There was a point inwhen I forgot I was watching a Marvel movie. It’s strange to say that one of the biggest strengths of this latest Marvel flick is how un-Marvel it is, but perhaps it’s appropriate that a movie about conflicting identities has its own dual identity. Shang-Chi opens on the big screen today, September 3, and has Marvel’s strengths and weaknesses from opening battle to inevitable , while also feeling like something winning new.
Unlike July, this latest Marvel adventure will not stream on Disney Plus (at least ). Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings only premieres in theaters. Check your local guidelines and follow COVID precautions to protect your health if you are .
Simu Liu plays Shaun, a lovable fool who wastes his life in parking cars in San Francisco and does karaoke with his buddy Katy, played by Awkwafina. Except that his name really is Shang-Chi, and he is actually trained as an assassin by his millennial warrior father, who shows up with a plan to conquer a magical village hidden deep inside a Chinese forest.
The film is carried by Hong Kong cinema legend Tony Leung as Wenwu, patriarch of both Shang-Chi and a shadowy ninja army. Leung is hugely compelling as a villain who, in turn, is steely or romantic, loving or revenge-driven. Wenwu is one of the most nuanced and exciting antagonists in any recent blockbuster, let alone the Marvel series.
I partially forgot that Shang-Chi was part of the Disney-owned comic book-based franchise because of how little it relies on connection to the broader MCU. Even when Marvel previously introduced new characters on the big screen, such as the Black Panther, Ant-Man, or the MCU version of Spider-Man, they tended to overlap with other movies. While it’s fun in its own way, it’s really refreshing to see a movie stand on its own two feet without the viewers having to remember other movies. And yes, I appreciate that it’s a low bar, but hey, that’s the continuation / spin-off / reboot culture we live in.
OK, so nod to the former MCU. Without going into spoilers, these nods are OK because you do not have to remember a complicated back story, they make narrative sense, and most importantly, they are funny.
But besides resting the big name Avengers, the film itself is visually and narratively different from the rest of the franchise. Shang-Chi is Marvel’s first Asian lead, and the film’s style draws on the rich history of Asian cinema, from martial arts films to gangster films to romance, and especially the lush visual and emotional style of wuxia epic. Like the latest Disney Plus showsand , Shang-Chi’s greatest strength is its ability to surprise. By drawing on myths and legends about a superculture in superhero style, Legend of the Ten Rings provides a freshness that is lacking from more well-known fare like Black Widow.
From the moment Shang-Chi first breaks his martial arts skills aboard a runaway bus, Legend of the Ten Rings is about the action. The fight scenes were coordinated by the late Brad Allan, a frequent collaborator with Jackie Chan, and set-up punch-ups burn with a zest all too rarely seen in Hollywood blockbusters. Each character and each match has a personality expressed through a fighting style. In fact, the hero’s personal growth is symbolized by his changing fighting style, a deft and satisfying piece of visual storytelling.
At the same time, Shang-Chi is very much a Marvel movie that is both good and bad. If you thought Black Widow’s expected villain Taskmaster turned out to be an anticlimax, wait until you meet Shang-Chi’s desperately uncharismatic and undercooked evil (except Leung, of course).
Visually, when it does not draw on the lively style of Chinese film, the cinematography suffers from the same nonsense that hits all Marvel movies. And the use of computer-generated images adds fluorescent flair, but also leads to a kind of visual numbness. Sure, it’s fine to bring mythical creatures and clever superpowers to life with computer-generated animation, but when even the background is clearly CG, it takes away from the effect of the action. There are moments when characters are just chatting in a field and the field is clearly not real. Especially the finale is overreliant on a CG light show and lasts too long.
And when the magnificent battles take place against the cartoonish brilliance of CG backgrounds, it dampens the skill and athleticism of artists. As much fun as the fights are, they can not match the gasping or rubbish-inducing wallop of Jackie Chan fight scenes where you know the star and stunt artists are really jumping around in a moving vehicle or next to a building.
But Marvel’s strengths are also in full effect. The film is very funny where Awkwafina and various other guest stars steal almost all the scenes. And the film buys itself a license to use familiar or exaggerated genre conventions (like excellent voice-overs) by also gently playing with them.
Above all, the film is driven by engaging characters. MCU has rarely dealt with the superhero staples in secret identity (except, as it seems, in the upcoming IO9, Film marker, Geeks of color and more.)), but Shang-Chi recontextualizes the challenges of living two different versions of yourself through the lens of Asian-American experience. In the hands of director Destin Daniel Cretton, The Legend of the Ten Rings deliberately corrects past lack of representation of Marvel and offers a depiction of Chinese family and culture that viewers with Asian backgrounds praise for its warmth and authenticity. (Check reviews of Asian and POC critics at
The character dynamics, however, leave Simu Liu in a tough spot. Leung is an unsurpassed actress, Awkwafina is funnier, Meng’er Zhang has a more compelling emotional conflict as Shang-Chi’s sister, and Michelle Yeoh is simply more coolly charismatic. An excess of flashbacks and voice-overs means that Liu himself disappears from the limelight for stretches at a time. Luckily, he’s pretty charming (and looks great with his shirt off) as the ass-kicking lukewarm wanders with big eyes into MCU’s leading male status. In his first adventure, you may forget that you are watching a Marvel movie, but Shang-Chi is destined to become a memorable part of the Marvel myth.
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