The latest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” arrives with the MCU in a funny place. In all sorts of ways, the two-part “Avengers” finale (2018, 2019) marked an ending. It was epic in length, epic in cast (“Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here” could have been its theme song), and, most certainly, epic in box office. Together, the two movies earned $4.84 billion worldwide. That’ll keep you in Infinity Stones for a nice long time.
So then the MCU extended its reach this year to . . . streaming and further winking self-awareness? The Disney+ series “WandaVision” and “Loki” qualify on both counts; and preceding them was another series, the more conventional “The Falcon & Winter Soldier.” The importance of streaming was underscored in July, when the simultaneous release of “Black Widow” on Disney+ notably reduced its theatrical box office.
On Nov. 5, “Eternals” opens, and a whole new Marvel cycle could be starting. Its director is Chloé Zhao, who just won an Oscar for “Nomadland.” Her selection continues a relatively recent, and happy, Marvel tradition of turning to talented younger non-action directors. That’s the case with “Shang-Chi,” directed by Destin Daniel Cretton (”Just Mercy,” the 2019 death-row drama). Say this for Marvel: Just because they have a formula doesn’t mean they’re afraid to make unconventional choices to execute it.
“Shang-Chi” feels like a bit of a throwback. True, it introduces a new superhero, the martial-arts-master title character. As appealingly played by Simu Liu, he has the vibe of a decade-older Peter Parker. “Shang-Chi” is very clearly an attempt to enlarge even further already-massive MCU global ticket sales. The first 10 minutes are in Mandarin, with subtitles. Then again, it’s also the first, and presumably last, Marvel movie with a Talbots joke. Maybe that’s a different kind of effort to broaden the audience.
But “Shang-Chi” isn’t available for streaming for at least 45 days, and overall it’s standard, if middling, Marvel: lots of CGI action leavened by wit and supported by a very capable cast. It’s hard to get more capable than Michelle Yeoh, as Shang-Chi’s kick-ass Aunt Nan, and Tony Leung, as Xu Wenwu, Shang-Chi’s supervillain dad.
Thousands of years ago, Wenwu acquired the 10 magical rings of the title. They’re bands worn around the forearms that make the bearer immortal and bestow lots of fabulous superpowers. Well, all superpowers are fabulous. That’s what makes them super. But these are even more so. For example, he assembles a shadow army and exerts all kinds of influence over millennia of world history, not that you’d know about that (this is where the shadowiness comes in).
So where, or when, does Shang-Chi enter the picture? Ah, a few decades ago, Wenwu goes to this timeless, sealed-off Chinese village with magical powers — there’s a touch of Wakanda to it, speaking of throwbacks — and he falls in love with a woman defending the village (Fala Chen), since she’s a match for him. Then one thing leads to another. Or two anothers: Shang-Chi has a sister, Xialing (Meng’er Zhang). She sports a nifty Louise Brooks bob.
Here, actually, is a bit of a Marvel departure, one in keeping with the “Black Widow” release: female empowerment. Wenwu trains Shang-Chi to become the ultimate assassin. “From sun up until sundown, I was taught every possible way to kill a man,” he later tells a friend. This makes Xialing smirk. ”I watched everything they did and learned to do it better,” she says.
Not wanting to be an assassin, Shang-Chi runs away and fetches up in San Francisco. Now known as Shaun, he works alongside his best friend as a parking valet (“Shaun and the Legend of the Ten Carburetor Rings”?). Katy, the friend, is very amusingly played by Awkwafina; she puts that vinegary voice to excellent use. The look on her face when a martial-arts battle erupts on a city bus is the best special effect in the movie, and it’s definitely not CGI.
Also providing comic relief are a pair of Marvel returnees: Benedict Wong’s martial-arts monk, Wong, from “Doctor Strange” and those final two “Avengers”; and Ben Kingsley’s ham actor, Trevor Slattery, from “Iron Man 3.” Tousle-haired and bug-eyed, he’s so over the top, he’s right where he belongs.
“Shang-Chi” offers the occasional marvel (that’s the word): a sentient bamboo forest, armor forged from dragon scales, photon-shooting crossbows, a map made of water (all right, that’s a better special effect than Awkwafina’s amazement, and it’s definitely CGI). But overall the movie has too many dead spots. And they aren’t necessarily the non-action sequences.
At its heart, “Shang-Chi” is a movie about family. It’s easy to overlook what a big Marvel thing family can be: Thor and Loki; Tony Stark and his father; the stepfamily dynamics in “Black Widow”; the way the Avengers function as a kind of substitute family. So “Shang-Chi” is a throwback in that respect, too, and if it had the daring to emphasize family more, it might be both a better movie and extend the brand even further.
Oh, and, yes, there is an Easter egg.
SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton. Written by Cretton, Dave Callahan, Andrew Lanham. Starring Simu Liu, Tony Leung, Awkwafina, Meng’er Zhang, Fala Chen, Benedict Wong, Michelle Yeoh, Ben Kingsley. At Boston theaters, Kendall Square, suburbs. 132 minutes. PG-13 (sequences of violence and action, language). In English and Mandarin, with subtitles.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.