It’s been awhile, brahs. It’s been awhile since we’ve had a new Marvel movie based on a new character. I see Marvel dominating on the streaming platforms with Loki, Wanda/Vision, and Cap and the Winter Soldier but I just can’t help but feel disinterested. Even with The Eternals coming out, I still couldn’t shake this feeling that there was nowhere else to go after Endgame. Was there something wrong with me? Did I catch a case of the dreadful “superhero fatigue” that has been plaguing the conversation since the start of the MCU’s hot streak? What could Marvel possibly give me that could keep me engaged with their projects moving forward? Well, there’s an answer to that and that answer is Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings!
Director Daniel Destin Cretton, director of Short Term 12 and Just Mercy, makes his MCU directorial debut with Shang-Chi, Marvel’s first film with an Asian lead. Cretton brings along with him Simu Liu as Shang-Chi, Tony Leung as Xu Wenwu, with Awkwafina, Michelle Yeoh, and first-time actress Meng’er Zhang rounding out the supporting cast. Much like Black Panther, Shang-Chi represents Asian culture in a way we hadn’t seen in a superhero film before. With its influences deriving from wuxia and martial arts films, my expectations were high. I was anticipating a Marvel film with immaculate stunt choreography and gorgeous cinematography. Does it deliver on those promises? Absolutely! Could this be one of Marvel’s best solo films? Almost, but not quite. Shang-Chi comes so close to greatness, but the tropes inherent within the MCU keep it from ever reaching that level. I just got a call from Kevin Feige asking me what kept Shang-Chi from being a masterpiece. Well, Mr. Feige, let’s get on to the review!
I like to end things on a positive note, so let’s start with the negative. There are actually a few things about Shang-Chi that didn’t land with me, but its biggest problem is that gosh-dang third act! The third act is overloaded with lifeless CGI that sucks a bit of soul out of what started off as a lively, energetic martial arts film. It’s not just the artificial nature of the third act that threw me off, but it was also how unfocused it felt. The first two acts do a tremendous job of setting up the relationship and conflict between Shang-Chi and his father Xu Wenwu, that you expect the third act to feel lower scale and intimate. However, because the third act needed something to keep Michelle Yeoh and the other characters busy, the third act suddenly decides to introduce a CGI monster with little to no setup. At this point, Marvel’s too big to ever go small again which really sucks because had they cut the budget of Shang-Chi in half, it would have resulted in a more focused story.
This is just one of a few other problems I had with the film, but I can set aside those grievances if the film delivers on great action. I kid you not, this is some of the best action I’ve seen in a Marvel film since the Captain America films. The mixture of practical stunt work and choreography with William Pope’s gorgeous cinematography make Shang-Chi’s action sequences really pop. At times, the action feels more like a ballet than it does actual fighting and it’s best exemplified in the opening meet cute between Tony Leung and Fala Chen. Their movements are so fluid and graceful, that it manages to say more about their romance than simple dialogue ever could. If you love Wuxia and Jackie Chan movies, then you’ll find a lot to love about Shang-Chi.
In some ways, Shang-Chi is comparable to Doctor Strange in that they’re both visually exceptional Marvel films that are ultimately weighed down by the MCU formula to ever truly break free from it. That being said, I love Shang-Chi in the same way I love Iron Man and it’s because of the film’s overall message of identity and finding your purpose. At the start of the film, Shang-Chi, a descendant of royalty mind you, is wasting his life away as a parking valet with his friend Katy played by Awkwafina. The movie tells us on many occasions that Shang-Chi could be so much more than he is and as the movie progresses, you see the character embrace his true potential. As someone who’s wasted away on lifeless, dead-end jobs, it felt all too real for me. We all have the potential to be something more, but the real challenge is whether we go for it or run from it?