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By Adam Aasen

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is at a crossroads.

It just capped off a gigantically epic saga with beloved characters telling a massive story over more than 20 movies. The studio killed off three of their biggest characters, presumably because the actors wouldn’t sign on for more sequels, and now — after the biggest, most climactic cinematic event you could ask for — audiences are now left asking: what’s next?

We thought perhaps “Black Widow” would give us a glimpse into Marvel’s movie future, but the disappointing spy prequel was instead a victory lap for one of the studio’s big stars and focused more on the MCU’s past than its future. That was to be expected though.

TV series like “Wandavision,” “Falcon and the Winter Soldier” and “Loki” have opened up new ideas, including a multiverse that will likely come into play in later movies. But they are all still relying on the goodwill and established characters of past films. They are are mostly reactions to the events of “the snap.”

But now Marvel appears to be boldly setting a path for a more interesting future with their latest installment: “Shang Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings,” which comes out in theaters on Sept. 3.

Based on a comic book character that many are not familiar with, this story injects magic, mystery and new life into the Marvel universe and is the perfect set up for “The Eternals,” the ancient immortal drama slated for Nov. 5.

If “Shang-Chi” — and “Loki” and “Wandavision” — are any indication, the next phase of Marvel movies will be weirder, more experimental and full of artistic flair.

And that’s just fine by me.

“Shang Chi” is based on a character which was first introduced in 1973 but was originally steeped in racial stereotypes.

Shang Chi was a martial arts master who was the son of the evil villain Dr. Fu Manchu (you might have heard of his mustache).

Fu Manchu was a horribly offensive Asian stereotype who first appeared in 1930s pulp novels and later in 1960s films. Marvel Comics bought the rights and began using the character in its comics.

Decades later, comic book writers knew the character was offensive and began to stop using him, making up a new history for Shang Chi’s parents. Eventually, Marvel didn’t even own the rights to Fu Manchu.

MCU screenwriters instead make today’s Shang Chi the son of a different villain, The Mandarin, which was falsely portrayed in “Iron Man 3” by Oscar winner Ben Kingsley. His Trevor Slattery character was a goofy, but gifted, actor portraying the terrorist figure behind the shadowy Ten Rings organization.

Acclaimed actor Tony Leung plays the actual Mandarin (although he doesn’t like that name) as an everyday man who found powerful ancient rings that go on his wrists. These relics give him super powers and cause him to not age for thousands of years.

He falls in love with a magical woman who lives in a mysterious village and the two give up their powers to create a life together that includes two children.

Leung gives us some of the best acting from any villain in the Marvel universe. That’s not to say he’s the best villain ever. Thanos and others might be more iconic. But Leung is given some meat to chew on with the script and he excels with his performance.

Director Destin Daniel Cretton (who has previously helmed amazing movies like “Just Mercy” and “Short Term 12”) is at his best when creating the flashbacks showing young Shang Chi and his sister growing up and witnessing the tragic death of their mother and The Mandarin’s grief turning into a maniacal need for power. Young Shang Chi is sadly forced to train day and train to become a world-class fighter. His childhood is gone.

Modern day scenes show Canadian actor Simu Liu (unknown to most American audiences unless they caught the Netflix sitcom “Kim’s Convenience) portraying Shang Chi as an aloof slacker who would rather be a valet than advance in life. He spends his nights in San Francisco irresponsibly getting drunk and singing karaoke with co-worker and platonic friend Katy, played by comedian Awkwafina.

Screenwriter David Callaham, who is of Chinese descent, said he wanted to make a story that’s true to the Asian American experience. As a white man, this isn’t my experience but I read about what the actors said. There are definite themes of self identity for second generation immigrants.

Shang Chi is unsure of who he is and he feels pressure to take on the mantle of his father. His friend Katy — although she doesn’t have superpowers — feels the same way, with her traditional Asian mother and grandmother pushing her to get a better job or get married. The themes of culture and family pressure are really present in this movie.

There are two or three really well down action scenes in this movie. The first two are heavily focused on martial arts and clearly the best hand-to-hand combat scenes we’ve seen to date in the MCU. There are a few scenes in the second and third Captain America movies that had decent fight choreography but nothing even in the realm of “Shang Chi.” These scenes will wow you and, yes, Simu Liu is a bad ass in this movie.

The final climax centers around computer-generated effects and mystical creatures that wouldn’t look out of place in “Harry Potter,” “Lord of The Rings” or “Game of Thrones.” Marvel is no longer afraid to embrace straight-up fantasy, especially after “Doctor Strange” opened up that vault. I really appreciated the willingness to take risk with some of the story in this movie and while it’s really weird at times, I dug it.

“Shang Chi” is really just a joy to watch. It’s not in the top ten for MCU movies but it’s another solid addition that’s probably the second best solo origin story in the MCU behind “Black Panther” (which isn’t really an origin movie but still counts).

There are some things I didn’t like about “Shang Chi.”

I actually enjoy Awkwafina as an actress but in small doses. I know others don’t care for her. She’s mostly relegated to comic relief and felt out of place a lot.

It was also jarring to see forced cameos from minor Marvel characters in the film, especially one that plot-wise really didn’t make any sense at all (but it was quite humorous). I would have preferred these cameos would have been left out. I can enjoy this movie without reminders of other films (that being said, the post credit scene was awesome…)

What’s great about “Shang Chi” though is it showcases the first Asian lead for a Marvel movie without ever coming off as patronizing. It embraces Asian cultures and tradition while still making a movie that’s universal in its appeal.

In the end, “Shang Chi” is the perfect transition into Oscar winner Chloe Zhao’s “The Eternals,” with both films focusing on diversity, ancient magic and beautiful cinematography.

Marvel/Disney has decided that, unlike “Black Widow,” this movie will be released exclusively in theaters (it’ll be available on streaming for a $30 charge, 45 days after theatrical release). I’m pleased because this thrill ride really does deserve a trip to the theater. It captures the best of Marvel movies while also not being afraid to try something new.



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