“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” has a number of first-time points: it’s the first Asian-led blockbuster released by Marvel and the first Disney movie to hit theaters only. Does “Shang-Chi,” which premieres in theaters on September 3, break new ground in storytelling, or does the film fall flat? Here’s what critics say.
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The film is a superhero origin story about the character Shang-Chi
Marvel’s latest story of superhero origins is about a young man who struggles with the legacy of his father, a legendary crime lord possessed of divine strength and immortality […] Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) is the son of an immortal criminal (Tony Leung) who has rejected his father’s empire for a simpler and less murderous life that parks cars for a fun hotel in San Francisco.
The film follows the title character (played by Simu Liu), a Chinese American millennial who must confront his past to fulfill his destiny. When we meet him, he’s a valet driver in San Francisco, California, working with his carefree bestie Katy (Awkwafina). He has kept his martial arts skills hidden until now, but Shang-Chi has secrets — family secrets that go back a thousand years. Our hero begins a journey of self-discovery in Macau after receiving a mysterious letter from his sister, Xiaoling (newcomer Meng’er Zhang) about their common enemy: their father Wenwu (Tony Leung), also known as “The Mandarin” (a name already known to MCU fans).
The cast is amazing, especially Tony Leung
The cast is incredibly well-rounded — each actor brings something unique to the table. Leung gives the film one deep gravity (if you’ve seen his previous work, you know that he tends to have this effect on the movies he’s in), and his machismo is balanced by Chen, who exudes the kind of warmth and inner strength that only mothers possess. Michelle Yeoh, like Leung, is seemingly timeless, bringing a degree of legitimacy to the case as Shang-Chi’s aunt. Liu and Awkwafina are also fine partners on screen, with the latter’s explosive personality acting as a good counterweight to Liu’s pathos.
At heart, “Shang-Chi” is not a story about heroes and villains, but a family drama about three people who come to life with prolonged suppressed anger and grief. Director Destin Daniel Cretton (“Short Term 12”, “Just Mercy”), who co-wrote the script with Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham, runs this drama tenderly and with lots of humor-anchored by a fantastic performance by Tony Leung , which brings a level of subtle humanity to every moment he is on screen.
The film features some great martial arts and Kung Fu scenes
In some ways, “Shang-Chi” is a mix of martial arts film genres: an early scene pays homage to the ballet, graceful films of Zhang Yimou, while a dramatic bus chase later on monkeys derring an early Jackie Chan vehicle.
“Shang-Chi” looks and feels like no other Marvel movie, and not just because of its predominantly Chinese setting and cast, the martial arts action, and the vast amount of Chinese dialogue. It’s at heart a kung fu film, albeit a 21st – century version of one characterized less by Lee’s old punches and kicks than by the improved, physics-defiant Wuxia techniques that can only be performed with wires and trampolines.
Even if the action is ruined by too much CGI
The only time the fights draw is when CGI comes into the picture, and as “Black Widow” earlier this year, CGI seems to get in the way, feel silly and look silly after we just saw Shang-Chi giant ninjas across buildings. Marvel has become a symbol of a kind of glossy modern action aesthetic that leans on cartoon CGI when practically would have done better, but “Shang-Chi” is the first time I really felt disappointed with its appearance instead too just a little annoyed.
Unfortunately, the film’s last battle turns into more of a visual effects-driven mess. It lacks the tactility and weight of the previous fight scenes, and although the environment and characters in the final act from an art design point of view look incredible when the action gets hectic and the camera starts shaking uncontrollably, it becomes a distraction.
However, the film is refreshingly funny
“Shang-Chi” seems to be driven by a seemingly top-down directive to bolster a new class of mysterious superheroes while clinging to Marvel’s canons of inclusion and fully rounded character development. The result is great news for anyone looking for a mix of refreshing surprises and comfort food in their superhero tent pole movie. Plus, this superhero big screen debut delivers enough “sacred whoa” moments to make any viewer feel like a child again.
“Shang-Chi,” directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, attempts to shake up the Marvel formula by adding that martial arts action and adventurous imagination and anchoring it in Chinese and Asian American culture. And while its various elements do not merge as smoothly as they should, they ultimately add a superhero movie fresh and fun enough to feel worth a spin.
And it faces the problematic legacy of some cartoon characters up front
While the original comics portrayed Fu Man Chu as Shang-Chi’s father, the film was fortunately scrap race stereotype and presents a complex – even sympathetic – villain in Wenwu. This is also a huge improvement on the whitewashed cast of Tilda Swinton as the old one in “Doctor Strange”. Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige has since recognized the casting of Swinton as a mistake while prioritizing more respectful adjustments from now on.
When “Shang-Chi” takes its place in the Marvel universe, it’s more interested in retcons than future evolution. The film massages previous plot points from the Iron Man films about the terrorist organization Ten Rings and its puppet leader, The Mandarin. It develops a coherent new status quo that mocks the racist stereotypes of the source material, while at the same time providing a new and less problematic way forward.
Remove all the shiny superhero magic, and the film reveals itself as the painfully familiar tale of a child figuring out how to bridge the gap between parental values and expectations and his own — in the same way that “Shang-Chi” himself tries to remix old tropics with new perspectives. It does not always succeed with brilliance. But as with a young hero still finding a foothold, its brave efforts still feel worth cheering.
Watch the trailer
See “Shang-Chi and the legend of the ten rings” in theaters.
Pang-Chieh Ho is the editor of Digg.
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