Phase 4 of the MCU plays a whole lot like the previous three in this new Marvel origin story with Chinese cultural roots.

**1/2 out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for sequences of violence and action, and language)
Released: September 3, 2021
Runtime: 132 minutes
Directed by: Destin Daniel Cretton
Starring: Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Tony Leung, Michelle Yeoh, Meng’er Zhang, Fala Chen, Benedict Wong, Wah Yuen, Florian Munteanu, Andy Le, Paul W. He

Phase 4 may be a whole new era for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but one thing remains abundantly clear: the MCU gonna MCU.

That’s the big takeaway from Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the multiplex launching pad for the post-Avengers trajectory of this multi-platform saga (which includes multiple series on streamer Disney Plus). Yet while the characters may be new and more diverse, the framework is basically the same.

As one of the lesser-known Marvel titles, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings works as a refreshing origin story insomuch that it’s not one we’ve seen rehashed in multiple reboots and grown tired of. And yet it still lacks originality, checking off one obligatory origin beat after another within a broad, rote mythology that often requires lengthy, laborious exposition.

(It’s funny, for example, how a millennial empire so consequential in the annals of history — wielding its power over nations! — could also be so completely unknown. Working “in the shadows” is endlessly convenient.)

Director Destin Daniel Cretton bringssome Zhang Yimou flair to the ancient flashbacks (re: Hero, House of Flying Daggers, et al) and, in turn, employs some sleek Bond-like set pieces in the modern day but, ultimately, it’s all just in service of yet another Marvel machine.

In the end, what keeps Shang-Chi from soaring to Black Panther heights is its lack of thematic ambition and significant real-world parallels.

In Black Panther, writer/director Ryan Coogler crafted a parable that confronted the lingering injustices of the African-American experience, then dealt with how that defined black identity today (both heroically and tragically).

Cretton and his team of writers, however, have no such ambitions. Uninterested in examining Asian-American identity or complex culture clashes, Shang-Chi simply resorts to a familiar grab-bag of family dysfunctions, tragedies, and secrets to define and motivate its characters.

The result: a Hollywood blockbuster that appropriates culture (albeit sincerely and with respect) rather than exploring it. Sure, it’s a welcome, at-times-dazzling aesthetic filter for a contrived comic book mythology, but it doesn’t resonate or leave a lasting impression.

That’s disappointing for several reasons, perhaps especially because as a comic with a low niche following, this movie adaptation could’ve really taken some creative, daring liberties without fear of toxic fandom reprisals. Instead, it’s all safe and risk averse.

In this stock origin story, Chinese movie legends Tony Leung and Michelle Yeoh are the only ones who elevate stock characters. The rest of the ensemble serves each role well, so far as they go (including star Simu Liu, Awkafina’s best friend comic relief and, as Shang’s outcast-but-resilient sister Xialing, Zhang Meng’er’s defiance of Old World patriarchy). But like the fight scenes, they’re all solid if not particularly distinguished, primarily because they’re not allowed to be.

There are some cool new creatures and a hilarious extended cameo from Sir Ben Kingsley in an Iron Man 3 callback, yet Shang-Chi (which screens exclusively in theaters, foregoing Disney’s pandemic-era hybrid release model) is like a binge-watch of four half-hour episodes from a Disney Plus series. It scratches that Marvel itch (and yes, there is a mid-credits *and* post-credits bonus scene, perfunctory as they are) but it also starts to spin its wheels in world building, offering a whole lotta digital spectacle while failing to capture one’s imagination – or heart.

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