Marvel’s iron grip on Hollywood is hardly a new story. Since “Iron Man” launched the MCU in 2008, the project has ballooned to 25 films and shattered box office records. With two more Marvel movies set to release this year and another four on the docket for 2022 (not to mention the ever-growing pile of content on Disney+), the end of the superhero boon remains well out of sight. But even for those of us who haven’t hit the point of full comic book fatigue, it’s hard not to sense that each new release carries a greater and greater burden: how will this one justify its own existence when we already have dozens of other films that hit the same tones, themes, and plot points?
“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” which opened in theaters on Sept. 3 and will release on Disney+ in October, is, for a while at least, a breath of fresh air. For one delicious hour, the film offers a pulsing mashup of East and West, superhero flick and martial arts film, ancient folktale and music video. Then it remembers it has to be a Marvel movie and wastes it shot at greatness.
The first act introduces us to the background of Simu Liu’s titular hero. His father Xu Wenwu (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung) has maintained a shadowy criminal organization for 1,000 years thanks to 10 magical rings that both grant him eternal life and allow him to kick all kinds of ass. Hungry for more power than he can amass in the mortal world, Xu Wenwu sets his sights on a hidden, magical village, but he meets his match in Fala Chen’s Li. The pair surprise themselves by falling in love, having two children and giving up their powers for a normal life.
But something goes wrong. In the present day, Shang-Chi, now called Shaun, is a bit of a slacker, content to get drunk and sing karaoke with his best friend and fellow San Francisco valet driver Katy (Awkwafina). The duo’s friends and relatives heap on the pressure many Asian-American communities are famous for: when are Shaun and Katy going to start living up to their potential?
Soon, we learn along with a stunned Katy exactly what kind of potential Shaun has been avoiding. When he’s jumped by his father’s goons, Shaun reveals that he’s a martial arts master, trained to kill by his father, who’s now very much back in the crime game. The fight kicks off a fast-paced but effective story about familial duty, forgiveness, and self-determination.
Had this big-picture stuff been less effective, “Shang-Chi’s” stunning action sequences alone would still be worth the price of admission. Director Destin Daniel Cretton, best known for more introspective films like the lovely “Short Term 12,” and cinematographer Bill Pope (“The Matrix,” “Baby Driver,”) have put together some of the best fight scenes in the MCU. Dynamic camera work and quick cuts propel the action forward, while wider shots and slow-motion sequences ensure the viewer actually gets to follow the fight choreography. Each battle has a different flavor, from a high-flying scaffolding skirmish to a one-on-one dance in a forest clearing; all of them are impressive, and most are gorgeous.
While the performances are somewhat less showy, they remain strong. Liu, previously known for his work on Canadian sitcom “Kim’s Convenience,” can hang as Awkwafina’s straight man in the movie’s lighter moments, but he also manages to convey the quiet sadness of a young man ashamed of his past and reluctant to face the future. Awkwafina is charming when needed but knows not to take up too much space, and Chui-Wai Leung’s menacing and surprisingly sympathetic Xu Wenwu is one of the MCU’s better villains in recent memory.
But halfway through its 132-minute runtime, the film takes an awkward turn from which it never fully recovers. The move, which ties “Shang-Chi” to one of the weakest Marvel sequels, will surely delight hardcore fans of the franchise. To be sure, one character’s surprise appearance (which I won’t spoil here) leads to some of the film’s funniest moments. But it also diminishes “Shang-Chi” by making it just another cog in the MCU wheel, part 25 of a sweeping epic rather than a self-contained story.
The last act, too, suffers from the familiar decision to make the stakes galactic instead of personal. The nuanced tension the film spends nearly two hours building gives way to a CGI bloodbath pitting absolute good against absolute evil – and when good and evil are duking it out for the universe in a PG-13 movie, there’s never really any doubt how the whole thing is going to end.
“Shang-Chi” is another strong step for the MCU in terms of quality, representation, and originality. But even while the film strengthens the cinematic universe, the universe sucks some of the magic out of what should have been a top-notch action movie.
Watch it if: you’ve been craving a life-action “Avatar” film that’s actually good.
Skip it if: you’re turned of by violence.