By Lynn Venhaus
Now in Phase 4, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has given their “Master of Kung Fu” comic book hero his own action movie, and this visual effects-martial arts extravaganza has its plusses and minuses.

Shang-Chi is the son of the immortal Wenwu (Tony Leung), who possess the Ten Rings with magical powers that offers immortality to its owner. After vanquishing his enemies, Wenwu searches for the hard-to-find kingdom of Ta Lo and gets more than he bargained for – meeting the love of his life, Li (Fala Chen), who is the fierce guardian.

Fast forward to modern times, and their son, Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), must confront the past he thought he left behind when a mysterious organization draws him into its web.

Let’s hear it for taking a leap into highlighting Asian performers, and the cast overall is a sturdy one. Likable Simu Liu makes for an appealing, yet typical, reluctant hero, while Awkwafina stands out in a slacker-sidekick role, as his best friend Katy.

However, the backstory is dense, for the ancient Chinese mythology goes back more than a thousand years. Besides, Ten Rings is also the name of a nefarious global crime organization that has been referenced in the movie that kicked off the MCU in 2008 –“Iron Man” and its third movie and “The Incredible Hulk.” In addition, other MCU movies “Doctor Strange” and “Avengers: Endgame” have included mentions of characters, too.

If you are familiar with all 24 MCU films and the four television shows now on Disney Plus, you will be at an advantage here, but it’s not a deal-buster. To learn more about how Shang-Chi fits into the bigger MCU picture, be sure to stay for the credits – like we’ve all been trained to do — and a few Avengers will pop into view.

Back to where we pick up the next generation of Asian actors. In present day, dear old dad Wenwu tracks down his two children– son Shang-Chi, now a parking valet in San Francisco who goes by the name Sean, and his sister, Xialing (musical theater actor Meng’er Zhang), who runs an underground fight club populated by hulking beasts and nefarious sorts.

In the first thrilling action set piece, Sean and Katy face off against Dad’s henchmen on a careening out-of-control city bus. Katy, also underemployed parking cars, tags along to Macao, which is on the southern coast of China.

For those of us not familiar with the comic book and unaware that the dad was originally Fu Manchu, we have a lot to wrap our heads around, and mixing the past with the present can get laborious.

As we find our way in an alternate reality and immerse ourselves in an elegant Eastern world, we enter some sort of parallel universe with strange creatures. And lo and behold, there is Ben Kingsley, who played “The Mandarin” but was really a dim British actor named Trevor Slattery in “Iron Man 3.”  

He seems to be poorly used and in the way. But the Oscar winner and esteemed British thespian is amusing. Perhaps he will jog your memory.

Another blast from the past is the appearance of Benedict Wong, the sorcerer in “Doctor Strange,” who makes a few cryptic remarks. Look for him to be back if there is a sequel. And “The Abomination” too.

Director Destin Daniel Cretton is an odd choice to helm a Marvel blockbuster, for he started out in indies, and after his breakthrough “Short Term 12,” with breakout star Brie Larson (now Captain Marvel), directed “The Glass Castle” and “Just Mercy.” However, he is of Asian descent, and was tapped to pull the MCU into the 21st Century of diversity and inclusion, so bravo for that.

The jury is still out on his acumen filming action scenes. He has chosen to bombard us with computer-generated images and very busy visual effects while we sort out who’s who and what’s at stake.

That said, there are some stunning scenes with water and an elegance projected that’s rare for superheroes trying to save the world.

Cretton co-wrote the script with Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham, and MCU’s penchant for inserting comical interludes happens with wise-cracking Awkwafina – that really is her sole purpose. And she lightens the dark mood considerably.

This is a big film with big themes and a sprawling cast. At times, it feels too much like video game action – beasts fight in flight and these scenes go on way too long. The movie clocks in at 2 hours and 13 minutes.

The family dynamic is intriguing and could have been better served with more character interaction. After all, dad is still an evil terrorist. Sure, he might have veered off-course after his wife died, but what is the deal with him trying to steal the amulets she gave the kids? I sense that dad can’t be trusted.

Casual viewers may prefer to figure out the connections rather than be pummeled with incessant dragon action – and it would be a shame to derail a project that tries hard to move the genre forward leaving behind troublesome Asian stereotypes.

Hopefully, joining Team Shang-Chi will be a fruitful journey.

Tony Leung as Wenwu

“Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings” is an action-adventure fantasy that is part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Directed b y Destin Daniel Cretton, it stars Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Tony Leung, Michelle Yeoh, Ben Kingsley, Benedict Wong, Meng’er Zhang and
Rated: PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and language, it has a run time of 2 hours and 13 minutes. It was released in theaters only on Sept. 3. Lynn’s Grade: C+

By Lynn Venhaus
For those craving the Marvel Cinematic Universe on the big screen, “Black Widow” boldly arrives as a much-anticipated summer blockbuster event, checking off the usual boxes.

Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), aka Natasha Romanoff, is a former Russian spy, now Avenger. In this stand-alone feature from the Marvel Universe, her complicated past and an unusual family dynamic collide in a globe-trotting mission pursuing a powerful KGB mind-controlling villain.

It’s the latest movie since the “Avengers: Endgame” finale in April 2019, although MCU has been busy delivering content on streaming services for the home screen that is far more original.

On the surface, this prequel-origin story has the appeal of women getting the job done instead of the plethora of standard-issue alpha males– they hold their own as intense fighting machines, using their brains along with their brawn.  

Frequently outfitted in a snazzy black leather cat suit, the lithe Scarlett Johansson carries the day as lethal weapon Natasha, trying to vanquish all connections to the nefarious Red Room program. She trusts no one and can’t shake off nightmarish memories that she can only recall in fragments.

The MCU movies have always alluded to Natasha’s tormented years as an assassin who broke free. She thought she exacted revenge, but not so fast. There is an armor-clad “Terminator” figure hot in pursuit.

These overlong conflicts in what seems to be one endless chase scene after another are forgettable. How many cars can crash on narrow city streets? With such a flimsy outline, the story by Jack Schaeffer and Ned Benson, and screenplay by Eric Pearson, evaporates like the cool air when you exit into the summer heat. Pearson gave us “Godzilla vs. Kong” earlier this year.

Coloring within a red-and-black palette, Australian indie director Cate Shortland spotlights females triumphing but is hampered by a convoluted conspiracy plot that forces the women to take on their tormenter.

Using a Big Bad Wolf persona, Winstone, last seen in “Cats,” shows just how evil he can be exerting mind-control over countless young women, training them to be operatives/slaves for Mother Russia. But ta-da, Yelena (Florence Pugh), no slouch in the fierce department, gets her hands on a serum that will stop this madness.

Now it’s time for musical vials! (It really doesn’t get much better, or easier to understand).

Nevertheless, the high-octane opening is fun. The film flashes back to Ohio in 1995, where Natasha and her sister are getting ready for dinner when their father comes home from work and tells his family they must leave.

Turns out the parents, Aleksei (David Harbour) and scientist Melina (Rachel Weisz), are Russian spies posing as an American family, and federal agents are after them. As they race to an air strip, their lives are increasingly in danger. Once in Cuba, the girls are separated and drugged, and thus begins Natasha’s transformation into a brainwashed super-spy.

This lively exchange is a well-choreographed thrill ride that won’t be matched again for the remainder of the film’s 2-hour, 13-minute runtime.

 “Black Widow” concentrates on her family, as tangled as it is, which gives big-energy Pugh another interesting turn as her kid ‘sister’ Yelena and versatile Harbour as the comical oaf ‘father,’ who once upon a time was a superhero named Red Guardian. Here, the girls reunite with dear old dad by breaking him out of a Siberian prison.

Pugh and Johansson project a sibling-like relationship, exchange snappy repartee and bicker like sisters who have long-standing grudges.

Apparently, the family pops up again because of unfinished business. The inspired casting propels this film to be better – although Weisz’s character is undeveloped.

This is Johansson’s eighth time portraying the strong-willed and smart character, who now crusades for justice along with her save-the-world Avenger buddies. Only it’s a bit thorny in that boy’s club during this time frame because the ‘enhanced human’ Avengers are regulated by a government oversight panel (the Sokovia Accords).

This time-out period takes place somewhere between “Captain America: Civil War” (2016) and “Avengers: Infinity War” (2018), which is why Natasha was attempting to hide away from Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt), secretary of state.

Johansson, in between Oscar-nominated roles and prestige films, first showed up as Natalie Rushman in “Iron Man 2” in 2010 and gained favor in storylines until – spoiler alert — her sacrificial demise in “Avengers: Endgame.”

In the comic books, Stan Lee introduced the character in 1964, during the Cold War. While conceived as a femme fatale at first, her look and mission have evolved over the years.

While Natasha continues to be guarded, Johansson helps fill in the blanks because of her talents. Yet, it is such a thin story – she is put through the paces of green-screen acting within a constant stream of explosions that sub for exposition.

She remains a mystery, which is inevitable.

“Black Widow” is a 2020 action-sci-fi film directed by Cate Shortland and starring Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz, Ray Winstone and William Hurt. It is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence/action, some language and thematic material and runs 2 hours, 13 minutes. Available in theaters and streaming on Disney Plus with Premier Access fee on July 9. Lynn’s grade: C+.

By Lynn Venhaus

All grown up now, Tom Holland, the current movie action hero Spider-Man, tackles the troubled title character in “Cherry.”

It is a fierce performance and challenging role for the likable actor, who is the main reason to watch this undisciplined misfire from the Russo Brothers, gods of the Marvel Cinematic Universe for their work on “The Avengers” series.

But even Holland’s monumental efforts cannot save this generic story from itself. He does the heavy lifting, but the dark material is as airless as his blacked-out home during drug binges. The romance is run-of-the-mill – eventually two co-dependent junkies – and heroin addict stories are a dime a dozen in movies.

Based on Nico Walker’s 2018 semi-autographical book, which he wrote in federal prison while serving time for bank robberies to feed his drug addiction, the adaptation takes a literary approach by dividing his life story (35 years!) into chapters.

They are marked by title cards and Holland serves as the straight-shooting narrator who breaks the fourth wall and is candid about the sordid details.

The 336-page book was adapted by screenwriters Jessica Goldberg and Angela Russo-Otstot into a 2-hour, 20-minute movie that could have benefitted from better editing. The book was praised for coming out during the opioid epidemic.

The film wants to be an epic journey, but doesn’t set itself apart in any way, except for some stylized shots, and the characters lack appeal to sustain any momentum.

The dope life – high, strung out, needing drugs, scoring drugs, drifting through life in a haze – drags out the inevitable narrative. Not sure how many times we need to see addicts vomiting — but have at it.

The story begins in suburban Cleveland. His younger man phase is as generic as possible – partying, trying to find purpose, falling in love. He is an aimless college dropout who joins the Army after his girlfriend breaks up with him. However, he reunites with Emily (Ciara Bravo), and they marry before he goes to boot camp. At 19, he is sent to Iraq and the story turns very dark. He is forever traumatized by his medic duties and personal tragedies.

Cherry is not an interesting character until his combat experience in the fiery hell of Iraq makes him grow up fast.

Joe and Anthony Russo set up the “War is Hell” message well – after all, they are good at the male camaraderie and action sequences.

Upon his return to Ohio, Cherry becomes a mess – sleepless, self-medicating and angry, he starts popping oxycontin, and things go from bad to worse. His wife, still looking very young, starts shooting heroin with him.

Walker was released early from prison in 2019, and the Ohio-born Russo Brothers began their movie journey in 2020.

For an unlikable character, Holland impressively shows a genuine range of emotions, displaying how much he can stretch from saving the world devotion.

Since 2016, he has played Peter Parker/Spider-Man in Marvel’s Avenger series and his own spin-offs, starting with “Captain America: Civil War.”

The movie’s hefty supporting cast includes an impressive turn by Jack Wahlberg as Army buddy Jimenez, but there are a lot of characters who scream here – drill sergeants, scumbag low-life friends and upset girlfriends.

The point is? War is hell and drugs are bad? Don’t we already know this? Tell us a new version by illuminating rehabilitation after frittering most of your life away.

Will people walk away with fresh insight or just walk away? 

“Cherry” is a crime drama directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, based on Nico Walker’s 2018 novel. Starring Tom Holland, Ciara Bravo, Jack Reynor, Michael Gandolfini and Jack Wahlberg, it is rated R for graphic drug abuse, disturbing and violent images, pervasive language and sexual content. In theatres Feb. 26 and on Apple + TV on March 12.