The glory days of the MCU seem so long ago.
Sure, “Avengers: Endgame” came out in 2019, but plenty has changed since then. Robert Downey, Jr. and Chris Evans have hung up their tights. The next “Avengers” movie isn’t even on MCU head Kevin Feige’s back burner and the recent “Black Widow” installment wasn’t remotely worth the wait.
Can a non-A-list star, playing a lesser known Marvel hero, save the MCU?
For much of “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” (terrible title, gang) the answer is, “yeah!” Simu Liu isn’t a charisma factory like Downey, but he radiates the brand of decency needed to anchor a blockbuster of this magnitude.
Too bad the film runs 20 minutes too long and ends with a standard-issue CGI blast.
Liu stars as Sean, a humble valet who spends every waking hour with his co-worker and bestie, Katy (Awkwafina).
She has no idea her buddy Sean can take down a dozen men without breaking a sweat. He keeps his past a secret, along with the father who turned on the family after his mom’s death.
Katy learns of his back story after a sword-wielding villain tries to slice and dice her unsuspecting chum. Sean, revealing his true name to be Shang-Chi, vows to protect his long-lost sister, Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), who may be next on the killer’s hit list.
And, of course, the wonderfully stubborn Katy refuses to be left behind. Would you tell Awkwafina she couldn’t join the fun?
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“Shang-Chi” opens with Sean’s father, Wenwu (Hong Kong icon Tony Leung in his Hollywood debut), a supervillain who ran roughshod over history courtesy of his powerful “Ten Rings.” He paused his bad boy streak after falling for a beautiful sorceress (Fala Chen) and starting a family – enter Shang-Chi and Xialing.
Director Destin Daniel Cretton (“Short Term 12”) makes us feel comfortable right away, fusing MCU sensibilities with Eastern textures that expand the superhero playbook. The action scenes crackle as needed, including a fight in a moving bus that goes on forever but never overstays its welcome.
That’s MCU magic, folks, like the airport hangar scene from “Captain America: Civil War.”
The film is everything you want in an MCU introduction, even if Wenwu’s character doesn’t always make sense. Plus, the new, woke MCU keeps the story front and center with only a few, negligible nods to the progressive crowd.
FAST FACT: Simu Liu auditioned for the lead role in “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” by performing two scenes from “Good Will Hunting.”
The jokes land. Liu and Awkwafina have true blue chemistry and we’re eager to learn more about Shang-Chi’s dysfunctional family. Then the second act arrives, the action moves to Wenwu’s turf, and the fun slowly seeps out of the production.
We get more backstory, some unnecessary comic relief and the sense that the film’s giddy momentum will be lost for good. In a way that’s accurate. The pace, and the heroism, spike in the final half hour, but once again it’s a CGI extravaganza that can’t take advantage of all that strong character development.
“Shang-Chi” features not one but two MCU characters in small but delightful roles – no spoilers here. It doesn’t strain itself to fit into the MCU timeline, doing so in organic strokes that feel familiar, not overstuffed.
We’ll certainly see more of Shang-Chi sooner than later. And, if future directors can maximize Liu’s screen presence as effectively as we see here, the next “Avengers” might have a new face to cheer.
HiT or Miss: “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” has its flaws, but it also captures the best of the MCU for long, glorious stretches.