After an unintentional two year hiatus from releasing stories theatrically, Marvel is releasing its second movie since July, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. The movie that came before, Black Widow, released in July with solid reviews, kicking off the MCU’s Phase 4.
Even though it is the technical start to the new era, it did not feel like it. Having directly followed the events of Captain America: Civil War and acting as a standalone film for a character we have known for over a decade, it felt very intertwined with the previous Phases.
Shang-Chi is here to truly usher in a new era.
When we meet Shang-Chi *ahem* I mean Shaun (Simu Liu), he is working as a valet, finding ways to pass the time with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina). The two of them do not have much in the way of ambition, electing to hang out at work, go on joy rides, and deny any insinuations that they may be more than friends.
While on the bus one day, Shaun is confronted by several men attempting to steal the pendant on the necklace given to him by his late mother. This moment of self defense, combined with the urge to protect his sister from the same goons that jumped him, forces Shaun to reveal to Katy that he is not who he says he is.
This sets the two content valet drivers off on an adventure that will forever change them.
A Fun First Half
Shang-Chi starts off with a bang. The first hour moves quickly and in a generally familiar Marvel way while remaining exciting.
There are several really interesting moments early on. A dream-like retelling of how Shaun’s parents met, complete with an action scene that is as gently calculated as a ballet, is a nice start to the film.
Later, a chase scene taking place on the side of a building housing an underground fight club keeps us on our toes and our characters in the air.
And I would be remiss not to mention the confrontation that takes place on the bus. It could have been your usual, run-of-the-mill Marvel fight scene, with quick cuts and shaky cinematography depicting punches that you hear more than you see.
Instead, we are treated to an instantly iconic fight scene that is one of the best in the MCU. Starting with Shaun unexpectedly fighting back, then taking on an entire gang of men while also making sure that the bus does not crash, the tension in this scene builds and builds, leaving you feeling breathless by the end.
The actual fight choreography is especially well done and is clearly inspired by the kind of choreography found in Jackie Chan’s films. It is immediately obvious that this movie has its own style and is not just going to follow the same formula of every other Marvel movie. Until it does.
Falling Into a Familiar Trap
It is not a hot take to say that Marvel movies have a difficult time wrapping things up. For as much as I truly enjoy the MCU, more often than not, their movies lose steam for me. The last thirty minutes are almost always a mess, both visually and narratively.
Of course, there are exceptions. Guardians of the Galaxy and Spider-Man: Homecoming both have relatively small-scale finales that work. While Infinity War and Endgame are on the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of scale, yet they remain mostly clear in their structure.
Unfortunately, Shang-Chi falls into the camp of not knowing how to end. The big, inevitable end-of-movie battle starts out well but eventually loses itself. It becomes an incoherent mess of CGI.
Picture the dirt cloud that constantly follows “Pig-Pen” from the Peanuts around. What began as a bright, colorful, interesting new Marvel movie devolves into that for the finale. It does not bring the whole movie down but it definitely puts a damper on what started as a really good time.
A Historic Moment
One of the most exciting things about Shang-Chi is its cast. The Legend of the Ten Rings has a cast made up of mostly Asian actors. Coming from one of the major studios, this would be a big deal regardless of the type of movie. Asian representation is severely lacking in Hollywood.
The thought of a cast composed of almost entirely actors of Asian descent is so rare that Crazy Rich Asians made headlines the year it came out because of that very reason. It was the first studio film starring a predominantly Asian cast since the early 1990s. To reiterate: Crazy Rich Asians, a movie that came out just THREE years ago was the first to feature a predominantly Asian cast since the 1990s.
With that context, the fact that Shang-Chi features a predominantly Asian cast is an even bigger deal when you consider that it is a superhero movie, part of the biggest movie franchise of all time, and coming from the biggest movie studio of the moment. This is a huge deal and worth celebrating.
To make the representation even more monumental is just how well this cast meshes with one another.
Simu Liu is a star. This is, to my knowledge, the first time that I have ever had the pleasure of seeing him onscreen. He convincingly plays the everyman character of Shaun at the beginning of the movie, then flips on the machismo as Shang-Chi like its nothing.
Being able to convincingly go from one end of the spectrum to the other makes Liu the perfect fit for the role. His charming sensibilities and empathetic nature make him both alluring as a character and believable as a hero.
Awkwafina and Liu share a lot of chemistry, which makes it understandable when so many characters wonder if they are together, romantically. The platonic love that they share for one another is both sweet and rare for this kind of movie.
Oftentimes, action movies have a formula. While this one is guilty of adhering to said formula at times, it deviates from it by not making Katy and Shang-Chi lovers. They are just friends who care deeply for one another. The way the two bounce off of one another makes their ten year friendship entirely plausible.
Rounding out the cast is an intimidating Tony Leung and a fiery Meng’er Zhang. As well as some fun surprises for fans of the MCU.
A Solid Start to Phase 4
Shang-Chi is like reheated pizza. It’s good. And I will happily enjoy it – likely more than once. But I know that it can be better. And even though I will accept it as it is, I can’t help but long for the days when my pizza was fresh.
While it ultimately loses some of the goodwill that it builds in the early part of the film, Shang-Chi is still an enjoyable time at the movies. Liu is easy to root for and Awkwafina is the perfect audience surrogate for the strange happenings of the world Shang-Chi inhabits.
Though it is not a perfect introduction, I feel like I know who the character is and I am excited to see more of him. The misgivings I have of the film are due to formulaic writing and bland CGI – nothing that can’t be fixed in a sequel.
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