Review: Simu Liu breathes life into the Marvel universe with ‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’

  • Iron Man may not be around anymore, but Robert Downey Jr has found a suitable successor in the Canadian star of ‘Kim’s Convenience’
  • Liu and his co-star Awkwafina are charming, relatable, and join newcomers like Anthony Mackie and Florence Pugh in giving the MCU a refreshing update
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Canadian actor Simu Liu, best known for his role in “Kim’s Convenience”, plays the title role of Shang-Chi in the new film. Photo: Marvel Studios 2021

Robert Downey Jr and Tony Stark aren’t around in the Marvel universe anymore. Thankfully, they’ve found a suitable successor in the unfairly charismatic Simu Liu and his dragon-riding, power-punching alter ego.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings puts martial arts and Asian-influenced fantasy elements on display in the Marvel Cinematic Universe for the first time (because we’re just going to forget that Netflix Iron Fist show ever happened). As the debuting title superhero and a new champ for representation, Liu exudes likability, swagger and depth - plus forms a great buddy-action combo with co-star Awkwafina - and Shang-Chi really cooks when he’s in a street-fighting groove. However, director/co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton’s ambitious adventure loses some of that storytelling momentum when diving into its involved mythology.

Even when the film veers very strange, with magical creatures and over-the-top personalities, Liu’s subtle charm keeps the audience engaged as his character weathers a number of physical and personal obstacles. Shaun (Liu) is a San Francisco valet who parks cars with best friend Katy (Awkwafina), and their existence consists mainly of late-night karaoke and the occasional joy ride.

That is, until one day on the bus, they’re attacked by a band of bad guys led by the vicious Razorfist (Florian Munteanu). Katy’s surprised to find her bud battling villains like a kung fu Spider-Man, and one of them nabs a pendant from Shaun that his late mother Li (Fala Chen) gave him.

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To get it back, Shaun flies off to China with Katy in tow, revealing to her that his real name’s actually Shang-Chi (pronounced like Shaun with an extra “g”) and he was raised by his ruthless father Wenwu (a magnetic Tony Leung) to be a young assassin for the shadowy Ten Rings army. Shang-Chi seeks out his estranged sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), who runs a colorful fight club in Macau featuring a couple familiar MCU faces (including Benedict Wong’s lovably droll Wong), and the siblings reunite with dear ol’ dad just in time to learn of his nefarious plan to invade their mom’s mystical homeland.

Simu Liu is one of the most significant newcomers to the MCU since the late Chadwick Boseman. Photo: AP

The best action sequences are actually front-loaded: Shang-Chi enjoyably fights goons video-game-style on the aforementioned San Francisco bus as well as atop flimsy scaffolding on a Chinese high-rise, and there’s a meet-cute flashback where Wenwu and Li engage in an elegant martial-arts encounter a la Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Those bits are a breath of fresh air to the usual superhero CGI-fests, though we get that here, too: A clash featuring father, son and 10 magical rings is pretty much if Doctor Strange and Black Panther had a battle baby.

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The film really showcases some of the franchise’s larger themes, including family legacy, reluctant heroism and embracing one’s destiny. Shang-Chi and Katy are both souls needing to find purpose, and Liu and Awkwafina give them a winning relatability, even when driving through a forest that’s trying to eat them.

Marvel has done a great job casting its heroes since Downey in Iron Man, and Liu, the Canadian star of Kim’s Convenience who was fairly unknown in America until being cast in the role, is simply a joy to watch. He’s the MCU’s most significant and infectious rookie since the late Chadwick Boseman, with the same face-of-the-franchise appeal as Chris Evans.

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OG A-listers like Downey, Evans and Scarlett Johansson departing and making way for Liu - alongside other new headliners like Anthony Mackie and Florence Pugh - gives the MCU the refreshing kick in the face it needs, even if the Shang-Chi plot sometimes seems stuck using the same old moves.

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