Shang-Chi, the master of unarmed weaponry-based Kung Fu, is forced to confront his past after being drawn into the Ten Rings organization.
It seems as though Marvel Films may be a victim of its own success. Having captivated filmgoers around the world with their 23-film series that culminated with the record-setting “Avengers: Endgame,” they’ve seemingly painted themselves into a corner. How do you top such a phenomenon? Stumbling out of the gate by beginning their phase four with a lackluster, unnecessary movie (“Black Widow”) certainly wasn’t a good move and while they are successfully keeping their brand in the public eye with a series of intriguing television programs (“The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” “Loki”) that certainly doesn’t compare with international box office domination.
Thankfully, Marvel rights the ship with the release of “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.” While the origin of the titular martial arts master follows the expected beats of such tales, there’s a sense of energy provided by director Destin Daniel Cretton’s brisk pacing as well as plenty of self-referential humor to make sure we don’t take things too seriously. The likable cast helps considerably as well, making this not only a passable entry in the superhero canon but an unexpectedly enjoyable one as well.
Simu Liu takes on the title role, a young man who’s unaware of his father Xu’s (Tony Leung) legacy. The film’s thrilling prologue provides the background on the malevolent pater familias, a despot who’s conquered many nations over the centuries thanks to ten mystical rings of iron which give him eternal life as well as an awesome degree of destructive power. However, his quest for world domination comes to an end when he falls in love with Li (Fala Chen). Two children follow – Shang Chi and Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) – and Xu does what any loving father would do – trains them to be deadly assassins so they may join his army of ninjas.
Fast forward to present day and we see Shang Chi parking cars, living an aimless life in San Francisco with his gal pal Katy (Awkwafina). He hasn’t a care in the world…until he’s attacked by a group of warriors while riding a city bus. (One of the film’s highlights, this elaborate hand-to-hand combat sequence is done with tongue in cheek, the combatants dismantling the bus as it careens down the San Francisco streets) Seems they’re after a jade necklace his now dead mother gave him, the other half of which belongs to his estranged sister. After a quick exposition dump, our hero realizes he must travel to the Orient to find his sister and then his father who has set a nefarious plan in motion.
Cretton winks at the audience throughout, refusing to a get bogged down in the overdramatic tone that’s plagued some of the Marvel features. This one is a lark that breezes along, the siblings combating one threat after another with aplomb until they reach their final destination, Talo, a hidden civilization where the citizens guard the Dark Gate, protecting the world from supernatural threats. That Liu and the cast have a twinkle in their eyes throughout helps.
Once the action shifts to Talo, it becomes clear the direction the next phase of Marvel films are headed. Connections will be made with “WandaVision” and the upcoming “Dr. Strange” sequel as its obvious supernatural elements of the comic universe will be centerstage in the foreseeable future. It’s a wise tack to take as intergalactic superheroics have been covered. If future installments dealing with the dark arts are as much fun as “Shang Chi,” Marvel is sure to have another round of profitable crowd-pleasers on their hands.
3 1/2 Stars