Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
The newest Marvel movie has flashy action that's weighed down by world-building
Marvel has been making the rounds recently, at trying to bring more diversity and representation to its superhero lineup. They’ve finally produced leading female superheroes in Antman and the Wasp (2018),Captain Marvel (2019), and most recently in Black Widow (2021), and were groundbreaking with their take on Black Panther (2018) for black representation. Marvel has finally arrived at giving Asian characters a chance in the spotlight, and after their offensive use of the Mandarin character in Iron Man 3 (2013), a certain rectification has come about with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021).
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings follows titular character Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), a San Francisco valet with a dark past. When this past catches up to him and best friend Katy (Awkwafina), Shang-Chi is forced to go back to Asia to face his powerful father Xu Wenwu (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung), an immortal warrior, powered by the legendary ten rings around his arms that he uses as a weapon.
Shang-Chi is directed by indie darling Destin Daniel Cretton, whose jump to superhero films is surprising, given how comfortable he seemed in the likes of Short Term 12 (2013) and Just Mercy (2019). Those films took on quiet character moments and seemed the opposite of a loud and chaotic blockbuster. However, Daniel Cretton shines in most of Shang-Chi’s fight scenes, taking inspiration from the martial arts films of the 80s and 90s, which liked to maintain long takes that showcased the hard work the actors and stunt-doubles put in. At times, Daniel Cretton might lean too far in using shaky cam, so that some battle sequences can feel dizzying and incomprehensive.
Daniel Cretton also brings his character-building strength to the first act of the film, taking place in San Francisco. This is largely composed of small bonding moments between Shang-Chi and Katy, which are the most enjoyable to watch, thanks in large part to the chemistry between Awkwafina and Liu. However, Daniel Cretton begins to lose his grip on the film as the narrative switches to Asia. Here, Shang-Chi seems to be taken over by world-building, character introductions, messy flashbacks, and blocky exposition speeches practically until the credits roll. This slows the film down significantly and stunts the character progression entirely. This means that Shang-Chi’s character feels woefully underdeveloped by the time of his big “hero moment.”
Shang-Chi is not helped by the rather tepid villain in Xu Wenwu, who feels like a series of cliches rolled into one. However, Shang-Chi benefits with this character in the casting of Leung. The veteran Hong Kong actor brings a charisma and charm to the role that nearly overrides the bad writing. At certain moments he even convinced you to be rooting and understanding Wenwu’s motivations instead. Meanwhile, Liu in the lead role is solid enough, if slightly abandoned by the writers. He commits deeply to the action scenes, which is admirable for any actor, and brings the certain winking charm that superheroes demand. The rest of the supporting characters, however, are cardboard cut-outs at most, and this weighs most heavily on the film in a final battle scene where we’re supposed to care deeply about their fates.
Shang-Chi still maintains the signature Marvel tropes, from the charming humor to spectacular visual effects, and obligatory teasing easter eggs. The film is enjoyable enough for its action and a rather strong first act, but soon starts to wear you down with unimaginative world-building. After 25 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you start to question why you must sit through so much exposition. Overall, Marvel still doesn’t lose its entertaining touch, but Shang-Chi proves to be middle-of-the-road by their standards.