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Elementary 'Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings' lacks the Marvel magic

A young, reluctant superhero-to-be struggles with his powers and responsibility. Tell me if you've heard this before. Marvel's latest is flat.
Credit: Walt Disney Motion Pictures

ST. LOUIS — Shaun (Simu Liu) doesn't need weapons to stop bad guys. Instead, he uses an ancient form of Kung Fu called the ten rings to put a charge into his adversaries, turning a simple punch into a force of nature. But can his friends and family convince him to do that for a full-time job, fighting more powerful opponents, instead of parking cars for a living?

Destin Daniel Cretton, director of such hardcore indies like "Short Term 12" and "The Glass Castle," finds himself in new, much bigger budget territory with Marvel's latest film, "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings." The filmmaker seems to be in over his head here.

The first of three brand-new Marvel Cinematic Universe films to hit theaters the rest of this year, Cretton's film relies on a time-tested story of the reluctant son with powers finding the will to be a hero. Something he will run from, no matter how much his best friend Katy (Awkwafina) implores him to chase his destiny. When destiny involves standing up to your powerful-as-well father (Tony Leung), things get tricky.

Here's the thing. The first hour of "Shang-Chi" is solid, paced well and evoking enough intrigue and emotion to buy into the characters and their fight. One of the more polished sequences in the movie involves a long fight on a bus, where moviegoers first get to see Shaun, aka Shang-Chi, punch a man in the chest and watch him fly several feet in the other direction. Of course, a little fight leads to other fights, with higher stakes each time. Oh, and several still-alive Marvel characters show up and try to help, including Benedict Wong's mystical comic relief.

The problem is after a while, the superpowered fighting and plot get old and worn down by redundancy and familiarity. While it's an amazing feat to see an Asian-American-led superhero film, I wish the finished product would have been more fresh and stood on its own two feet. The second hour of the film, including a climax that can be seen from a mile away and seems to go on for an hour, loses focus and eliminates the humor and energy found in the previous hour.

Liu, who gave up a career in accounting to tackle Hollywood, never gets the proper amount of screen time to craft an organic character. He's more of a supporting player here, even if the title of the film carries his superhero name. The screenplay, from Cretton and two others, is sloppy and doesn't give the actor the substance that could take a regular fella and turn him into someone we care deeply about. It doesn't happen here.

By the time the movie finished, I wasn't convinced he could hold a film on his shoulders alone, because I didn't feel like I knew him or who he was. Just another runaway from hero responsibility-until the running time suggests otherwise-that Hollywood has served up for years. There's not even a lot of intrigue with the ten rings and their origin. Again, straightforward and flat.

As hard as the filmmakers try, there isn't a lot of magic in these "Ten Rings;" just a disposable comic book adaptation that promises something spectacular but leaves me scratching my head wondering if I missed something. Of course, it's dangerous to say you don't like a popular film with a breakthrough racial element-but Marvel takes big swings and this was a weak flyout to the outfield.

The gifted Awkwafina does her best to infuse the tale with laughs, but she's not around enough neither is she given the proper material to work with. Leung's twisted father gets nearly as much screen time as Liu's hero, which leads to an unbalanced finale of continuous fighting that one is sure will see a certain ending coming from a mile away. It's never a bad thing for Michelle Yeoh to show up but like Awkwafina, there isn't much for her to actually do here. Wong and other MCU players show up and play a bit, but little of it sticks.

If you watch the new trailer for "Spider-Man: No Way From Home" or "The Eternals," there's a certain magical element to even the previews for those films. A true excitement. I never found that with "Shang-Chi," a film that seems to be dropped into our laps.

Unlike "Black Widow", Disney isn't making this a dual release on streaming and theaters. "Shang-Chi: The Legend of the Ten Rings" is merely heading to theaters, something the money-printing studio hasn't done since the last Spider-Man film. Even the final "Ten Rings" trailer kicked off with imagery of previous Marvel heroes finding their beginning, as if the new film needed a push.

It did, and that's not a good thing. While I wouldn't call Cretton's film bad, it's quite forgettable. In the two weeks since I watched it, most of the film drifted from my memory. Outside of the rousing train fight sequence, there's little about the movie that stood out, even with the cast. The post-credits sequence isn't even juicy, tacking on an extra few shots to the current film instead of teasing something ahead.

Movies are nothing without their expectations, something we can't enter the theater without. Marvel doesn't promise small delights; they go big or go home. Here, they didn't go as big or wondrous, and it showed. Where does this one rank? I'd place it right next to the forgettable first "Thor" sequel.

The culprit isn't necessarily the cast. It's a flat screenplay and the direction sharing zero relation to any of Cretton's earlier work, save for a cameo from his longtime muse. It's not over the top to expect the overall eye and storytelling aesthetic of an indie filmmaker to shine through on bigger projects, something you can be certain with Chloe Zhao's upcoming "Eternals."

Unfortunately, "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings" felt more like a speed bump before Zhao's film than a piece of work that could stand on its own.