Marvel’s latest action-adventure comic book movie, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, is groundbreaking in a number of ways.

It’s the milestone 25th film in their cinematic universe to be released and the first to feature an Asian lead, predominantly Asian cast and an Asian director in Destin Daniel Cretton, a massive step forward for representation in American cinema.

The film also comes at a transition point for the studio, which has finally begun to introduce new characters and worlds following the events of Avengers: Endgame, and places a lot of hopes on relative unknown Simu Liu to break out and help lead the next wave of inevitable sequels and spinoffs.

Shang-Chi introduces audiences to Shaun, a slacker working as a valet at a downtown San Francisco hotel with his best friend Katy, when thugs attack him on a bus and he reveals expert level martial arts training that allows him to fend off his attackers and spiral the pair down into a world of ancient mysticism and international terrorism.

The problem with the film’s narrative, however, comes from the fact that it almost isn’t Shang-Chi’s origin story at all. It’s the origins of a much larger universe and the unlikely love between his parents, the villainous leader of a crime syndicate known as The Ten Rings and a woman living in a hidden village empowered with mystic martial arts.

As Shang-Chi discovers who his parents truly are, audiences begin to see his skill set as a fighter and his moral compass, but there’s not really a character for Liu to build himself around. His Shang-Chi is a steady presence and an excellent fighter to choreograph action sequences, but Cretton and co-writers Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham saddle the title character as the least interesting out of all the main figures in the film.

This isn’t to say Liu isn’t a star in the making as Shang-Chi. It’s clear that Marvel has big plans for the character in their expanding universe of content and Liu’s chemistry with Awkwafina as Katy is stellar both emotionally and comedically. He’s also an exceptional fighter, doing most of the stunt work himself.

Tony Leung as the film’s erstwhile villain steals the entire feature with a layered, emotional performance as a man grief-stricken by the loss of his wife and completely blinded by anger and frustration that builds to rage.

Fight choreography throughout the film is perhaps some of the strongest in all Marvel movies, focusing heavily on the beautiful artistry of hand-to-hand martial arts combat in sequences that evoke everything from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to Rumble in the Bronx to the John Wick franchise.

These sequences are masterfully shot by cinematographer Bill Pope, who floats in and out of each fight like a bird dancing around, moving the frame in such a way that large chunks of the film feel more like ballet and less like fisticuffs. This is especially true of the best moment in the entire film – a flashback recalling how Shang-Chi’s parents first met – that is exquisitely captured and filled with playful, colorful romanticism unlike anything audiences have ever seen in a comic-book movie. 

As is usually the case with Marvel films, however, the final third of Shang-Chi ventures a bit too much into the CGI-heavy, bombastic set pieces that stretch a simpler story beyond the bounds of the director’s intent and infuse it unnecessarily with a cataclysmic battle for humanity that dissociates viewers from all the great work leading up to that point.

There’s so much opportunity for growth and Shang-Chi is on the cusp of a great entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe that the final 20-25 minutes leave a somewhat bitter taste.

Given the promise of Liu as a mainstay moving forward and the important of the film to the larger franchise as a whole, there’s enough in Shang-Chi to make it a must see though an in theater versus at home screening will depend on viewers’ willingness to not be spoiled in advance. 

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