When Marvel Studios launched its cinematic universe in 2008, the perception was that they were left with only B-list characters to work with. All the most popular and recognizable names from the comics had been licensed out to other companies, and they’d have to start from zero to build hype around their slate of films. And build they did. Not only are the Avengers now bigger than the X-Men ever were, but so is Black Panther. You have now heard of Groot. Marvel has become one of the dominant forces in our pop culture, a brand that matters more than its stars or directors, or the specific property they’re adapting. This, along with the nigh-unlimited marketing muscle of parent company Disney, allows Marvel to take what are perceived as greater risks with lesser-known properties, and to pat themselves on the back for taking them. (Marvel producing a big-budget superhero film with a predominantly Asian cast and director is great; touting their own bravery for doing so is kind of gross.)
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a Marvel movie through and through, and a pretty good one. At this point, you likely know the drill — charming characters with a somewhat tiresome “that just happened” wit, light peril punctuated by grand action sequences, a prevailing sense of fun occasionally interrupted with high emotion. As an introduction to a new recurring character in the post-Endgame Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s totally adequate, easily passing the “Would I See Another of These?” checkpoint. Like most Marvel movies, Shang-Chi successfully grafts elements from other genres — in this case martial arts films and Chinese fantasy — onto their “light superhero adventure” boilerplate to give you a sufficiently different take on something you already know you like.
Ten Rings? In This Economy?
Wu Shang-Chi (Simu Liu, Kim’s Convenience) is the son of two worlds. His mother, Jiang Li (Fala Chen,The Undoing), is a guardian of the fairy tale realm of Ta Lo who leaves her home and her powers behind to start a family. His father, Wenwu (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, In the Mood for Love) is a thousand-year-old warlord who retires and gives up immortality in the hope of growing old with his wife. But Jiang Li dies young, when Shang-Chi and his sister Xialing (introducing Meng’er Zhang) are still children. A grief-stricken Wenwu returns to his former life at the head of the Ten Rings, a secret global order of assassins, and begins training his son to succeed him, ignoring his daughter.
In the present day, Shang-Chi is living a carefree life in San Francisco, working as a parking attendant with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina, Nora from Queens). He fled his father’s world as a teenager, skipping out on his first contract, but now the Ten Rings are coming after him. Shang-Chi suspects his sister may also be in danger, so he and Katy fly off to Macau to protect her, only to find that she has become a fierce underworld figure in her own right. Together, they uncover Wenwu’s latest plan and embark on a quest to warn their mother’s homeland of his impending invasion. The stakes escalate steadily and gracefully from “fast-paced hand-to-hand fight on a bus” to “epic infantry battle with demons and dragons,” and each episode feels appropriately “comic book.”
Where Black Widow was essentially a stand-alone film left over from the Infinity Saga, Shang-Chi feels like a proper opening to Phase Four. It features more of that Marvel synergy viewers have come to expect, as a few characters from previous films make appearances to help pin this new corner of the map into the existing world and hint at its relevance to some greater adventure to come. I’ll admit that it’s exciting to be at the beginning of a new, as-yet-unnamed “Saga” in the MCU, where I can only guess at how or to what degree this chapter will relate to the larger whole. I may be cynical about the Marvel formula, but I’m far from immune to it — there’s a reason it works. Shang-Chi reminded me just a bit of the feeling that I got from the earlier films when I was just learning how to anticipate its patterns.
In the Mood for Leung
For its first five years or so, the knock against Marvel movies was that their heroes were fun but their villains were boring. By way of pushing back, Marvel then introduced a string of baddies with plainly sympathetic aims undercut by unconscionable methods, a pattern which has likewise become frustrating. Shang-Chi takes something of a middle route with its antagonist. Wenwu is a heartbroken widower who seizes an opportunity to reunite his estranged family, and Tony Leung’s still, sensitive performance elicits a modicum of sympathy. However, the film is still never on his side. Wenwu is a ruthless killer who’s murdered countless thousands and he’s a shitty dad, to boot — he does not deserve his family back, and at no point are we expected to believe that he does. It’s a fine line to walk, and it results in Shang-Chi’s most interesting character.
Unfortunately, the depiction of the titular protagonist isn’t so successful. The story attaches a number of interesting themes to Shang-Chi throughout the film, and then one by one passes those themes off to be resolved by other characters. Shang-Chi and Katy are directionless at the start of the film, and while both characters each find a new path for themselves by the end, this part of the story really belongs to Katy. Shang-Chi is tangled up inside over his relationship with his father and their grief over Jiang Li’s death, but this resolution hangs on Wenwu more than it does on Shang-Chi. There’s some pathos left over for the lead, but Simu Liu is missing whatever leading man X-factor it would take to make it really count. As a result, he ends up feeling like an RPG protagonist who levels up and develops new skills while the party around him fulfills more interesting emotional journeys.
Most of the characters in Shang-Chi are one-note, but at least each of those notes rings clear. Katy is a mildly funny comic relief character who is essentially a tagalong for the second act of the film, but she has a clean and simple arc of her own that is fulfilled in a predictable but satisfying way. Shang-Chi’s sister Xialing is a stoic fighting machine and girlboss with a chip on her shoulder over being barred from training with the boys growing up, and probably could have been the lead of the film. Jiang Li is a saint, preserved in memory, while her sister Nan (Michele Yeoh, who is in everything now and who could complain) is Shang-Chi and Xialing’s route to reconnect with her, as well as a very charismatic fight tutor ahead of the big boss battle. For how little there is to each of them, they’re easily understood, which makes the blandness of the lead character all the more apparent. He’s an everyman, but in a way that feels kind of boring.
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Having thin characters is a forgivable sin for an action movie to commit so long as the action makes up for it, and for the most part, Shang-Chi’s battles are exciting and distinctive. Often in action films, it’s how the combatants use their environments that set good fight scenes apart from each other, but in Shang-Chi the best fights are actually set in fairly simple, flat, empty spaces — a forest clearing, an abandoned office, an MMA ring. The interplay between fighters and fighting styles and some graceful camera movement are enough to keep duels interesting. This is Destin Daniel Cretton’s first action film, and as much as Marvel has a reputation for taking fights out of the hands of their directors, Shang-Chi’s action feels distinct from what the studio has given us before, not only in choreography but photography. If this is Cretton’s stamp, I’d like to see more of it. Though lead actor Simu Liu doesn’t display the physical charisma of a top-shelf martial artist, he is a former stuntman and can more than hold his own at the center of the action. Whenever martial arts and stunt work are highlighted over visual effects, they fully satisfy.
The visual effects in Shang-Chi, on the other hand, stand out in a way that effects really shouldn’t. While I’m sure that there are plenty of invisible VFX touches throughout the film, CGI environments seem to announce themselves constantly. This isn’t such a bother when the image is something fully fantastic, but is jarring when it’s something familiar, like a San Francisco bus careening out of control. The switch from a practical bus set to an exterior effects shot of the bus is immediately noticeable. There’s also a sense of detachment during the film’s climactic group battle scene, in which so much of the environment has been replaced that the characters no longer feel as if they’re standing in the same field. Given that some of the photography took place during the pandemic, perhaps they actually weren’t, and I’m sure that the VFX work also suffered from delays and complications due to quarantine. Sub-par visual effects are almost always the result of not having enough time to do them better, and Shang-Chi’s just don’t appear to have finished baking.
Of course, if occasionally feeling like a video game was enough to kill the fun of a Marvel movie, almost none of them would be watchable. There are even occasions when it plays as a strength here, as in the depiction of Wenwu’s signature Ten Rings weapon. Watching the Ten Rings fly about, acting like a flail bound by an invisible cord in one moment and like a buster cannon the next inspired some of the same glee I get when executing a series of combos in an action game. I can’t entirely tell what’s going on, but it looks gnarly and I feel like I’m a part of it.
Even when I was a little distracted from Shang-Chi, I never stopped having a good time. I have my critiques and it won’t be making my top five movies of the year (if it’s on yours, please see more movies), but I enjoyed my time at the theater as much as I enjoyed writing about it. That’s the thing about “theme park cinema” — it’s a fun ride, even if you can see the whole track before you board.