Home is where the heart is. Unless you’re Shang-Chi. Then home is where your mother’s mystical secret village — and its dragon guardian — is. That’s the case in Marvel’s unsteady “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” directed by Destin Daniel Cretton with an obliging eye toward kung fu cinema, but not much else.
Meet Shaun (Simu Liu). He’s your typical millennial slacker, content with his valet job, where he works with his equally listless best friend, Katy (Awkwafina). But Shaun has a secret: his mother (Fala Chen), who died when he was a child, was a master martial artist from an alternate dimension. Oh, and dad (Tony Leung) is a conqueror with a secret ninja army and 10 magical arm rings. And sis, Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), hasn’t been in touch for a while; she’s got an underground “Fight Club”-style empire to rule over. When Shaun, a.k.a. Shang-Chi, receives a cryptic message, he gets pulled into a family reunion and must reckon with his past.
“Shang-Chi” peppers its hero’s tragic back story throughout but doesn’t fully acquaint us with him in the present before it jumps into his past. As in “Black Widow,” here’s a case of a protagonist who can’t compete with the more fascinating characters around him. Take Leung’s character, a toxic yet charismatic father, constantly pivoting between tender vulnerability and the destructive temper that masks it. Xialing, too, is wonderfully fierce as a lady kingpin. Too bad she falls into one of Marvel’s reliable tropes: the cool sister waiting in the margins of the story. (Other examples include Yelena Belova, Shuri and even the seductively villainous Hela.)
Then there’s the beloved sidekick, a role Awkwafina satisfies in much the same way she has in several other films, as in the street-smart hustler Constance and the tacky nouveau-riche bestie Peik Lin — which is to say awkwardly and obnoxiously. She does double-duty as the hero’s potential love interest, an equally ill-fitting part given the lack of chemistry between her and Liu. (Benedict Wong, appearing as the tether to the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, however, is delightful as always, even in his brief and transparent function in the film.)
At least there’s the fighting, right? Nope. Besides one sensational fight sequence on a bus, the battles are poorly lit and filmed with such an over-excited eye that the intricacies of the choreography are lost. It’s a travesty, because Liu, a seasoned stuntman, has the effortless acrobatics and fastidious martial arts technique of an A-list action hero. Liu also has an amiable sense of humor, though “Shang-Chi” doesn’t know how to use it.
The last act of the film, which devolves into a fight-fest with magical glowing bangles, demonic monsters and oodles of C.G.I., is the most tedious, and this first Asian M.C.U. film left me with a disconcerting thought: Was this meant to be the next “Black Panther”? The dragon, the ninja army, the “Crouching Tiger”-style magical kung fu (along with Michelle Yeoh, in a small role): The film uses the superficial markers of Asian culture and filmmaking without presenting anything unique in its Marvel take on that tradition. Increasingly, as the M.C.U. finally attempts to diversify its roster, it risks delivering more mediocre, trope-heavy token-hero films. I hope I’m wrong, because Shang-Chi — and the female heroes, queer heroes and heroes of color who will hopefully follow — deserve a lot more.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Rated PG-13 for kung fu fighting. Running time: 2 hours 12 minutes. In theaters.