic references to Asian cinema, defy the few well-worn symbolic tropes of films like the live-action “Mulan.”
Though stuffed with enough CGI to rival “Avatar,” Marvel’s usual strengths and flaws can’t stop this film from feeling fresh. Shang-Chi may be a new addition to the Marvel universe, but he’s already a legend in his own right.