Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings review: Marvel's newest hero mixes old legends, fresh tricks

It seems important to acknowledge that the release of a movie as Marvel-massive as Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (in theaters Sept. 3) marks a major step forward for Asian representation on screen. It also feels important to note that it is fun: a Technicolor whirlwind of a film whose explosive fight choreography and dense mythology are leavened by a sweet and surprisingly nimble script.

The affable, elastic Canadian actor Simu Liu (Kim's Convenience) is just a regular guy called Shaun, a Gen-Z San Franciscan content to park cars and hit late-night karaoke bars with his best friend, Katy (Awkwafina). At least until a crew of international assassins approaches him on a city bus and demands the pendant around his neck — forcing him to defend his honor and reveal that he is in fact the prodigal son of a thousand-year-old supervillain (Hong Kong legend Tony Leung) formerly known as the Mandarin.

That dated alter ego, blessedly, has been retired, but the man who now goes by Wenwu is back in business after the death of his beloved wife, Jiang Li (Fala Chen), and extremely insistent on reuniting with his estranged offspring. (There's a daughter, too, played by the fierce Meng'er Zhang.) Somewhere behind the scrim of the mythical city where he and Li first met and fell in love, Wenwu believes, is the life he lost when she was killed; her surviving sister (Michelle Yeoh) sees that hope differently.

Marvel Studios Simu Liu and Awkwafina in 'Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.'

The dynamics of their family drama are fairly standard, as much as any millennium-old conflict can be, and the final scenes run into battle fatigue. But director Destin Daniel Cretton (Just Mercy, Short Term 12) fills the screen with fantastic beasts — dragons are the least of it — astonishing set pieces (a bustling underground fight club; the side of a Macau skyscraper; that bus!), and goofball bits of humor. There are the requisite MCU cameos, popping up like whack-a-moles: Serene Dr. Strange gatekeeper Wong (Benedict Wong) drops in for several scenes, and Iron Man's Ben Kingsley returns as the washed-up actor Trevor Slattery, a holy fool with an impressively Shakespearian hairpiece and a faceless little CG sidekick who looks like a furry ottoman with wings.

But many of the movie's thrills lie in the less familiar: the general lack of major artillery means the action is mostly fought with fists or ropes or arrows, which makes its obligatory stream of mortal combat feel almost balletically brutal (if oddly Disney-bloodless), and far more elegant than the genre usually allows. They'd be crazy not to give Meng'er Zhang, as Shang-Chi's ferociously watchable sister Xialing, her own spin-off, and Awkwafina, who spends at least a third of the movie in a fanny pack and lime-green parachute pants, polishes her sardonic slacker M.O. to a high one-liner shine. Even the end credits' inevitable tease of a sequel feels less like a threat, for once, and more like a promise. B+

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