Marvel’s 25th film is a simple, yet compelling, coming of age story with one minor issue.
Back when working in an office was still a thing, I used to frequent the same coffee shop every day at 2 pm for an afternoon pick me up. Sure, the coffee was always good, but after a while, I became friends with the staff. So much so, in fact, that even if the coffee wasn’t up to snuff one day or if they had made a mistake, I’d still come back and faithfully order my usual, often to my delight. I mention all this because Marvel is now starting to feel like my favorite coffee shop from back in the day. To me, they’re a studio that could do no wrong, but lately, they aren’t hitting like they used to. Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings sort of cements that.
There’s an old school of thought that says if something happens once, it’s chance. If it happens twice, it’s a coincidence. However, if it happens three times, it’s a trend. When Marvel ventured into television, I quite liked their foray on the small screen – at least until Loki. Unlike the previous productions which felt extremely well done with decent stories and amazing sets, Loki had a terrible plot, watery thin themes, and some of the weakest dialogue in the MCU. To top it all off, the effects felt really cheap and almost comical. Black Widow also felt like something that was made fairly cheaply and at its core, lacked a concrete theme. However, the dialogue was great and the film was carried by its amazing cast. Shang Chi is better than both of those, but it still falls short of some of the highs the MCU has hit in recent years.
Some of that can be explained by the somewhat troubled production. To start with, the source material, which includes problematic characters like Fu Manchu, needed to be edited to appeal to a wider audience. The real issue in production was, however, the pandemic, as this was one of the last films Disney was working on and had to stop midway. To some degree, you can almost tell as the story really falls into two distinctly different halves. The story begins with a mythological backstory to the characters, their origins, and of course, the Ten Rings. The rest of the first half of the film is rounded off with a jet set journey from San Francisco, to Macau, to different unique locales in the jungle. To phrase it in a way, I feel as if Disney wanted this film to be another Black Panther-like film that was rooted in the folklore of ancient China, rather than the futuristic city of Wakanda in Africa. However, the second half of the film slowly gives way to a meanderingly slow pace in contrast to the upbeat and exciting first half of the film.
Destin Daniel Cretton, who directed this film, is no stranger to making unique and interesting character pieces. Some of the indie films he’s done, such as The Short Term 12, are truly amazing works of filmmaking. However, it’s in the fast-paced action sequences of the first half of the film where he truly makes something great. The second half of the film, much like Black Widow, evolves into a family drama centered on familial norms and what effect losing a crucial member of a family could have. The film drags and the script becomes less like the playful banter and explorative journey we’ve grown accustomed to in usual Marvel movies and more like a series of tasks that must be completed so the film can end. Couple that with the heavily used but awkwardly implied mythological aspects of the story and it makes for an unwieldy third act and a somewhat boring finale.
One thing that pleasantly surprised me was the acting. First off, it was refreshing seeing a primarily Asian-populated cast. When I saw Tony Chiu-Wai Leung, an actor primarily known for his work in Chinese Film, was playing Shang-Chi’s father, I felt a bit concerned. These worries stemmed from the fact that this was his first American film as well as the fact that Shang-Chi’s story is heavily entwined with that of his father. However, his performance was nothing short of phenomenal. In fact, all of the performances in the film were incredible. Awkwafina, as always, was hilarious and had a wonderful attention-grabbing presence on the screen. However, her ability to evolve from her usual role as comedic relief into a potential heroine and love interest was on display and a welcome surprise, even though the film only began to drop subtle hints in that direction. Her newly demonstrated range was also accented by Simu Liu’s solid performance, who looks to be a solid fixture in the future of the MCU.
To be clear, Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a good movie and where it excels far beyond all else is in the way martial arts are used as a storytelling device. Say what you will about the history of Chinese filmmaking from an American perspective, but it is naturally one characterized by the advent of martial arts films by the likes of figures like Bruce Lee. Those old movies are veritable classics, if for no other reason, because of the way they approach storytelling. If we think of Enter the Dragon, martial arts isn’t just a subject, it’s a theme and a device for how the story progresses. The same is true here. The theme itself is told through the fighting. Shang-Chi is posed a typical question of coming-of-age films at the midpoint juncture of the second act of the film: who are you? He’s caught between the dichotomy of following in his Mother’s gentle and forgiving footsteps while reconciling his brutal past with his Father’s unforgiving ways. Each parent has their own take on martial arts as well, with the Mother’s style being fluid and almost dance-like, with the Father’s being exacting and blunt. Shang-Chi never declares what his choice was or what road he chose to follow, but the evolution of his martial arts style throughout the film tells that story better than words ever could. This was a refreshing way to take in a story, especially as a writer who primarily reviews Western films.
I also saw some fans got riled up about a scene where Shang-Chi co-opts a move famously employed by Jackie Chan, but they’ve not seen the movie and fundamentally misunderstand what’s going on. Throughout the film, there are many nods to iconic fighting scenes from other movies, from Rush Hour to the Korean classic Old Boy. The latter was my favorite homage given in the film as they copied the iconic hotel fight scene beautifully. I felt this was worth noting as it should the people behind the film did their research and had a love for the legacy of films they’re building upon.
With that said, I did start this review off by saying something felt off and I haven’t changed my mind. This is still a good movie but is more on par with the Ant-Man and Doctor Strange franchises as opposed to the (recent) Thor, Spider-Man, and Black Panther franchises. I also couldn’t help but imagine that if this movie had been created in a world without a pandemic, it would have somehow been a more spectacular film. Interestingly still, this is probably tied with Black Widow for the most enjoyable films I’ve seen all summer. Shang-Chi arrives in theaters on Friday, September 3rd.