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FILM REVIEW

Shang-Chi: Marvelous Marvel hero, Lord of the 10 Rings

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Brent Northup mug new

Brent Northup

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Streaming on Disney+

(PG-13)

Grade: A-

The pandemic has taught me to be patient. Instead of rushing to the theaters for an opening night spreader-fest in a crowded theater, many of us simply wait for streaming day.

On Nov. 12, two months after opening in theaters, Destin Daniel Cretton’s “Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings” arrived on Disney+.

My expectations were high since “Shang-Chi” holds a 92 rating on Rotten Tomatoes and is the highest grossing film in the states this year, bringing in $224 million domestically and another $206 million internationally.

The verdict: For once, I can embrace the cliche and affirm that this Marvel release is, in fact, Marvelous. And that’s coming from someone who has tired of superhero sequels.

“Shang-Chi,” while very much a card-carrying member of the Marvel universe, emulates and celebrates traditional martial arts movies.

“Shang-Chi” is part Little Dragon and part Flying Dagger – a blend of Bruce Lee and Zhang Yimou. Add a cynical, quick-witted script and presto: fun, high-quality cinema.

Yes, Yimou’s “House of the Flying Daggers” and “Hero” are higher art, but “Shang-Chi” has an undeniable charm. A fine cast and a thoughtful script provides us with characters to care for.

The comic book origins trace to December 1973, shortly after Bruce Lee’s death. Clearly capitalizing on the Lee wave of martial arts films, “Shang-Chi” shows how the innocent child became the feared warrior.

“Shang-Chi,” marketed as a new origin story, and is credited with being a groundbreaking cultural milestone. Asian films are hardly new and Asian martial arts films are legendary.

But those films are overrun by stereotypes and regrettable tropes that misrepresent and disrespect Asian and Asian American culture.

The producer and director have said they were inspired by “Black Panther,” a film powered by black actors and filmmakers that respected black culture. “Shang-Chi” strives to do the same for Asian and Asian-American culture featuring “a predominantly Asian and Asian North American cast, made by Asian American talent.”

“We’re not here to make another martial arts movie about a foreign guy who doesn’t have a personality other than the fact that he’s from a different place and speaks English differently,” said Simu Liu, the Canadian actor who plays Shang-Chi. “We wanted this to be a real story where the central character is three-dimensional – a journey about his relationships, not just his fighting.”

For the most part, that mission was accomplished. Action is (often) secondary to story and character – a remarkable feat inside the frenetic Marvel genre.

The film has the predictable thread of people with powers fending off assorted villains, but there’s a deeper layer – the portrayal of family. Shang-Chi’s mother died courageously when he was 7. Shang-Chi longs for family. He’s estranged from his sister, and wishes he could love his father again.

His dad, “who has coveted power for 1000 years,” has trained Shang-Chi to wield power ruthlessly so he can, one day, avenge his mom’s death.

But Shang-Chi gradually rejects that dark destiny. Ultimately, he must oppose his father to dictate his own future. Daddy conflict isn’t new, of course -- Darth comes to mind -- but this gifted Asian cast digs deeper than most.

The film ends with an exquisite, chilling tribute to those who have died. Hundreds of water lanterns float in a river allowing lost lives to shine on.

There’s a stream of humor, too, with Ben Kingsley and Awkwafina keeping us smiling.

I entered with hope, but expected commercial compromises would snuff my candle.

Not so. “Shang-Chi” reaffirmed, for a day or two, my faith in Marvel and DC films.

Second opinion: I often seek out former students Juno Men or Shawn O’Rourke to edit my superhero reviews. They both own vacation homes in the Marvel universe, and relish slicing and dicing my first drafts.

Juno applied red pen after viewing the film safely, late at night, in a mostly empty Seattle theater.

“For a movie that comfortably abides by Marvel's tried, true, and increasingly predictable story structures, ‘Shang-Chi: The Legend of the Ten Rings’ is a triumph on multiple levels,” wrote Men. “As movie entertainment, it smartly blends the best of the American Superhero and Hong Kong Action genres. And as cinematic art, it disrupts the prejudicial belief that Asian and Asian-inspired films hold marginal commercial potential in North America. Shang-Chi gets 9 out of 10 rings from me.”

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