Nobody's winning streak can continue forever. Pixar had Cars 2, Steven Spielberg had 1941, and the Rocky franchise had Rocky V. After an astonishing twenty-four good-to-great entries, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has its first movie I didn't like. And honestly, I expected Shang-Chi: The Legend of the Ten Rings to be one of my favorite MCU entries because the best installments have been the ones introducing lesser-known heroes. Sadly, the Marvel formula is beginning to wear thin due to the constant repetition of it.
Simu Liu plays Shaun, a guy who works as a valet in San Francisco, along with his platonic female friend Katy (Awkwafina). When a gang of burly dudes attacks him on a city bus and he successfully defeats them, his secret is revealed: his father Xu (Tony Leung) trained him to be an assassin at an early age. The power-hungry Xu – who led an army called the Ten Rings – is now seeking to reunite Shaun and his sister Xialing (Meng'er Zhang) so they can rescue his wife, who has long been presumed dead (and is still presumed dead by Shaun). At least that's what he claims he wants to do.
Early scenes in Shang-Chi are promising. That bus fight rivals a similar brawl in this year's Nobody. Another one, set on the scaffolding running up the side of a skyscraper, is equally thrilling. For a time, it seems like the movie is going to be a lot of fun.
Then the plot fully kicks into gear, sending that fun plummeting. A lot of explaining goes on during the second act, which serves to slow the pace down dramatically. The family history has to be explained. The legacy of the Ten Rings has to be explained. The meaning of certain objects has to be explained. So much time is spent giving us backstory that Shang-Chi almost feels like it's playing in reverse. Compounding the matter is that none of the stuff being explained is particularly original. It's just bits and pieces from other movies.
Because of the attention devoted to telling us What It All Means, the film forgets to make Shaun an interesting hero. Simu Liu is an appealing actor. Saddling him with a one-note character is gravely disappointing. After a while, I almost started rooting for Xu, since he's at least a compelling figure. Director/co-writer Dustin Daniel Crettin (Just Mercy) wants to look at parent/child dysfunction, but what he comes up with is far less compelling than the family interactions from the recent Black Widow.
Shang-Chi additionally suffers from Marvel Syndrome, i.e. the need to tie itself into the overall universe. Several familiar faces from elsewhere in the MCU have cameos that are awkwardly forced in, halting the plot's momentum even further. Of course, the film also has to put elements in place that will pay off in future Marvel installments. Being held hostage to those corporate requirements sucks a lot of the air out of this individual chapter. The amount of “business” crammed into the film becomes tiresome.
Awkwafina is funny and appealing as Katy, and again, those early action sequences are enjoyable. By the time the requisite final battle with a CGI creature came around, though, my eyes were glazing over. Shang-Chi: The Legend of the Ten Rings marks the first time a Marvel movie has felt machine-manufactured to the point of being laborious.
out of four
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and language. The running time is 2 hours and 12 minutes.