There was a point in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings when 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 maybe it’s fitting a film about conflicting identity has a dual identity of its own. Opening on the big screen today, Sept. 3, Shang-Chi comes with Marvel strengths and weaknesses from opening battle to inevitable post-credits scene, while also feeling like something winningly new.
Unlike July’s Black Widow, this latest Marvel adventure won’t stream on Disney Plus (at least until October). Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings premieres only in theaters. Check your local guidance and follow COVID precautions to safeguard your health if you’re considering seeing this or any other film in a theater.
Simu Liu plays Shaun, a lovable goof wasting his life in San Francisco parking cars and doing karaoke with his buddy Katy, played by Awkwafina. Except his name is really Shang-Chi and he’s actually trained to be an assassin by his millennia-old warlord father, who shows up with a plan to conquer a magical village hidden deep in a Chinese forest.
The film is carried by Hong Kong cinema legend Tony Leung as Wenwu, patriarch to both Shang-Chi and a shadowy ninja army. Leung is hugely compelling as a villain who’s by turns steely or romantic, loving or vengeance-driven. Wenwu is one of the most nuanced and intriguing antagonists of any recent blockbuster, let alone the Marvel franchise.
I partly forgot Shang-Chi was part of the Disney-owned comic book-based franchise because of how little it relies on connection to the wider MCU. Even when Marvel previously introduced new characters to the big screen, like Black Panther, Ant-Man or the MCU version of Spider-Man, they tended to overlap with other films. Though that’s fun in its own way, it’s really refreshing to watch a film stand entirely on its own two feet, without viewers having to remember other films. And yes, I appreciate that’s a low bar, but hey, that’s the sequel/spinoff/reboot culture we live in.
OK, so there are nods to the earlier MCU. Without going into spoilers, these nods are OK because you don’t have to remember a complicated backstory, they make narrative sense, and most importantly they’re funny.
But as well as resting the big-name Avengers, the film itself is visually and narratively distinct from the rest of the franchise. Shang-Chi is Marvel’s first Asian lead, and the style of the film draws on the rich history of Asian cinema, from martial arts movies to gangster films to romance, and in particular the lush visual and emotional style of wuxia epics. Like recent Disney Plus shows WandaVision and Loki, Shang-Chi’s greatest strength is its power to surprise. Drawing on the superhero-style myths and legends of a new culture gives the Legend of the Ten Rings a freshness missing from more familiar fare like Black Widow.
From the moment Shang-Chi first busts out his martial arts skills on board a runaway bus, the Legend of the Ten Rings is all about the action. The fight scenes were coordinated by the late Brad Allan, a frequent collaborator with Jackie Chan, and the set piece punch-ups brim with a zest all too rarely seen in Hollywood blockbusters. Each character and each fight has a personality expressed through a style of fighting. 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, which is both good and bad. If you thought Black Widow’s much-anticipated villain Taskmaster turned out to be an anticlimax, wait till you meet Shang-Chi’s desperately uncharismatic and undercooked bad guys (except Leung, of course).
Visually, when it isn’t drawing on the vibrant style of Chinese cinema, the cinematography suffers the same blandness that afflicts all Marvel films. And the use of computer-generated imagery adds fluorescent flair but also leads to a sort of visual numbness. Sure, it’s fine to bring mythical creatures and fancy superpowers to life with computer generated animation, but when even the background is clearly CG, it takes away from the impact of the action. There are moments where characters are just chatting in a field, and the field clearly isn’t real. The finale in particular is overreliant on a CG light show and goes on too long.
And when the grandstanding fights take place against the cartoonish sheen of CG backgrounds, it mutes the skill and athleticism of the performers. As much fun as the fights are, they can’t match the gasp or wince-inducing wallop of Jackie Chan fight scenes, in which you know the star and stunt performers really are leaping around a moving vehicle or the side of a building.
But Marvel’s strengths are also in full effect. The film is very funny, with Awkwafina and various other guest stars stealing almost every scene. And the film buys itself license to employ familiar or overserious genre conventions (like portentous voice-overs) by also gently poking fun at them.
Above all, the film is driven by engaging characters. The MCU has rarely dealt with the superhero genre staple of secret identity (except, it seems, in the forthcoming Spider-Man: No Way Home), 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 mindfully corrects past failings of representation by Marvel and offers a depiction of Chinese family and culture that viewers from Asian backgrounds are hailing for its warmth and authenticity. (Check out reviews by Asian and POC critics at IO9, Moviemarker, Geeks of Color and more.)
The character dynamics leave Simu Liu in a tough spot, however. Leung is an unbeatable actor, 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. A surplus of flashbacks and voice-overs mean Liu himself fades from the spotlight for stretches at a time. Fortunately he’s pretty charming (and looks great with his shirt off) as the ass-kicking lunk wandering wide-eyed into MCU leading man status. In his first adventure, you might forget you’re watching a Marvel movie, but Shang-Chi is destined to be a memorable part of the Marvel myth.
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