Well, two films may have been released prior, and Wandavision, but Shang-Chi is officially the first new superhero of the MCU. In other words, the first superhero that wasn’t around when Cap said the legendary two words at the climax of you-know-which three-hour flick. I knew I was going to see Shang-Chi at some point, and that expected point sped up when my friend invited me to the theatre just yesterday. Glad I could go. The best part was watching it with her.
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, a director who was behind the wheel of two of my favourite films, The Glass Castle and Just Mercy, the movie opens explaining…not much about the ten rings. Just that they’re powerful enough to deflect a thousand arrows…pave a way through as many soldiers, oh, and grant immortality. The finder of these rings, Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung) lives for a thousand years and has shaped the outcome of a fair bit of ancient battles. Fast forward through the origins a bit. He never visited this one place, this hidden ancient village called Ta Lo. He found love instead, and he was able to raise a son. But now Shang-Chi, or Shaun as he goes by now, helps out his friend Katy (Awkwafina) in a job parking cars, if they aren’t taking them for a quick hidden spin first.
An attack while taking the bus to work forces Shang-Chi’s childhood back to him, and with a Katy refusing to leave his side, they go to Macau to try and warn a secret family member of his that someone’s after them. And of course, it’s not going to go straightforward.
So, for those who haven’t read my Black Widow review, I said that after the grand end to some beloved heroes in Infinity War and Endgame, as well as a cliffhanger in Spider-Man Far From Home that shook everybody up, we’re at a point now in the Marvel Cinematic Universe where it will jump the shark if it doesn’t branch out on ideas. Black Widow was fine, but underwhelming in comparison. I guess when you’re a film critic, there are only so many movies you can see until you start wanting stuff that really can shoot for the stars. And in the storytelling department, there’s a mixed bag at play. But the elephant in the room is Shang-Chi is the first Asian Marvel superhero. I mean, besides Wong (Benedict Wong) from Dr. Strange, who makes a small but significant appearance (Wong, not Strange.) I also appreciate, out of patriotism, that they hired Canadian actor Simu Liu, perhaps also best known for Kim’s Convenience. And he is perfect for the part, someone who can’t be extroverted due to his rough past and secrets and wary of strangers but a terrific, protective friend. Still, representation does not a movie make unless you know what to do with it, and there’s never a doubt the filmmakers are on board to bring another culture to their superhero world. I was going to type “new” culture, but Chinese culture has been around centuries longer than most.
A compliment they give is the characters speak Chinese for a fair bit of this film, where there would be no reason to speak English. More and more I’m seeing Hollywood productions not shy away from giving a proper picture. But the real elephant in the room was meant to belong to Awkwafina in by-far her best role yet as Katy. She is as hilarious as she is adamantly loyal. This movie wouldn’t be half of what it is without her. Katy always knows what to say to ease some of the tension but never feels like she isn’t taking what’s around her seriously.
Most of the action scenes are unbelievably spectacular, especially one of the earliest ones with a hint of familiarity to the Spider-Man 2 train sequence only even more imaginative and wild. The kung fu itself feels like everyone’s out for blood by how realistic the jabs and kicks sound and land, and the choreography and camera work around them must have taken ages to be certain the final cut would be the best possible. It has a very nice mid-credits scene, there’s fairly equal male and female representation in the fighting, and I liked how often it brings us back to Shang-Chi’s childhood and adolescence instead of only being interested in the there-and-now.
But now it’s criticism time. The 10 rings may give immortality and some cool moves, but there was very little to distinguish them as anything other than weapons. For me, they weren’t mystical enough to warrant the name “Legend of the Ten Rings” in the title. I mean, what legend? We get a scene way late into the film to show these rings are more than they appear, but I guess we’ll have to wait on finding out what makes them truly special. Also, there’s a rather sad story arc about someone losing a loved one, and I related to the conflict, but there isn’t enough heartbreak when hope goes awry. What would’ve been more effective was having some sort of mockery, maybe a showing of who exactly truly was speaking in his head to make us sympathetic to the feelings of the character and the hatred for the mastermind. The origin story of Ta Lo is surprisingly plain. There’s also one thing that left me confused, and that was the fact this is supposed to take place in the present day, after Endgame, but a lack of discussion about who was, as they said in Far From Home, blipped, and pretty much no talk about how at this point, the supernatural has turned natural around the world. I guess this entry really wanted to stand on its own as just a simple origin story.
If anything, the best part of Shang-Chi, apart from Awkwafina and the mid-credits scene, is the underlying concept of accepting people die, and in the real world, they don’t come back. Shang-Chi has a sobering attitude about remembering those who have passed and still being there for those alive and suffering. I liked this more than Black Widow, a little. And it’s going to be a decent practice round for Spider-Man No Way Home and whatever big mystery is promised next for Shang-Chi and the rings.