We live in a Marvel-saturated world, with TV spin-offs and trailers for forthcoming attractions, such as The Eternals and Spider-Man: No Way Home, generating record-breaking buzz. Which, if anything, makes it even harder for a new kid on the block to stand out. For better or worse, the Marvel market is flooded with pioneers, and martial arts warrior Shang-Chi is the MCU’s first Asian superhero.
Here’s why you should be excited by this particular trailblazer: he has whirling dervish moves, a confounding best friend and an arch nemesis who’ll break your heart.
The film owes very little to the comic-book series (which began in 1973 and has not aged well). Shang-Chi, aka studiously polite valet Shaun (disarming newcomer, Simu Liu), lives in San Francisco and enjoys wasting time with his best friend, Katy (Awkwafina). But our hero has a past and one day it catches up with him, reconnecting him with his all-but-omnipotent Chinese dad, Wenwu (Wong Kar-wai’s superlative muse, Tony Leung).
Wenwu’s super-powers are derived from the titular rings, and he has a cunning plan that involves invading a magical land in order to rescue his long-dead wife, Jiang Li (Fala Chen). As Shang-Chi takes in the details of this cunning plan, his face stiffens with dread and pity. Olivia Colman’s character wears that same expression in The Father.
There’s an exquisite woodland fight that shows how Wenwu and Jiang Li met. There’s also a riotously entertaining brawl that takes place on a San Franciscan bus (the frenzied mood is redolent of F9, though it’s a nice touch that neither Shang-Chi nor Katy have a hope in hell of owning their own car).
By the way, Shang-Chi and Katy, unlike most Marvel protagonists, aren’t impossibly beautiful or glamorous. The film’s mission is to blur the line between ordinary and extraordinary and, aptly, even the minor characters offer spectacular curveballs. Ben Kingsley pops up as a Scouse thespian who’s as gorgeously dumb as Friends’ Joey, and as hi-falutin’ as Paddington 2’s Phoenix Buchanan. For my money, the jokes re Iron Man 3 (no spoilers here) are worth the price of admission alone.
Admittedly, some elements of the film are generic. And not every innovation lands. The rings, which Wenwu wears on his arms, keep clinking. At times, it feels as if we’re watching The Legend of the Ten Bangles.
And though Shang-Chi’s estranged sister, Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) gets lots of good lines (she’s an expert when it comes to flagging Wenwu’s misogyny; she tells Katy, “Just nod, don’t talk, and he’ll forget you’re there”), she is, alas, genuinely forgettable. There are two end credit sequences. One of them delivers a shot of joy. The other prompts the thought: I sat through all those lousy credits for that?
Not to worry. The hits easily outweigh the misses.
Director Destin Daniel Cretton worked with Brie Larson on jagged gem, Short Term 12, and with both Larson and Michael B Jordan on Just Mercy. Cretton is proper pals with a whole bunch of Marvel favourites and like them, he’s found a way to do the “super-hero thing” on his own terms.
Shang-Chi and Katy are my new best friends. Scintillatingly down-to-earth, they deserve to become legends.
134mins, 12A. In cinemas now