“You are a product of all who came before you,” a wise woman tells Shang-Chi in the movie’s trailer, and she doesn’t know how right she is: Shang-Chi is another shrink-wrapped Disney product, and it could only exist after a busload of white superheroes got their turn first. On the outside, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a Marvel-tinged ode to wuxia, the enduring Chinese subgenre of martial arts fantasy—but on the inside, it’s just another compromise between underrepresented talent and overpaid producers.

The closest Shang-Chi gets to the movies it’s pretending to honor is the casting of Tony Leung, frequent muse of Wong Kar-wai and one of the greatest actors alive. He plays Wenwu, otherwise known as the Mandarin—no, not Iron Man 3’s fakeout villain, the real one this time—an immortal warlord who’s spent thousands of years conquering everything he pleases. He gains his immortality from ten magical rings that he wears like bracelets, a fact he doesn’t seem to mind sharing with the world, given that he names his army the Ten Rings. Eventually, he has a son—Shang-Chi himself—who he trains to take his place, but Shang-Chi elects to abscond to the U.S. and live the American dream: working as a valet with Awkwafina.

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The film introduces us to Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) at this stage in his life. He’s happy shooting the breeze with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina), but their lives are thrown into chaos when the Ten Rings comes looking for Shang-Chi, and Katy refuses to leave his side. Their journey kicks off with a crackerjack action sequence on a moving bus, where both Katy and the audience get to see Shang-Chi’s martial arts prowess for the first time. Simu Liu, who worked as a stuntman before finding success as an actor, brings real, physical weight to the action, throwing his body around with visible but practiced exertion. The fighting is impressive in general, thanks in part to the choreography of Brad Allen, a veteran Jackie Chan choreographer who died weeks before Shang-Chi’s release. His work features plenty of clever moves that’ll ingrain themselves firmly in the popular imagination. The camera does its best to capture it all, swiveling around the action on a pre-visualized path, but Shang-Chi never comes close to the intricately edited action of authentic wuxia films. The cinematographer and editors are a little out of their depth here, which is clearer than ever when they slot into their comfort zones for a third-act CGI slugfest. The more planning an action scene requires, the less creative it’ll be.

The action descends into Marvel’s business-as-usual as the film progresses, but the screenplay is choked up in a suit and tie from the start. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is as lazily written as these things get. The worst offender is the protagonist’s case of Captain Marvel syndrome: he doesn’t have a real arc. From the moment we meet Shang-Chi, he’s a Chosen One with a heart of gold, having chosen to leave his vices behind before the story even started. His path to heroism is a mere matter of being The Guy at The Right Time. The screenplay—once again overfocused on the retrieval of conflict-solving artifacts—is replete with decisions that rob us of chances to get to know the characters better. Wenwu gets an effective, small-scale rationale for his villainy, but Shang-Chi and Katy are stock characters from head to toe. This is another adventure of the (initially) reluctant hero and his plucky comic relief. And they definitely don’t have feelings for each other.

The most distinctive element of Shang-Chi is its score. Director Daniel Cretton made the shrewd choice to collaborate with composer Joel P. West, who scored Cretton’s infinitely smaller (and highly recommended) debut, Short Term 12. The result is a score that, like Short Term 12’s, buries deeper into a single motif over time, rejecting epic bombast in favor of subtle melodic developments. It’s beautiful, and it makes you wish the rest of the film followed suit. The Asian myths that Shang-Chi draws from have incredible storytelling potential. But Disney doesn’t really “draw from” myths; it literalizes them, flattening bits and pieces into command-findable lore for their latest property. Marvel Studios doesn’t have a sense of the reciprocal interplay between myth and culture. It does, however, know how to appropriate cultures to build its own. The cast and crew of Shang-Chi might have put genuine care into the movie, but the business directive of expanding the Marvel kingdom is the supreme creative force.

★★★   (3/5)