MARVEL’S NEWEST HERO SHINES
The Marvel Cinematic Universe (i.e., the MCU) has indeed become a dominant force in both the superhero genre of filmmaking as well as cinematic blockbusters genre. Since the franchise began back in 2008, the MCU has quite literally ascended to popular movie franchise stardom, producing a continuing narrative of interconnected superhero feature films (all from which are comic book source material properties from Marvel comics) within a shared movie universe. With each new entry, the MCU has grown in size (expanding its own universe of heroes, gods, and monsters) as well as providing a blockbuster-ish superhero fantasy escapism for moviegoers around the world. Naturally, the franchise itself has proven to be a powerhouse juggernaut, cultivating large successful numbers at the box office with every entry, which demonstrate the mass appeal of costumed comic book heroes and the need for continuing the various MCU phase sagas in continuing already established ones as well as new ones to fill in the roster. Now, with the MCU’s Phase IV saga officially started, Marvel Studios and director Destin Destin Daniel Cretton readies the newest release in this vastly popular superhero cinematic franchise with the movie Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Does this newest hero rise to the challenge or is it just another “run of the mill” MCU movie that never gets off the ground?
Shang-Chi (Simu Lui), who goes back the time of Shaun, is trying to find / live a normal life in San Francisco, spending his time with his close friend, Katy (Awkwafina) as they enjoy their time as habitual underachievers and lacking purposeful goals. That particular carefree lifestyle is soon shattered by the sudden appearance of members from the shadowy organization of the Ten Rings, who seek a special pendant that Shang-Chi keeps around his neck. Understanding this situation fully, Shang-Chi explains his complicated past to Katy as they travel to Macau, revealing that he’s the son of Wenwu (Tony Leung), a man who’s spent the last 1,000 years defeating enemies with the help from the mystical ten rings, which are gifted with magical powers and immortality. Wenwu only turn away from such power and violence after falling in love with Jiang Li (Fala Chen), a member of the hidden community, Ta Lo, but after his wife’s death, the man returns to madness, gearing up to conquer Ta Lo to find a way to bring his beloved back to life. Requesting help two children, Shang-Chi and his daughter Xu Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), who once refused their father’s demands for submission, and plan to battle him once again for their freedom. However, as events unfold, Shang-Chi discover a strong purpose of his past and hardened ambition for his future, preparing himself for showdown of dark forces and confronting his power-hungry father.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
If this paragraph and the one above sounds familiar…its because I borrowed it from my review of Captain Marvel. It’s not that I’m lazy or anything like, but it basically sums up what I want to say. Anyways…. It goes without saying (as many of you readers already know) that I’m a huge (and do mean huge) fan of the MCU films. I think this particular cinematic franchise has indeed flourishes (the right way) into becoming a powerhouse juggernaut that it is today, spanning over more than a decade (currently) in presentation its shared universe of Marvel superheroes. As one can imagine, I’m more of a fan of Marvel comic book characters than the DC Comics ones, so the actual cinematic representation that each of the twenty films released (thus far) since 2008 have definitely enchanted and “geeked out” my inner fanboy. Of course, the success of the MCU has been expanded upon the already established characters (i.e., Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, the Hulk) as well bringing new characters into the mix (i.e., Black Panther, Doctor Strange, and the Guardians of the Galaxy); showcasing the different styles and narratives that accompany these super tales of good and evil. Yes, I do agree that these movies have found a “winning formula” and have repeated as such (accordingly) throughout its different entries in their “phase sagas”, but it’s something that definitely worked and there have been a few surprises along the way that keeps these movies both “interesting” and “entertaining” at the same time. All in all, I think that the MCU (as a whole) has definitely left its mark on the film industry. The question remains…. how long can this shared cinematic universe of Marvel superheroes be relevant before it becomes stale and uninteresting to the general public opinions? I guess only time will tell on that endeavor in the coming years.
This brings me around to talking about Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, a 2021 superhero film from Marvel Studios and the 25th entry within the MCU. I have to admit that when Phase IV saga of the MCU was announced, I was quite interested in Shang-Chi. Not because I knew the character from the comics or because of the cast, which turned out to be great mind you, but because the movie was something completely different. It was about a new character, in a new origin tale, and seemed (from the promos and trailers) looked to be somewhat disconnected from the established larger superhero universe. When I actually did see the film’s movie trailers, it looked quite interesting and held my attention. Didn’t have that “ending of the world” setup or a “missing chapter” from the already concluded Infinity Saga story arc. It just looked like a fresh new start for a new superhero character, and I, for one, was definitely interested to see how this new character was going to stand on his own merits (movie and all) and how it would be incorporated for future installments. So, I decided to check out Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings when I actually was on my vacation to Costa Rica. There’s a movie theater (just one theater screen room) there and they were showing the movie (i.e., English with Spanish subtitles). So, while I did see the movie during its opening weekend, I pushed back my review for the movie a few weeks, for I was “on a roll” with getting some of the other delayed movie reviews done quickly and punching them out fast. Thus, now…. I have the time to offer my full in-depth review for this Marvel superhero movie. And what did I think of it? Well, I really liked it. Despite a few rough edges, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is almost a “breath of fresh air” for the shared cinematic universe, with new faces, a new unique set-up, and emotional family core dynamics, and fast-paced actions scenes that shine from start to finish. The film isn’t completely revolutionary like how Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Black Panther, or Guardians of the Galaxy were, but it’s a fantastic and promising start for the latest hero in the MCU.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, whose previous directorial works include Short Term 12, Glass Castle, and Just Mercy. Given his background with more familiarity with hard-hitting dramas, Cretton does seem like a bit of an unorthodox choice to headline / helm a big-budgeted superhero blockbuster endeavor. However, to my surprise, that actually might be a good thing; finding Cretton’s approach to this movie to be quite effective and compelling; breaking into new ground by doing a blockbuster superhero film. The result is something interesting, exciting, and memorable; finding Cretton’s direction for Shang-Chi striking and memorable right from the get-go. Part of this is actually representation of the Asian culture in a Marvel. Much like Black Panther, Cretton gives the film an opportunity to explore the cultural aspect of Asian society through way and means of representations of actors (more on that below), characters, and a visual aesthetics. Because of this, Cretton gives the movie a great cultural influences that shine in almost every scene; finding Shang-Chi a better than what I originally intended. Another good aspect that Cretton does with his direction is that it makes the film stand on its own merits. Meaning…. the movie itself (i.e., story, background, characters, action, etc.) is strong enough to be almost a solo / self-contain endeavor that didn’t need to be attached to the extended cinematic universe of which the film is set in. And that’s really good thing. Basically…. I’m saying you can strip away all the MCU references that the movie preppers throughout and you’ll still get a good origin tale. I do applaud Cretton for that.
That’s not to say that the movie doesn’t have its colorful nods, winks, and references to the already established world within the MCU as there’s a few callbacks and name dropping to help paint the larger world at play within Shang-Chi. It’s not so-much “over-the-top” references and callbacks like what Black Widow (thank God), but there are a few references that are amusing (hint: Iron Man 3). In the action category, Cretton does a great job in brining Shang-Chi’s action sequences dazzle whenever on-screen. While there is a few elements of the more traditional variety and of big-time visual nuances, the movie incorporates a lot of martial arts fighting sequences and movements throughout. This is beautifully handled and excitingly choreographed in almost every scene, which makes for some thrilling and frenetic action stunts. Plus, while the movie is setup as a origin tale of the superhero variety, the movie never feels that way. Yes, there is plenty of familiar scenarios that can’t be help, but the film itself feels more like a Asian fantasy adventure rather than MCU movie…..and something that I like.
Looking beyond the action sequences and superhero antics, Shang-Chi is perhaps the strongest when it submerges its narrative within its themes and family dynamics plot points. What do I mean? Well, stripping away all the visual imagery and superhero antics, Cretton shapes the film to be a family drama by focusing the film’s lens on Shang-Chi’s relationship with his “Familia”, including his independent sister, his late mother, and his strict father. It’s within these moments where the feature shines; showcasing plenty of substance that’s quite compelling to see how it all unfolds, which does help bolster Shang-Chi’s character arc growth on how he deals / overcome these relationships throughout the movie. Coinciding with that, the movie does follow a tried-and-true theme of self-discovery and identity, which is represented in the character of Shang-Chi; finding the translation beautifully handled on how he has to confront his past and embrace his own identity in the process. This is where the film’s script, which was penned by Cretton as well as Dave Callahan, and Andrew Lanham comes through and really makes the film that much more memorable than other MCU endeavors. In addition, Cretton certainly knows how to capture some of those compelling personal / family drama moments beautifully; displaying the right amount of emotion and cinematic beauty to those sequences. The result is something that makes the film feel quite different. The movie might not be as hard-hitting or thought-provoking as say Black Panther was able to achieve, but Shang-Chi is definitely up there or (at the very least) a good second place offering by focusing on a story arc of identity and family dynamics that are at the forefront of the main plot within a superhero framework.
Of the film’s presentation, Shang-Chi is stunning to look and is definitely up there as one of the more visual representations of both a superhero movie and a MCU installment. Of course, the film has its moments of the classic superhero popcorn variety, with a plethora CGI visual effects as well as an overall “bigness” to make the film’s background; generating a summer blockbuster fanfare from start to finish. That being said, the film’s visual representation does succeed more than just per usually MCU entry, with the story’s aesthetics of Asian influences playing a major part of the feature’s overall “look and feel”. From modern motifs and architecture to more traditional / fantasy-esque nuances, the background setting of Shang-Chi is steeped in Asian culture and the movie handles this quite well, with some beautiful vistas, landscapes, and set-pieces throughout. Thus, the film’s “behind the scenes” team, including Sue Chan and Clint Wallace (production design), Rebecca Cohen, David A. Cook, and Leigh Walsh (set decorations), Kym Barrett (costume designs), and the entire art direction team, for their efforts on this movie as the final cut of the feature reflects their work beautifully. Plus, while the film’s visual effects are solid, the cinematography work by Bill Pope also strengthens some of the movie’s more dramatic and visual capturing moments with usage of camera angles and clever cinematics that really do pop off the screen. In addition, the film editing by Elisabet Ronaldsdottir, Nat Sanders, and Harry Yoon is also very good, especially in the intercutting of all the martial arts action sequences. I was highly impressed by it. Lastly, the film’s score, which was composed by Joel P. West, delivers some great music featured throughout the movie; combining the Asian-style influences and modern blockbuster (bombastic and grandiose) in the musical pieces; resulting in a composition that compliments all every scene. I loved the soundtrack!
There are a few points of criticism that I with Shang-Chi and, while most are a not completely disastrous (as I liked the movie a lot), do distract from the movie a bit and hold the feature back from becoming one of the top tier releases within this expanded cinematic universe franchise. For starters, the movie, no matter which way you slice it or examine it, is a MCU movie and, while the retains a certain identity to stand on its own merits (as mentioned above), it can’t escape the formulaic nature of what a Marvel installment is made up of. Thus, it is an origin superhero tale, so the movie is a predictable in its narrative trajectory. Yes, it’s definitely one of the better ones done in a while, but it is still an MCU origin tale, which means that the story follows the classic reluctant character who becomes the hero by the climatic third act; mixing in humor, drama, and action in-between those two points. It’s not a complete deal-breaker, but the movie tends to lean a few times in the classic superhero tropes of an MCU endeavor, especially towards the third act where the film’s story decides to go “all in” for a visual CGI heavy final battle and an “impending doom” if the heroes fail. Thus, the formulaic nature of the film is ever present in the movie, which brings up the film’s predictability.
Another problem that I noticed is that the movie does have a one large pacing issues during the transition between the first and second act. The film’s action and story progression flows correctly in the first act of the film, which is great and entertaining, but the second act slows everything down a bit too much. Yes, its designed for the purpose of focusing on its character development of the various main players in the film (Shang-Chi, Xu Xialing, and Wenwu), but this creates a somewhat sluggish pace during the middle part of the film; something the feature can’t escape. Again, not a huge problematic area, but it is there and something that I think could’ve been interjected with some action scenes peppered throughout this area or even something a bit more enticing that what’s presented. Additionally, while I do praise the film’s narrative / script in a very positive light for the movie, I do think there could’ve been a little bit more insight here and there to help flesh out certain aspects of various characters. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly, but just a little bit more substance in a few pockets areas could’ve help elevate the strong story even more.
As a somewhat minor quibble point of criticism…. I think that the script / movie needed to help further explain the actual Ten Rings (not the organization, but the rings themselves). I actually thought that they were going to play larger part of the narrative. To be clear, there are in the movie and are heavily utilized during the climatic third act. That being said, not much is really mentioned of where they come from, who created them, and so on and so forth. Heck, the movie is called Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, so I was expecting a bit emphasis in the narrative about the actual magical rings. But I guess that the movie’s title is something akin to the Harry Potter titles (i.e., Harry Potter and Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, etc.) and not so heavily focused in the film’s plot. Still, the movie does somewhat address the importance / mystery of the rings at the end movie, so I guess that’s consolation price…somewhat. Again, this is a very minor criticism that I had.
The cast in Shang-Chi is actually really good from an almost all-Asian cast to play the film’s various characters, which is quite a feat for a mainstream superhero blockbuster endeavor, especially in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Much like Black Panther, this culture selection of acting talents isn’t just played “gimmicks”; finding all the participates giving their best character roles for this project and subverting expectations. Plus, many of them “sink their teeth” into their respective characters to make some compelling moments throughout. A prime example of this is found within actor Simu Liu, who plays the film’s protagonist character of Shang-Chi. Known for his roles in Kim’s Convenience, Taken, and Blood and Water, Liu isn’t quite the big named star that some of his co-stars are at, but, while he isn’t a “household” name, the actor certainly shines immensely in the movie. His ability to have a likeable charm is clearly shown whenever he’s on-screen, which makes easy to root for throughout the course of the movie. The film really does rely on heavily on Liu’s shoulder, especially being the hero of this movie as well as the new character in the MCU roster, as the actor handles himself quite well; playing up a strong character arc and having a good screen presence throughout. Plus, the character backstory for Shang-Chi is rooted in compelling material, which makes his inner demons / personal struggles that much more effective than just the standard superhero, which makes his ascent from “zero to hero” much more gripping and having narrative substance. This, of course, makes his journey interesting and his character well-rounded. Overall, I really think that Liu did a fantastic job as Shang-Chi and can’t make to see what lies in store for the character (and actor) in the future of the MCU. Curious to see how his character of Shang-Chi will interact with other Avenger character, especially Tom Holland’s Spider-Man.
Behind Liu’s lead role character, actress Meng’er Zhang does an equally job in the role of Shang-Chi’s sister, Xu Xialing. Making her debut with the film, Zhang plays a very solid character, which does have enough backstory and involvement in the main narrative thread of Shang-Chi that makes her vital to the film as a whole (not just a throwaway character). Like Shang-Chi, Xialing is giving a good helping of family drama substance, which her journey in the film (backstory and all) worth investing in her. Plus, Zhang does a good job acting in the role.
In the villain category, actor Tony Leung plays the antagonist role of Wenwu, Shang-Chi and Xialing’s power-hungry father. Known for his roles in Internal Affairs, 2046, and The Grandmaster, Leung is a skilled actor, and it shows with his performance of Wenwu; playing up the aggressive and cold-hearted father figure to his two children. While not quite as memorably compelling or fully well-rounded as other villains of the MCU like Thanos, Loki, Kilmonger, the character of Wenwu is still a cut above most villains found from this shared cinematic universe; finding his backstory / motivations for his villainy to be well-sounded and a bit more humane. Of course, he does have a villainy side, which is showcased in the movie, but his character arc has more “oomph” to it and has more substance than other MCU villains. Thus, I think that Leung was great in the role of Wenwu. As a sidenote, actress Fala Chen (Sound of the Desert and The Undoing) does a good job in the role of Ying Li, a member of the Ta Lo village, Wenwu’s wife, and Shang-Chi, and Xialing’s mother. She isn’t in the movie as much as I would’ve liked, but her acting definitely helps elevate the character, while her character does have an important part for some of the feature’s more compelling family dynamics moments. So, it goes both “hand-in-hand”.
Behind those main three heroes and villains of the movie, actress Awkwafina brings her comedic timing “A” game to the movie in the role of Katy, Shang-Chi’s best friend / sidekick in the film. Known for her roles in Crazy Rich Asians, Raya and the Last Dragon, and The Farewell, Awkwafina has become increasingly popular throughout the past five years or so; finding her comedic acting to be fun and great, which is probably one of the reasons why she won the role of Katy for the movie. In this regard, Awkwafina succeeds as she makes Katy a fun and amusing side-kick character, which certainly speaks to both her own caliber of acting as well as the comical supporting character for a MCU character. Personally, I liked Awkwafina’s Katy and I do hope that she returns for sequel with Liu.
In the more supporting roles, actress Michelle Yeoh, who is known for her roles in Crazy Rich Asians, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Memoirs of a Geisha, enters the MCU fame of being the seasoned “veteran” actor (a classic mantra for each of the superhero installment), with her portrayal of the character of Yin Nan, a guardian of the Ta Lo village and someone who has close ties to both Shang-Chi and Xu Xialing. Though she appears towards the latter half of the film, I do have to say that I love Yeoh and I’m very excited that she’s a part of this superhero universe. Her character is more of a regal-esque mentor character, so not much strong development for Yin Nan, but Yeoh’s performance helps elevate that, which make her involvement in the just as strong. In a similar fashion, actor Florian “Big Nasty” Munteanu makes for an imposing and effective character as Razor Fist, a strong enforcer member of the Ten Rings. Like Yeoh’s Yin Nan, Munteanu, who is known for his roles in Creed II, doesn’t have that much character growth as Razor Fist, but that’s merely by design; acting as the formidable head goon for Wenwu’s Ten Ring’s organization. Think of it like his involvement in Creed II, Munteanu is more of a striking physical presence in this movie than a well-rounded character. That’s not to say that Munteanu is good in his role as he actually is, and I liked him as Razor Fist. Hopefully, he returns again in the future Shang-Chi installments. Additionally, actor Ben Kingsley, who is known for his roles in Schindler’s List, Gandhi, and The Jungle Book, returns to reprise his Iron Man 3 role of Trevor Slattery. While I won’t spoil his involvement in the movie, but I did find his return amusing (acting as comedic relief) and did help connect the film to the larger universe of what came before.
Lastly, as almost to be expected from a Marvel movie, Shang-Chi does feature two Easter Egg scenes at the end of the film, with one being a mid-credits and the other at the end of the movie’s s credits. While I won’t spoil you guys with what those two scenes cover, they are quite interesting and leaves the door open for more adventures of several characters in the film to further explore as well as the larger shared universe of the MCU.
Trying to find his place in the world, Shang-Chi’s dark past resurfaces as he must confront it and find his own identity in the movie Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Director Destin Daniel Cretton latest’s film is the next entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe; presenting a new character with a fantastic origin tale for moviegoers to follow from start to finish; standing more on the feature’s own merits than the superhero sandbox it is playing in. While the movie does fall prey to some of the MCU tropes and traditional commonly used superhero tropes, the film still manages to overcome a lot of those criticisms, especially thanks to Cretton’s direction, a great origin narrative, compelling themes / dynamics, solid action, a great visual presentation, and a terrific cast, especially Liu’s performance. Personally, I really liked this movie. Yes, I know that I am a Marvel fan, but trust me the movie does find a better footing than some of the other installments in the MCU’s back catalogue…. especially within its origin tale aspects. As I said, the movie can basically stand on its own and not be fully tied to the larger superhero universe that its set in, which is really great, and I enjoyed the aspect. Plus, the visual were great. Thus, my recommendation for the film is a solid “highly recommended” as Marvel fans out there will surely be pleased with this feature, while casual viewers will probably be drawn to the film for its personal struggles themes found within this superhero origin endeavor. As I mentioned, the movie’s ending leaves the door open for further deepening into the mystery of Shang-Chi’s situation as well as being part of the larger established of the Marvel superhero universe. In both notions, I’m definitely looking forward to how everything plays out and I welcome the next Shang-Chi chapter. Until then, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is fun and highly entertaining superhero blockbuster from the Marvel superhero realm that delivers on its promise of being a great (and electrifying) start to a new character in its vast universe of heroes, villains, gods, and monsters.