‘Shang-Chi’ is a step forward, but back to the formula for Marvel

The latest MCU blockbuster brings lots of action but plays it too safe

Brad Keefe
"Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings"

We are now in Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and my fatigue is creeping back in.

It kicked off in theaters with “Black Widow,” the first of four films coming out this year (and 12 total). But I’ve notably been more interested in the MCU's limited TV series. “WandaVision” and “Loki,” in particular, revived my excitement with fresh new possibilities within the Marvel universe.  

Enter last week’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” a crowd-pleaser but also a return to a more paint-by-numbers formula.

It’s another overdue moment of representation in the MCU, the first film with an Asian lead. But like another overdue representation moment, “Captain Marvel,” it’s a shame it wasn’t more groundbreaking on other fronts.

In fairness, it is a bit of the curse of an origin story. The weight of a character introduction doesn’t leave much room to hop genres.

In a cross-generational story, Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) is an unassuming valet who enjoys parking cars and post-work karaoke with friend and co-worker Katy (Awkwafina). But some baddies reveal Shang-Chi is more than meets the eye. He’s the son of Xu Wenwu (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung), who has been ruling via the power of the 10 magical rings.

The plot is a whirlwind of expositional storytelling, breathless action sequences and mystical locales. In terms of MCU templates, it’s closest to “Black Panther,” an unfair comparison, perhaps, but one that makes “Shang-Chi” feel quite forgettable next to that stellar movie.

It’s no fault of Liu, a Chinese-born Canadian actor who was notably cast years after tweeting at Marvel about their need for an Asian-led film. He showcases the charisma and action chops to be a next great movie superhero.

There are also appearances from notable actors Michelle Yeoh and Ben Kingsley (in great comic relief reprising a role from earlier in the MCU). I was also excited to hear that director Destin Daniel Cretton was attached. His debut film, “Short Term 12,” was my top movie the year of its release.

But Cretton's first big-budget film seems more focused on the pressures of delivering a blockbuster than engaging characters or story. It’s understandable given the weight of expectation, but Cretton’s biggest misstep may have been playing things too safe.

My been-there-done-that weariness around MCU movies is not a widely held position, and there is no doubt fans will consider this more than their money’s worth.

But for me, it’s another origin story that’s hopefully setting up more risk-taking surprises in movies to come.

“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings"

Now playing exclusively in theaters

2 stars out of 5