Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings – Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton. Written by Dave Callaham, Destin Daniel Cretton, Andrew Lanham. Starring Simi Liu, Awkwafina, Tony Leung, Meng’er Zhang, Fala Chen, Florian Munteanu, Benedict Wong, Michaelle Yeoh, Ben Kingsley

***1/2 out of ****

When it rains it pours. It was almost two years between Marvel movies, but now they’re coming out in a deluge. First was the compelling spy thriller Black Widow. Now, Marvel once again shows its willingness to break the mold and go into new genres with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the studio’s first foray into true high fantasy. It’s also the first Marvel movie and one of the few big-budget Hollywood blockbusters to center on an entirely Asian cast, and it avoids many of the pitfalls of past Asian-centric fantasy.

But it’s not Shang-Chi we meet first. It’s our villain, Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung). A centuries-old conquering overlord holding ten enchanted artifacts that give him eternal life and incredible power, he becomes obsessed with a legendary city of magic. Seeking it through a cursed forest, he instead finds a beautiful and powerful guardian (Fala Chen) who deals him his first defeat in centuries. He learns what it’s like to respect a competitor, and that respect turns into love. They raise two children together, until her untimely death – at which point his grief takes him back to his own way and he raises his son as a warrior and assassin to follow in his footsteps. He sends the boy out on his first hit as a teenager – but the boy never returns, leaving both his twisted father and his beloved little sister behind.

Twelve years later, the young warrior Shang-Chi is now Shaun (Simi Liu), a San Francisco slacker who works as a valet driver with his chaotic best friend Katy (Awkwafina, just the right level of hyper without being annoying). He lives off the hospitality of her loving family and basically coasts through life with her, not achieving much of anything. That is, until a standard commute to works turns into the most violent bus ride since Speed when a collection of assassins led by the hulking Razorfist (Florian Munteanu) attack him while seeking the mysterious pendant he wears around his neck.

After a hurried explanation, Shaun and Katy are off on a red-eye to Macau in search of his sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang in her debut role), now an embittered, morally ambiguous crime lord who also broke from their father. She runs a fight club filled with bizarre battles including some surprising cameos, and is none too happy to see her brother. The lingering pain between them is really the emotional core of the movie, and it’s a testament to how good it is that the creative team manages to get you invested in only a few minutes – right before an insane action segment involving dozens of ninjas battling on a skyscraper’s scaffolding.

From there, it’s on to a reunion with dear old dad, and that’s where Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings really sets itself apart. We’ve seen evil dads before, and Xu Wenwu could easily have been just another Fire Lord Ozai – an abusive monster with no redeeming qualities. He’s anything but that. He’s twisted and abused his children, yes, but flashbacks show how genuine his love for the family he built was. His reversion back to his old ways is heartbreaking, as is his obsession with the idea that his wife is still alive, trapped within the magical city she once protected.

While the first third of the movie is a pretty straight-forward martial arts epic, as soon as the city of Ta Lo is introduced, it takes a sharp left turn into full-on fantasy, and a lesser movie would have fallen flat. But Shang-Chi is anchoring anything but a lesser movie. Its surprising ace in the hole and MacGuffin to Ta Lo is Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley), the faux-Mandarin from Iron Man 3. Locked up in the real deal’s castle, he knows how to get to Ta Lo thanks to an absolutely ridiculous creature he’s adopted from the magic city. When I say absolutely ridiculous, take my word for this. Nothing will do it justice. Slattery also delivers most of the funniest lines of the movie, particularly a bizarre monologue about how he was inspired to become an actor.

After a genuinely wild race to Ta Lo through a deathtrap of a living forest, the movie shifts again and the magic city becomes a refuge for our heroes. Shang-Chi finally finds the place where he can hone his potential, Xialing finds peace, and Katy finds her inner hero. One of the movie’s secret weapons is Ying Nan, Shang-Chi and Xialin’s aunt who becomes a mentor to them and is essentially playing the role Tilda Swinton wanted to in Doctor Strange. Of course, the outside world and the forces of evil are coming for it, and a massive battle is brewing. This is one of the largest-scale battles Marvel has done, but the crowds never feel overwhelming or distract from the emotional stakes of the film.

If I have one complaint about Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, it’s that it falls prey to the thing virtually all Marvel movies do – a huge CGI-heavy third act. The film never shies away from special effects, but the introduction of a second antagonist that leads to ten minutes of green-screen combat doesn’t feel like it’s playing to the movie’s strengths. Especially since that second villain never gets the development needed to be a tenth as compelling as Tony Leung’s main big bad.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings might fall just a hair short of the Marvel top tier, but that’s a tough hill to climb. It takes a hero that was fairly obscure even to most Marvel fans and puts him at the center of an epic adventure unlike anything we’ve seen before. It celebrates both Asian mythology and Asian-American culture in a way a big-budget blockbuster has never done. It gives us complex, morally ambiguous heroes and villains that I can’t wait to see more of. Even more than with their official return in July, it feels like Marvel is truly back now. Bring on the rest of phase four.

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