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Left to right: Wenwu (Tony Leung) and Ying Li (Fala Chen) in Marvel Studios' Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.Marvel Studios/Courtesy of Marvel Studios

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  • Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
  • Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton
  • Written by Dave Callaham, Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham
  • Starring Simu Liu, Awkwafina and Tony Leung
  • Classification PG; 132 minutes
  • Available Sept. 3 in theatres across Canada

“I always bet on Asian” is a line that has now been proclaimed in a Marvel movie. It’s boasted by Malaysian comedian Ronny Chieng, in a cameo as a Macanese bookie promoting an otherworldly fight club that pits fantastic monsters against kung-fu masters. Spoiler alert: The kung-fu master wins, as does Disney with this refreshing romp through – and loving homage to – martial arts cinema.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings carries with it the weight of expectation in presenting the first Asian superhero (and equally important, fully realized supervillain) in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But the cast and crew, from director Destin Daniel Cretton to overnight Canadian superstar Simu Liu to Hong Kong legend Tony Leung, wear that burden with such lightness. Shang-Chi is a first, but it’s firstly fun to watch.

You don’t need to be a walking Marvel encyclopedia to follow this origin story. The martial arts master Shang-Chi (Liu) is living a quiet life in San Francisco as “Shaun,” slacking through his days as a hotel valet alongside his best friend Katy (Awkwafina). But one Speed-worthy rumble in a runaway bus later, he is forced to confront his past and family, which is complicated by the fact that his father is Xu Wenwu (Leung), the ancient mastermind behind the Ten Rings terrorist organization.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings carries with it the weight of expectation in presenting the first Asian superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But the cast and crew wear that burden with such lightness.Courtesy of Marvel Studios

Shang-Chi and Katy then kick off the second act in Macau, where they search for his estranged sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang). It’s here that astute viewers’ Spidey sense will tingle at the sight of Xialing’s conspicuous whereabouts: a looming, foreshadowing skyscraper under construction, clad top to bottom in bamboo scaffolding. You could set your watch to count down to the inevitable bamboo-scaffolding fight.

And let me tell you, Jackie Chan fans, every swing and fall of the ensuing sky-high high jinks did not disappoint, as choreographed by long-time Chan collaborator Andy Cheng. Such obvious homages throughout the movie could have been hard-to-watch imitations of the real thing. But with Marvel-sized budgets and an inclusive production process, it’s as if director Cretton cultivated the most indelible moments from films such as House of Flying Daggers, Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and thoughtfully supercharged them for the blockbuster set.

But Shang-Chi would be doing no better than the most convoluted Avengers movie if it didn’t feature stellar performances from multiple generations of Chinese actors. No one could be blamed if they wondered why it wasn’t titled Xu Wenwu and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Leung, “Asia’s Clark Gable” in shorthand to some North American audiences, is the heartbreaking emotional centre of the story. He balances the Shakespearean challenge of portraying a psychotic tyrant whose tragic flaw is not accepting the death of his wife. He smoulders on screen, he cries – he kills, a lot.

Michelle Yeoh, already an old Marvel hand after Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, provides a steady maternal presence as auntie Ying Nan. And Awkwafina is given carte blanche to do what she has done best in her growing acting career: nearly steal the show as the comic relief. (“What happened to your shirt!?” should be something exclaimed at Marvel characters more often when revealing their abs for days.)

When there aren’t flying dragons and kinetic swordplay, the script cedes the most resonant scenes to the rest of the cast.Courtesy of Marvel Studios

Which brings us to Shang-Chi himself. Liu is right at home as a de facto action star. While every Marvel movie is physically demanding for its cast, it looks especially so for him with every hand-to-hand blow and acrobatic split kick. Marvel makes clear that Shang-Chi has a bigger role to play in the MCU; it will be a delight when Liu matches up with the Chrises Evans and Hemsworth in future – shirtless, of course.

If only the movie let him show off more of his quieter acting skills. Shang-Chi, the character, ultimately comes off as a blank slate in search of a sequel and more sidekicks. When there aren’t flying dragons and kinetic swordplay, the script cedes the most resonant scenes to the rest of the cast. Shang-Chi even gives way to Shang-Chi; Liu’s adolescent counterparts (Jayden Zhang and Arnold Sun) do much of the emotional heavy lifting in extended familial flashbacks. He also gets little room to crack wise, a skill he honed on Kim’s Convenience.

(Non-Awkwafina moments went to, um, Ben Kingsley. In a poorly kept casting secret and a nod to fan service, he reprises his Iron Man 3 role as a Monty Python-esque actor playing “the Mandarin” with mixed results.)

Beyond the bland stoicism asked of Liu, the movie slips slightly in its final act. It succumbs to a particular Marvel-itis when the climactic fight scene tries to do too much at once, especially when soul-sucking pterodactyls enter the fray. But all that does little to detract from the most straightforward – and therefore most entertaining – Marvel offering in some time.

Bring on the sequel.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)

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