Director: Destin Daniel Cretton Starring: Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Tony Leung, Michelle Yeoh, Fala Chen, Meng’er Zhang Running Time: 132 minutes
As the Marvel Cinematic Universe grows and branches out and builds ever more enormous, into television, into another Phase, into so many movies at this point that even diehards might have trouble counting, the balance between variety and formula becomes ever more precarious. Marvel want to give you something new, just not too new, and this can even be seen in the genres of their movies. Honestly Marvel is becoming more of a genre unto itself in audience minds as the years go by, which suits Feige, Disney and co – so Black Widow is a spy movie, until it isn’t, and now Shang-Chi similarly offers the variety of a big budget, live action blockbuster martial arts movie – except every time it really threatens to shift into that gear, it parks itself with a hard jerk back into Marvel mode. And while that has its moments too, they’re not always two great tastes that work great together in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
Shang-Chi was created by Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin in the 1970s, the height of the kung fu craze in the US. Literally Kung Fu was a hit on TV, Bruce Lee was a superstar, and everyone wanted to get in on the action, with mixed degrees of success and cultural sensitivity. The thrills of a great martial arts movie – the human skill, the ingenuity, the grace, pace and power – are presented in the early going of this fresh presentation of the Marvel hero. A point has been made in the promotion of the film of the quality of its fight scenes, and they’re placed front and centre early on, with noticeably more stunt work than usual, and an emphasis on hand-to-hand combat amidst the sparkly CGI. But the demands of a blockbuster this size, the many markets it has to serve, and the expectations of the audience means that Shang-Chi’s status as a martial arts movie can only go so far – its in service of something more current, broader, more popular, in the same way you wouldn’t expect a cowboy to come rootin’ and tootin’ by in a Bruce Lee knock-off in 1973. Although that would rule, actually.
From the offset then, heavy exposition and many flashbacks sometimes feel less like the grand operatic storytelling of wuxia and more like a rush to explain where Shang-Chi and his world fits into the wider Universe. The role of the Ten Rings organisation, the powers of the actual ten rings used by the group’s leader Wenwu, the hidden world of Ta-Lo, and all the ins and outs of Shang-Chi’s complicated super-family dynamic all have to be set out in this dense origin story, introducing a new hero at the same time as reorienting old bits of MCU lore. It gives the movie a stop-start feel at times and can do a disservice to the movie’s strongest point, the performances of its enthused Asian cast, particularly lead Simi Liu.
Kim’s Convenience star Liu has been jazzed about taking centre stage as a superhero for a while, and the enthusiasm shows. He’s got his working boots on, not only doing his bit on some of the stunts, but in giving Shang-Chi (‘Shaun’ to his San Fran friends) life and layers. He wants to be an easy-going goof, drifting through karaoke nights with pal Katy (Awkwafina) and Liu has the disarming charm of a sitcom lead for sure. But he has intensity too, seen in his character’s struggle to reckon with his past once it catches up with him. After a lot of family tragedy and trauma, Shang-Chi was raised to be an assassin by his father Wenwu, and fled, leaving the life of a killer – and also his younger sister – behind and crafting a whole new identity in America. When the Ten Rings start coming after him, our hero can’t hide from his past or his immense martial arts skills anymore, and not just because he’s caught on camera wasting baddies on a bus.
Shaun isn’t only going through the usual hero’s journey struggle to accept who he is. There’s not just doubt, there’s resentment that his old life comes crashing back to him, guilt about leaving family behind, and anger at his father for abandoning the kids emotionally after the death of their mother. The tighter the movie focuses on this story, the more engaging it is, and though director Destin Daniel Cretton has previous form working on complex character stories in movies like Short Term 12, the real ringer here is legendary actor Tony Leung, whose gravitas has its own gravitational pull.
Leung’s performance – measured but deluded, a toxic man using greed to cover grief, is one of the best you’ll see in any Marvel movie. He brings up everyone around him too, especially Simu Liu. Not only because you have to step your game up in the presence of an icon of Asian cinema like Leung, but because in-character, how can you not have daddy issues with someone who can go from suave to ice cold cruelty as Wenwu does? But even all this turns into Marvel box ticking – Leung’s monologue about who he is and what he represents is suitably menacing, but it’s also about updating the Mandarin Wikipedia article.
It can be a frustrating viewing experience, a trip to the fireworks factory that not only stops and starts but gives you one of those Edutainment A History of the Fireworks Factory videos when you’re there too. Incredible performers like Michelle Yeoh are mostly wasted, and the more intimate character story is sacrificed for a long, plodding battle scene that doesn’t fit thematically with what came before. There’s some worthwhile action and exciting new characters on offer here, but for the first big new story in the post-Endgame world, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings never quite finds its spark.(3 / 5)