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'Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings' review: Uneven groundbreaking adventure

(L-R): Wenwu (Tony Leung) and Ying Li (Fala

(L-R): Wenwu (Tony Leung) and Ying Li (Fala Chen) in Marvel Studios' "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings." Credit: Marvel Studios

PLOT A San Francisco slacker must use his secret powers to save the world.

CAST Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Tony Leung

RATED PG-13 (action-violence)

LENGTH 2:12

WHERE In theaters

BOTTOM LINE Disney-Marvel’s first Asian lead superhero makes a semi-impressive debut.

In the world of superheroes, fathers die early but loom large. Tony Stark’s genius, Superman’s moral gravitas, Aquaman’s ability to breathe on land — they owe it all to dad. You might say the same for the hero of "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings," but his father happens to be alive. Not only that, he is competing with his son for screen time — and for the most part, the old man wins.

As an introduction to Disney-Marvel’s first superhero movie led by Asians — both on screen and behind the camera — "Shang-Chi" makes for a somewhat unsteady landmark. For starters, there’s that curious father-son dynamic. There’s a character named Katy (Awkwafina) who tries to function as both wacky sidekick and love interest — a difficult if not impossible task. And while the movie pays homage to Asian cinema by blending ancient Kung-Fu fantasy with a modern Marvel blockbuster, the overall effect is uneven.

The film begins with Xu Wenwu, a warlord played by Hong Kong cinema icon Tony Leung. He’s a power-mad marauder — and thanks to his ten mystical rings (worn bracelet-style, up the forearms), he’s immortal. Flash-forward to the present day, and Wenwu — even while sponsoring organized crime and terrorism — finds himself tamed by Li, a kind of human forest-spirit played by Fala Chen. They fall in love.

Got all that? We learn the story early on, but we don’t connect a San Francisco slacker named Shaun (Simu Liu) with Shang-Chi until he is attacked on a bus (by a guy whose right arm is a burning sword) and springs into dazzling action. With his identity — and the movie’s sense of verisimilitude — thoroughly blown, Shang-Chi tells Katy the truth: He’s a martial arts master who’s been hiding from his unkillable father.

Guess what happens when you cast a soulful actor like Leung ("Hero," "Infernal Affairs") as the villain in a Marvel movie? You fall in love with him. "Shang-Chi" tries to cast Wenwu as a tyrant hellbent on hastening doomsday, but all we see is a tormented, romantic figure haunted by the ghost of the only woman he ever loved. It’s hard to fully root against Leung’s tragic Wenwu, especially when Liu’s wooden Shang-Chi gives us so little to root for. This somewhat stone-faced hero comes alive mostly thanks to CGI effects (lightning bolts, force fields, shock waves, the usual). Far more compelling are his hard-nosed sister, Xialing (Meng’er Zhang, in her film debut), and his wise aunt, Ying Nan (screen great Michelle Yeoh).

Though reasonably entertaining and graced by occasional moments of delicacy from director Destin Daniel Cretton ("Short Term 12"), "Shang-Chi" feels both overly ambitious and slightly unclear on what future installments are supposed to look like. Still, now that all the father issues have been resolved, perhaps Shang-Chi will grow into his own.

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