It should be fairly obvious by now, the Marvel Studios has established itself as a brand that delivers a certain caliber of film. So when it comes time to introduce a new character into their ongoing interconnected franchise, audiences who may not be familiar with the newcomer’s comic book source material can still feel confident that they will be getting a movie that will entertain them. And in some cases, those who have never heard of the character of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu, but are heading out to theaters this weekend to check out the hero’s eponymous film opening this weekend, may just find their expectations exceeded.
Shaun (Simu Liu) and Katy (Awkwafina) are two Asian American friends in their mid-20s, content to just hangout with friends and avoid too much responsibility. While on their way to their dead-end job as parking valets, Shaun is attacked and a necklace that had been given to him by his mother is stolen, but not before he beats back his attackers with martial arts skills Katy has never seen him use before. Shaun confesses that his real name is Shang-Chi and he is actually the runaway son of Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung), the leader of the terrorist organization known as the Ten Rings and wielder of a mystical weapon of the same name. Shang-Chi soon finds himself searching for his lost sister and trying to stop his father from bringing his dead other back from the afterlife, an act that could have disastrous consequences for the whole world.
It is nice to see Marvel has developed the character of Shang-Chi away from the somewhat cringey Bruce Lee riff he was when he first appeared in the comics in the 1970s. They’ve stripped away much of the cosmetic look of the character. He no longer walks around barefoot in a red karate ki and headband. But they kept the core estranged relationship with his father intact while wisely changing enough of the mysterious crime lord portion of his backstory to shed its stereotypical “Yellow Peril” Fu Manchu origins. By adding some emotional complexity to the character of Wenwu, the audience actually has sympathy for him and his goals, even as he is being manipulated by more powerful evil forces. A good antagonist is one who can still be relatable, and the heartbreak and desperation that Wenwu has to bring his wife back from the dead as embodied by Leung certainly is effective.
Awkwafina’s Katie gets some actual character development, which is a change-up for the usual comic relief/best-friend/sidekick character we see in Marvel’s movies. Normally, a character like Katie is there to crack wise and express disbelief about the fantastical events the characters have been drawn into. While she does that with the all the aplomb we would expect from the actress, Katie also serves to support her friend Shaun/Shang-Chi, so that his journey of self-discovery becomes her journey as well. By the film’s climax, she is proving herself to be as much a hero as he is.