Producers: Kevin Feige and Jonathan Schwartz   Director: Destin Daniel Cretton   Screenplay: David Callaham, Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham   Cast: Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Meng’er Zhang, Tony Leung, Fala Chen, Florian Munteanu, Benedict Wong, Ben Kingsley, Ronny Chieng, Zach Cherry, Dallas Liu, Jayden Zhang, Arnold Sun, Jodi Long and Michelle Yeoh   Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Picture

Grade: B

One of the fresher, more engaging installments in the mostly exhausting onslaught of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is an adaptation of the “Master of Kung Fu” comic that had a decade-long run between 1973 and 1983 and occasional revivals since.  It was a fairly dark book, with roots in the martial arts fever of the time; the movie is a much lighter affair, even though it doesn’t shy away from gloominess when called for.

Originally Shang-Chi was identified as the son of the evil Fu Manchu, who trained him as a deadly assassin; but the young man became his father’s bitter foe when he learned of the pulp villain’s criminal activities.  Though the screenplay by David Callaham, director Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham jettisons the Fu Manchu name, they’ve retained the basic father-son conflict.

The older—much older—man is now Wenwu (Tony Leung), an ancient Chinese warlord whose power derives from his possession of the ten rings, mystical bracelets that endow him with extraordinary powers as well as immortality; he also runs a widespread terrorist empire, something he abandoned for a time under the influence of the boy’s angelic mother Joang Li (Fala Chen) but resumed after her murder by a rival gang. (If one of the usual added closing clips is any indication, the rings are of extraterrestrial origin.)

Meanwhile, Shang-Chi, calling himself Shawn (Simu Liu), has relocated to San Francisco, where he keeps a low profile working as a valet parking attendant alongside his best buddy, reckless, wise-cracking Katy (Awkwafina).  But their peaceful life is undone by the arrival of a bunch of his father’s burly agents, who attack them on a bus, where Shawn’s exhibition of martial arts aptitude is naturally recorded and posted online by a passenger (Zach Cherry).  Shawn wins the battle—the first, and probably most exhilarating, action set-piece in the movie—but loses a precious amulet given him by his late mother in the melee. 

That leads him to rush, with Katy in tow, to Macao, where he hopes to find his sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), who possesses a similar amulet.  She runs a fight club in a skyscraper, in which Shang-Chi is compelled to become a contestant.  But Wenwu’s thugs again intervene, leading to the capture of the siblings and Katy.  Wenwu tells them that his purpose is to rescue Joang Li, who he believes is alive but being held prisoner in her mystical home village of Ta Lo.

With the help of another captive, goofy actor Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley), they escape and beat Wenwu to the magical land, where Shawn and Xialing’s aunt Jiang Nan (Michelle Yeoh) informs them that Wenwu is being misled by an evil creature imprisoned within the cliffs outside the village, which aims to be released with his help.  Naturally Shang-Chi, Xialing and even Katy join with the villagers to fight Wenwu and his army and prevent the release of a power that could mean world destruction.  The upshot is one of those protracted, and rather messy and boring, special-effects battles that are an obligatory part of the MCU template.

Up to that point, however, the picture is an agreeably cheeky variant on the franchise formula, distinctive not only in its focus on Asian characters but in its embrace of the devices of martial arts cinema as well as fairy-tale elements reminiscent of eastern animation.  If “Black Widow” felt like an unnecessary addendum to the narrative Marvel had been telling ever since the first “Iron Man,” “Shang-Chi,” in spite of connections that are drawn to previous installments, like the appearance of Benedict Wong as Doctor Strange’s amanuensis, feels like a departure from an increasingly tired formula.

The movie also boasts a winning protagonist in Liu, who brings a sense of bewildered charm, as well as physical prowess (enhanced, of course, by stunt work and CGI), to the lead.  Awkwafina can be annoying at times, and Katy’s blending into the action-packed finale requires a heavy suspension of disbelief, but her presence adds to the humor quotient, as does Kingsley as the grandiloquent, preening Slattery.  And while Zhang, Chen, Yeoh and Florian Munteanu (as one of Wenwu’s chief henchman, a character called Razor Fist because of his unusual appendage) all take advantage of their moments (as do Jayden Zhang and Arnold Sun as Shang-Chi as boy and teen, respectively), the other standout is unquestionably veteran Leung, who brings gravity, menace, and a degree of sympathy to Wenwu. 

As far as the visuals are concerned, they certainly meet the Marvel standard, although the effects supervised by Christopher Townsend get somewhat sloppy in the overwrought finale, in which the surfeit of action grow murky too.  But the production design of Sue Chan and costumes of Kym Barrett are exceptional, especially in the movie’s more magical sequences like the early meeting of Wenwu and Joang Li (which includes some lovely flying-combat episodes reminiscent of Zhang Yimou’s “Hero”) and the depiction of the mythical land of Ta Lo, the entrance to which involves a chase through a wittily shifting forest.  (How Wenwu navigates the obstacle course creates that isn’t really explained.)

Given all the CGI hubbub and fight scenes, Cretton, cinematographer Bill Pope and editors Nat Sanders, Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir and Harry Yoon maintain an admirable degree of clarity in the action until that excessive finale, with its dueling dragons and hordes of winged creatures that look like they might have escaped from “The Wizard of Oz,” and Joel P. West contributes a score with some lift to it, rather than just the customary blaring.              

As the inevitable teasers during the end credits make clear, the team of Shang-Chi and Katy will be an integral part of the new post-“Avengers” wave of the MCU, with Doctor Strange, Spider-Man and Captain Marvel as linchpin characters.  Whether it will equal the enormous success of the earlier arc remains to be seen, but given the apparently insatiable appetite for superhero movies, one shouldn’t bet against it.  Unfortunately, the agreeable innocence of this stand-alone origins installment might very well get buried in the barrage of ensemble franchise frenzy, and Shang-Chi just become another cog in the relentless Marvel machine.  Let’s hope he can retain his individuality among the costumed crowd.