It’s been two and a half years since a Marvel film devoted itself to a new superhero’s origins. Captain Marvel’s place as a pre-Endgame piece of stage-setting eclipsed its abilities and ambitions as a standalone story; nearly everything in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings overshadows its post-Endgame newcomer. Delayed by and filmed throughout the pandemic, filmmaker Destin Daniel Cretton’s sprawling and intangible martial arts journey wears its rich influences openly, treats its supporting cast reverently and dilutes it all predictably. Despite hints of the interpersonal nuance Cretton brought to his indie work (best seen in 2013’s Short Term 12) lurking in a bulky script, recognizable elements of Asian action cinema struggling for breath under countless layers of digital sediment and one of our greatest living actors working wonders as its villain, Shang-Chi is as bland and busy as its title.
Poor Simu Liu never had a chance. Every character is more interesting than the actor’s Shang-Chi, who’s a straight man foil to the world around him. He is the sweet-faced stoic to Awkwafina’s Katy (his rambling, riffing, spotlight-stealing comic relief pal) and—as is implied through countless flashbacks and, naturally, a long opening Legend—the allegedly brooding center of the film’s themes of identity and inheritance. But the San Franciscan valet with the heart of gold, single-digit body fat, and secret, mythical family history has a personality akin to circling a lot looking for parking. He is a vehicle for plot to drive around, picking up more interesting characters (Ben Kingsley’s faux Mandarin; Benedict Wong’s Wong) along its extended roadtrip.
That’s because, really, this isn’t Shang-Chi’s movie at all. It’s the movie of his father, Tony Leung’s Wenwu AKA The Mandarin. Not only is his character arc the only compelling one of the film and not only is Leung an ultra-charismatic master at handsome mystique, but he’s the essential force of the unwieldy story. A warlord kept immortal by magical rings that blast as bracelet lasers, bounce off skulls or simply empower his blows, Wenwu changed his ways after striking up a romance with Jiang Li (Fala Chen)—who seems to have had an especially ambitious case of “I can fix him”—and the subsequent births of Shang-Chi and his sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang, striking in her first film performance). Jiang Li’s death really screwed Wenwu up, which in turn screwed up the kids he then roped into the family business of assassination. This emotional baggage drives the details of the film’s globe-and-realmtrotting mystery plot, which are withheld for far too long while Shang-Chi battles blade-handed henchman and clunky exposition on his vague quest to deal with the past that’s now caught up with him.
If you’re thinking “Wait, I don’t care about this, get back to that handsome warlord dad,” you’re not alone. Leung’s tense body projects melancholy and menace during his comicky baddie’s significant screentime while his deep eyes set his tried-and-true romantic yen at a constant simmer. He’s the most affecting villain the MCU’s had since Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger and whenever we inevitably return to the milquetoast lead, your heart breaks a little. Obviously, if you’re going to cast the legendary likes of Leung and Michelle Yeoh (who plays Shang-Chi’s aunt) in your silly superhero movie, they’re going to outshine whatever flashy neon fight club backgrounds or magical ring routines your VFX conjure. But the gap in quality between simply seeing Leung or Yeoh’s face betray a shade of feeling—a curve of a lip or a luxurious, polished-leather stare—when talking about amulets or ancient soul-suckers and the rest of the acting is just one of many jarring discrepancies between Shang-Chi’s flashes of ability and its otherwise dull sheen.
Take, for instance, its combat. Whether high-flying wuxia or the romantic fight-dance of The Grandmaster (honestly, it’s no wonder Jiang Li fell for this over-accessorized Genghis Khan), you’re trying to enjoy these familiar techniques from behind the gauzy, distancing unreality often conjured by blockbusters—especially obvious when action’s physical substance tries to operate within overbearingly insubstantial environments. Stunt performers move like clockwork, aping some of the best in the game, but float in space, distractingly disconnected from the rest of the film’s aesthetic framework. Is it particularly egregious compared to other MCU entries, or is it that the glimmer of real-world ability is stronger than its peers and thus bright enough to highlight the uncanniness? Either way, as far as applying that well-rehearsed physicality into actual scenes, there’s really only one that works and it involves a rampaging, brakeless, downhill bus. Utilizing the setting’s environmental details and the chaos of its instigating place in the story (like many of the movie’s sequences, when it kicks off, we don’t really know what in the world is going on), the scene is a thrill that gives the best example of Liu’s body control and action charisma. It helps that it’s also the only fight scene with a sense of humor.
Shang-Chi can’t even keep its fights free from the MCU’s encroaching house style. Its final battle falls prey to the same collision between ambition and tradition that drags its narrative down. While Shang-Chi strives for unique, expressive, even impressively grotesque design for its creatures, critters, armor and weapons, it’s all blurred in a digital slurry under assault from the same kind of ill-defined flying critters that seem to plague every film in the MCU. Gotta have some non-human fodder to blast out of the sky with PG-13 abandon. Rather than an Iron Man or a Hulk, the realms of this universe seem to need anti-aircraft guns—or at least big bug zappers. Not only does this climax not make much visual sense, filling the frame with swirling nonsense that probably looked great as concept art, it’s as frustratingly generic as its trained killer hero.
That frustration especially chafes because of how clearly Shang-Chi desires to inject a cultural and personal uniqueness into its fantasy template. The idea that someone must wrestle with familial expectations, the desire to be one’s own person and the inherent influence upon that person by those that came before them is a compelling inner struggle—one that could have special resonance for Asian Americans. But with only the vaguest of gestures towards this deeper emotional conflict—not helped by a main character who’s only got that title because his name is in the movie’s—it’s drowned in an overload of particle effects and Easter eggs.
Shang-Chi’s a long and often sidetracked movie so, if you’re inclined, there’s plenty of time to find these threads and pull them, hoping not to unravel anything but to find something meaningful at their ends. That the threads exist at all hints that Cretton or one of his two co-writers attempted this specificity—in addition to their casting choices, karaoke scenes and nods to understanding (but not really speaking) a parent’s language—but that their ambitions were either incompatible with or swallowed up by the needs of a wide-ranging origin story with its eyes squarely on a boardroom flowchart’s future. This too is part and parcel of Marvel movies. The silver lining for Liu (not so much for us watching this movie) is that he’ll get a fairer shot in later films. Unless follow-ups are equally uninterested in his character, shedding the burden of a superhero introduction might actually let him act. I hope it does. But the main attractions for Marvel’s Ten Ring circus are better when freed from the MCU’s captivity.
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Writers: Dave Callaham, Destin Daniel Cretton, Andrew Lanham
Stars: Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Meng’er Zhang, Fala Chen, Florian Munteanu, Benedict Wong, Michelle Yeoh, Tony Leung, Ben Kingsley
Release Date: September 3, 2021
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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