Shang-Chi Synopsis: Martial-arts master Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) confronts the past he thought he left behind when he’s drawn into the web of the mysterious Ten Rings organization. Alongside his best friend Katy (Awkwafina), Shang-Chi goes on a mission to learn his true purpose while squaring off against his controlling father Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung).
Marvel has amassed unprecedented success over their epic 20+ film run, transforming niche comic books into a signature pop-culture staple along the way. After highlighting familiar titans like Iron Man, Thor, and Black Widow, Disney is wisely turning their attention toward Marvel characters underrepresented in the mainstream consciousness.
Short Term 12 director Destin Daniel Cretton jumpstarts this prosperous new phase with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the first present-day chapter of Phase 4. Marvel’s latest presents exciting storytelling opportunities, yet the oppressive MCU formula creates an inconsistent representation of the studio’s best and worst qualities.
When given a chance to define its own lane, Shang-Chi integrates some much-needed vitality to the familiar proceedings. Cretton, Cinematographer Bill Pope, and their team of skilled fight coordinators (Brian and Andy Lee, D.Y. Sao, Joseph Le, Vi-Dan Tran, and the late Brad Allen) dream up some of the franchise’s most assured action setpieces to date. The camera swerves with each dynamic punch, showcasing a dance of well-choreographed movements without falling into the busy trappings of modern actioners. For the most part, these sequences steer away from the CGI overkill that defines modern-day blockbusters, often embracing a personable approach as a means to highlight the character’s emotional grace (the opening setpiece has a serenity that most blockbusters are sorely missing).
At the core of Shang-Chi, the narrative presents a poignant change-of-pace from the typical world-ending steaks. Shang-Chi instead finds himself toe-to-toe with his callous father Xu -a hardened warrior who has spent a millennium dominating all that stood in his path. The film’s best frames touch at the heart of their disconnected father-son relationship, incorporating effective ruminations on the rigid Chinese family structure and the culture’s collectivist mindset.
Xu’s domineering presence comes to life in the hand of Eastern icon Tony Leung. The actor’s Western debut creates one of the MCU’s strongest villains to date, with Leung injecting a cold gravitas in the character’s singular pursuit for control. Like any great villain, Xu isn’t without empathy. Leung intelligently delves under the character’s cruel facade to tap into the lingering grief that defines him. Star Simu Liu also makes for a sturdy leading man as Shang-Chi, infusing the character’s everyman journey with movie star charisma. The additions of Awkwafina, Michelle Yeoh, and newcomer Meng’er Zhang also help to personify the poised supporting characters.
Shang-Chi introduces singular strengths to the MCU – yet the awkward integration of the MCU formula prevents these additions from fully taking flight. The intriguing family elements take a back seat to played-out shenanigans, whether it’s overly quippy jokes or forced tie-ins with other MCU staples (a long-forgotten character returns only to serve as an annoying distraction). Due to this, Cretton and Dave Callaham’s screenplay struggles to find its flow at times as it wrestles between perspectives. The imbalance is particularly damaging to the film’s bloated third act, which clashes the film’s emotional climax with an overabundance of dimly-lit CGI effects.
It’s frustrating to see material brimming with promise yet constantly compromising to be a part of the Marvel shared universe. Producer Kevin Feige’s unrelenting stranglehold over the franchise prevents titles like this and Black Widow from developing their own succinct identity onscreen despite their inclusion of thoughtful new wrinkles. I am thrilled that Marvel continues to find enormous success with audiences as they expand their roster. However, as they grow with their roster, I hope they loosen up the reigns and allow their films to find their voice similar to what DC has accomplished in recent years.
Issues aside, I am still giving Shang-Chi a lukewarm recommendation for its balance of blockbuster thrills and just enough thoughtful character moments. Don’t fret MCU fans, as I am sure this film will be right up your alley despite my personal grievances.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is now playing in theaters nationwide.
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