I briefly considered not writing a review of this because while the Shang-Chi movie wasn’t bad, the theatrical experience sucked. This is my fault, I should have known not to go to the theater to watch a Marvel movie opening night but instead should have booked my ticket for the early show Friday morning when it’d be mostly empty. I deserve whatever Covid or residual fatness I catch off of this.
Navigating a row of people with the body structure of a trash bag filled with nacho cheese who are also incapable of reading their ticket and seeing what seat they reserved is one thing. Hearing them run out of breath while shoveling handfuls of popcorn from a comically sized bucket, wheezing at the strenuous activity of eating, and giggling like morons at every vague Marvel reference is another. By the end of the movie I just really wanted to go.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a film we’ve been promised for some time. The plot for Iron Man 3 revolved around the Mandarin played by Ben Kingsley who we find out is an actor, however a Marvel one-shot reveals that the Ten Rings clan is real as is the actual Mandarin and they aren’t happy that Kingsley was impersonating him.
Shang-Chi is a very Chinese film and I say that as someone who has consumed a lot of modern Chinese cinema. I’ve said the same about Aquaman also in a good way, and it’s really all in the cinematography and choice of color scheme. Oh and the Chinese cultural stuff presented in the film.
Simu Liu plays Xu Shang-Chi or Shaun, a man who fled to the United States as a kid to escape his dad and now valets cars with his friend Katy played by Awkwafina. One day Shaun receives a postcard from China that he believes was sent by his sister. He then gets attacked by assassins from the Ten Rings clan, sent by his father, and sets out to rescue her. You see, Shaun’s dad just happens to be a thousand year old warlord powered by the magic of the ten rings. To a westerner this may seem fantastical. In China this is really just standard parent-child relationship issues.
For western audiences, the fight scenes in Shang-Chi may give nostalgic feelings for Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and various Jackie Chan movies. The former is a product of the theme, with some fights where the characters feel lighter than air. The latter is by design, as several of Chan’s choreography team also worked on the fight choreography for this film. The whole film is glazed in Chinese mysticism including the hidden village at the end of the bamboo forest and the big fight sequence with the giant dragon. All of this existing quietly alongside the other half which centers around the more modern China; big buildings laden with scaffolding and neon lights.
The core story to Shang-Chi is a simple one, the slacker and his slacker friend who must become responsible adults to save family and the world. Shaun hasn’t seen his sister Xu Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) in decades, his mother Ying Li (Fala Chen) died when he was a kid, and his father Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung) is the abusive teacher who has been deluded into thinking her village is secretly holding her hostage. Once again a standard family relationship story.
It does come together for a hell of an enjoyable film. As a Marvel film Shang-Chi looks and acts very differently to other films in the series. In other words, it’s a breath of fresh air. It reminds me of how Guardians of the Galaxy was really its own thing and came out of left field with characters the general audience wasn’t as familiar with. For the bean counters at Marvel, the opening weekend box office take of $71 million is another reason to hedge some bets on lesser known characters.
Daniel Cretton brings the characters to life in a way that makes them feel human, especially villain Xu Wenwu. His character is reminiscent of many from the past, the immortal being who lost his humanity until he found love, only to have that love and thus humanity stripped away again.
One criticism I will give this film is that there are far too many flashbacks including flashbacks that tease future flashbacks. There are callbacks to the Marvel films, including to Ben Kingsley’s performance in Iron Man 3, as well as the snap. Every Marvel creation set after Infinity War must legally mention the snap, just so we all don’t forget it happened. Granted people still talk about 9/11 all the time, so I suppose an event where half of humanity disappeared and then reappeared six years later would be on everyone’s mind for a long time.
Shang-Chi didn’t revive my enthusiasm for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but the fact that it was far enough outside the usual MCU style makes it a film you could really enjoy on its own. If you don’t like Marvel, just pretend it’s not a Marvel movie.