Lesser-known characters often work out well for Marvel, giving more leeway to play and the opportunity to rewrite history without upsetting fans. Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy both turned low-expectation into big fun. The same, happily, is true of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. This hugely enjoyable martial arts caper introduces us to Shang-Chi, a comic-book character so obscure that even the film’s director and star initially hadn’t heard of him.
Shang-Chi gets its backstory out of the way in pleasingly brisk fashion. Wenwu (Tony Leung), a man fixated on power, becomes the world’s most dangerous criminal with the help of ten power-bestowing rings. Rather marvellously, a voiceover says he may have ‘stolen them or found them in a tomb’ but leaves it at that. Who needs more?
Wenwu has a son with a woman who’s an even more skilled fighter than he. Cut to that son all grown up, now called ‘Sean’ (Simu Liu), and living in San Francisco, having channelled all that impressive lineage into a career parking cars at a hotel. He is happy bumming around with his friend Katy (Awkwafina), until he’s hassled on a bus and, in a spectacular flurry of kicks and leaps, reveals he is in fact an astonishing fighter with a very mysterious past.
Director and co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12) nails this opening section. There’s a lovely comedic ease between Liu and Awkwafina, and lots of big laughs. When the action hits, it comes from seemingly nowhere in thrilling fashion. The bus fight and a later sequence on some very flimsy scaffolding on the outside of a skyscraper rank as two of the best fight sequences in any Marvel film. They’re not just beautifully choreographed but keep the story progressing as they go.
Liu, known mostly for the sitcom Kim’s Convenience, is a terrific find. Superhero actors can often convince as either ordinary guy or kick-ass monster fighter, but rarely both. Nobody buys Henry Cavill or Gal Godot as anonymous nerds, or really believes Paul Rudd could hurt anyone. Liu is believable as both. He doesn’t have the immediate hero presence of Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth or Chadwick Boseman, but he can switch it on. It’s exactly what the character, a fighter by conditioning rather than desire, needs.
For the first hour, this looks like it could be one of the best films Marvel has made. That potential drifts away in a still very entertaining but more Marvel-by-numbers second half. As Shang-Chi reconnects with not-so-dear old dad, it all gets a little bogged down in brooding family resentments and hasty mythology. There are still some laughs, many courtesy of a character we won’t spoil, but there isn’t the sparky pace of the first half and the later action scenes lack inspiration, with the finale another mulch of CG monsters.
Even though it doesn’t stick the landing, Shang-Chi is one of the better Marvel intros. Thor and Captain America both debuted in films less assured than this, and look how they developed. Shang-Chi would be a welcome addition to any future Marvel movie. This comic book hero also-ran has the potential to be a major player in the MCU.
In UK and US theaters Sep 3.