Marvel's apparently earnest push for diversity continues with its first Asian American superhero movie, based on a character little-known outside the comics world. (At this point, Marvel movies are practically original content, as far as mainstream audiences are concerned. It's one thing to adapt the familiar Captain America, quite something else to adapt Guardians of the Galaxy.) Similarly little-known is likable Canadian actor Simu Liu in the title role. We are introduced to him as Shaun, an unambitious nobody who works as a valet in San Francisco with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina, always a welcome presence). As it turns out, his real name is Shang-Chi, and he is the son of a 1,000 year old terrorist warlord named Xu Wenwu, who the Western world has nicknamed The Mandarin.
Tony Leung Chiu-Wai plays Xu, and while he is one of the finest actors of his generation, the biggest issues I had with Shang-Chi are with his character. The plot has him longing for his late wife, to the degree where he has become obsessed with finding a secret Chinese village where he believes she is being held captive. (There's a whole story behind that, which I won't give away.) Leung's infinitely sad visage certainly convinces us of his grief, but the film fails to make us believe that he is also a millennium-old supervillain who has masterminded unspeakable acts of death and destruction.
The screenplay, by director Cretton, his longtime writing partner Andrew Lanham, and studio hack Dave Callaham, is actually to blame for everything wrong with Shang-Chi. (There's also a lot right with Shang-Chi, including its cast, Sue Chan's production design, and some impressive fight choreography.) Plot holes abound: for example, much of the first act is about Xu sending his goons to violently retrieve the pendants that Shang-Chi and his sister Xialing (Meng'er Zhang) wear around their necks. The two siblings are clearly willing to protect those pendants with their lives. But why? What do the pendants mean to them? And who gave them the pendants in the first place – presumably their father, right? So why doesn't he just ask for them? (When it's finally explained why he needs them, his kids just go along with it. No big deal.) We're never told any of this.
In short, the characters lack sufficient backstory, and the film feels somewhat hollow for it.
Shang-Chi is still a good time, with Marvel's trademark humor, tie-ins to previous films, and a special effects-laden finale. And of course I fully support their initiative to give more nonwhite characters their time to shine. (Shang-Chi is so invested in its Chinese milieu that a fair amount of dialogue is in subtitled Mandarin, as it should be.) Pretty much everything works here – except the script.