Review: 'Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings' less than legendary

The latest Marvel adventure holds its own but doesn't leave you wanting more.

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

The Marvel formula is the Marvel formula, and over the course of 24 previous films, the studio's colorful mix of humor, action and mythology has proven to be a bonafide winner. There's a reason why comic book movies have taken over Hollywood, and it's not rival competitor DC. 

That doesn't change with "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings," the deft, light on its feet, kung-fu superhero outing that stretches the Marvel Cinematic Universe into ancient Asian lore. But Shang-Chi is easily the most obscure Marvel hero to carry his own adventure yet, and the character's lack of familiarity to mainstream audiences nags at director Destin Daniel Cretton's ("Short Term 12," "Just Mercy") film. As far into Shang-Chi's backstory as the film takes us, it still feels like a side trip. 

Simu Liu in "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings."

Simu Liu plays Shang-Chi, a young guy scraping by in San Francisco with his friend, Katy (Awkwafina), until he's attacked one day on a city bus by an oversized dude and his army of thugs who are after the pendant he wears on his neck. He suddenly reveals he can fight — like, really well — and is forced to come clean to Katy that he is in fact the estranged son of an arch bad guy, Wenwu (Tony Leung), and part of a lineage of age-old warriors. 

Turns out Wenwu wants to get the family back together, but this is no happy father and son reunion. Fists fly, dragons are summonsed, and those 10 rings of the title are used to create sonic blasts of power that are like room-clearing sound waves. Along the way, family drama spills out into the open: "You chose those damn rings over us!" is how Shang-Chi chides his father for his quest for power over fatherhood. (OK, dialogue has never been central to Marvel's success.) 

It's all ratcheted up by a handful of exciting set pieces, like that bus battle and a fight on the scaffolding of a skyscraper that feels like a real-life video game. 

But is it enough? Yes and no. 

Liu has an amiable nice guy presence but doesn't emit star power, and has neither the swagger or the vulnerability to make the character two-dimensional. Awkwafina is a lively presence, as always, but we've seen this kind of shtick from her before. And the rest, from the cameos to the creatures, feels like boilerplate, low-level Marvel.

Part of the deal with Marvel is the way one puzzle piece always fits in with the next, building to the next sequel or the bigger composite adventure that brings the gang all together. "Shang-Chi" holds his own, but he doesn't leave you wanting more. It feels like a one-and-done while we get back to the main attraction.     

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

'Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings'

GRADE: B-

Rated PG-13: for sequences of violence and action, and language

Running time: 132 minutes

In theaters