Though Sauron divvied out 19 rings, he only needed one. Wenwu has 10, five for each arm, and they can do just about whatever he wants: Accelerate punches, shoot energy blast, fly around the room and knock over enemies, you name it. How they work and where they come from is never explained, but they’re pretty handy in a pinch. Naturally, the rings could be used for good, but, as these things go, Wenwu desires power. So, for a thousand years, the army of the Ten Rings rules from the shadows.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the latest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, burns through this backstory with broad brushstrokes and a tip of the hat to Lord of the Rings. Jump ahead to the mid-’90s, and ageless wonder Wenwu (Tony Leung) discovers a magical grove guarded by Jiang Li (Fala Chen). They spar and fall in love. She softens his heart, and for the first time since putting on the rings, Wenwu realizes that power is small potatoes to love and starts a family. They have two children: A son, Shang-Chi, and a daughter, Xialing.
Jump ahead again, this time to present day, and Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) is a beefy valet parking cars in San Francisco and living out of a garage. How he got here is not really the story of Shang-Chi, but with so much of the movie’s 132-minute runtime given over to flashbacks, it’s probably best to let the movie fill in the holes.
That’s one of the drawbacks of Shang-Chi: The story feels like a series of events crushed together so as not to get in the way of the action. Though some credit goes to writers Dave Callaham, Andrew Lanham, and Destin Daniel Cretton (who also directs) for keeping Shang-Chi moving swiftly through large dumps of exposition in between fights.
And the fight scenes are the best parts of Shang-Chi. The character arrived in the comics in December 1973, just a few months after Bruce Lee died and Enter the Dragon premiered. Lee was a sensation, as was the TV show he initially conceived before it was taken from him and recast with a white guy in the lead, Kung Fu. It’s little wonder why Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin introduced the character into Marvel’s ever-expanding stable of characters—though Starlin’s design of Shang-Chi looks more like Charles Bronson to me than Lee or David Carradine’s Kwai Chang Caine.
But I digress. Shang-Chi has at least one instance of sticky hands—a Wing Chun technique Lee incorporated into his fighting manifesto, Jeet Kune Do—and there’s some wushu, but the majority of the fights blend Jackie Chan’s affinity for location incorporation, Yeun Woo ping-style wire-work, and plenty of digital effects for good measure.
The results are enjoyable, even when the story fails to engage. Liu brings charisma, while Awkwafina brings just enough humor to the role of Katy, Shang-Chi’s long-time platonic friend. Add a couple of guardian lions to the fight along with Morris, a faceless footstool-looking pet with wings—Katy calls it the “chicken pig thing”—and you’ve got the makings for a good time in theaters.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton
Written by Dave Callaham, Destin Daniel Cretton, Andrew Lanham
Based on characters created by Steve Englehart, Jim Starlin
Produced by Kevin Feige, Jonathan Schwartz
Starring: Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Tony Leung, Fala Chen, Meng’er Zhang, Michelle Yeoh, Florian Munteanu
Marvel Studios, Rated PG-13, Running time 132 minutes, Opens Sept. 3, 2021.