Someone will have to do the actual math (and I don’t doubt that someone will), but if Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings isn’t the most action-oriented movie of the Marvel Cinematic Universe thus far — purely in terms of ratio of time spent watching people beat each other up to time spent vamping in the interim — it has to rank somewhere near the top. This is saying a lot for a movie that does have a hefty dose of backstory to plow through, being a cross-generational, culture-forward origin story and family drama — a narrative with heavy lifts on the exposition front and a heap of traps to avoid on the cultural front.
But this is also as it should be. I do actually go to an Iron Man movie wanting to see Robert Downey Jr. be a wise-ass for two hours; if he has to do it from behind a mask for a few scenes, so be it. Put the likes of Michelle Yeoh and Tony Leung in a movie, on the other hand, and attach it to a kung-fu superhero, and my needs adjust accordingly. The promise of Shang-Chi, which is as much martial-arts movie as it is standard superhero origin fare, is that a lot of people will get their asses kicked: sometimes gracefully, even beautifully, and other times with the battering-ram power you can expect of a movie advertising 10 rings at play. (Frodo just had the one, and it was enough of a pain in the ass.)
Inevitably, someone wants to unleash great evil upon the world, and someone else wakes up one day to realize that it’s his fate, responsibility, and chore to be the guy who stops the other guy. The success of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which was directed by indie filmmaker Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12), is that it manages to do everything expected of it: set up a new and, for many, not terribly familiar (or, because of dated stereotypes, not always fondly remembered) superhero; break free of those aforementioned stereotypes by giving the cultural legacies at its center a little weight; satisfy audiences so used to the usual hero-journey theatrics of origin stories that phoning it in with “the usual” just won’t cut it anymore. And it accomplishes all of this efficiently and effectively enough that we indeed spend most of our time watching people duke it out on the sides of skyscrapers, in underground fighting rings, on San Francisco public transit, and elsewhere. It’s a good movie. It’s got a plausibly fearsome villain by way of Leung, a nice ensemble of heroic personalities (played by Simu Liu, Meng’er Zhang, Yeoh — even Awkwafina gets in a good kill when it counts), and a dose of actually-poignant family drama undergirding all the rest. The rest — a forest maze that collapses in on people, dragons, souls getting sucked out of bodies, roles for women that are more than the standard gender-flipping lip-service — is a cherry on top.
It’s probably best to leave the intricacies of the life of Xu Shang-Chi (Liu) to the movie. Suffice it to say he and his sister, Xu Xialing (Zhang), descend from a legacy of power and myth. In one corner, there’s their mother, Ying Li (Fala Chen), guardian of the hidden village Ta Lo, which, buried in deep in a forest, happens to be all that stands between humanity and its imminent destruction. In the other corner: their father, Xu Wenwu (Leung), a centuries-old warrior who, empowered by a mythical set of bangles known as the Ten Rings, has been able to hoard money and power, fucking around with governments, building his own army and the like, for years and years. He can’t be defeated. Then he sets out to find Ta Lo, the last frontier for a man who has everything. There, he meets Mom. And, in one of the movie’s most pleasurable scenes — a leaf-strewn bit of pleasing wuxia fighting intercut with “I think I’m in love with this woman” close-ups — he gets his ass handed to him for the first time in centuries.
Fast-forward to the present. Bad things have happened. Wenwu, who’d set aside his Ten Rings for love — which entails becoming mortal — has been given good reason to traipse back over to the dark side. And the kids that the couple had in the meantime, Shang-Chi (Shaun, to friends) and Xialing, have grown into masterful warriors in their own right — the young man because his father saw him as the direct heir to the Ten Rings, the young woman because her father’s lack of interest became, in a skewed way, an opportunity to train herself. And fend for herself. When we meet adult Shaun, he’s a hotel valet in San Fran pretending to be a normal guy, working alongside his girlfriend, Katy (Awkwafina), and contentedly failing to make anything of himself. Xialing, meanwhile, runs a fighting ring in Macau. The siblings are estranged.
Things are not allowed to remain that way, of course. Fates must be confronted. Legacies wrestled with at long last. Part of the fun of Shang-Chi is that it goes through these motions with an actual sense of interest in them. The obvious setup of the thwarted daughter, the never-heir, finally getting to have her say doesn’t just end there; it becomes a way of exploring an entire maternal legacy akin to its own equally powerful way of being and fighting. The bad-dad routine — unusually compelling, thanks to Leung — grows more menacing with time, gnawing at Shang-Chi’s sense of who he can even become given the things he’s done and seen.
A few recent, notable movies about Asian American life (Crazy Rich Asians, The Farewell, and the like) have openly wrestled with the trope of younger-generation Americanization (and its consequent individualism) butting against parental and ancestral ideals, immigrant ideals, the kinds of stories that make the children of immigrants feel terminally caught between two worlds. Shang-Chi doesn’t sidestep those questions. Ultimately, family matters; ancestry matters; young people are expected to make something of themselves. But the movie’s got questions about precisely those older ideals, and counterpoints, and some refreshing variations. It’s in this context that Xialing, stony and resentful at first (for good reasons), emerges as more than just a side story to Shang-Chi’s overarching Chosen One journey; it’s what makes a scene of Shang-Chi being trained by Ta Lo guardian Ying Nan (Yeoh) not only a pleasure to look at — Yeoh’s still got it — but interesting to think about. She’s imparting a kind of wisdom that life under the thumb of the Ten Rings is too brutish to understand.
The actual fights are satisfying, but they’re almost too enamored of the wonders of splashy CGI, to the point that the power of real physicality — even the practical, mystical power of great wuxia effects, in which reed-thin trees would barely buck under great warriors’ weight, because that’s grace — gets muddled and deadened. So goes our harder, faster, louder era; the movie’s trying to make sense in its own moment. The dramas built into these battles, the sense that something personal is always at stake, make up for it to an extent. The movie is solid; even the Ben Kingsley bit, which is predicated on a pretty good in-joke if you know your MCU history, doesn’t totally wear out its welcome (but it comes close). And the leads, Liu and Zhang especially, make enough of their roles for me to crave a future for the franchise, one that leaves the throat-clearing of origin behind, if only to see how far they can go with it — or rather, how far Marvel will let them go.