Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)
Written by Dave Callaham, Destin Daniel Cretton, and Andrew Lanham
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton
I think the era of Marvel movies might be over. It was an inevitability; they churned out so much in a decade that they couldn’t help but plug into a formula with a few exceptions here and there. I look forward to Spider-Man: No Way Home, but for shallow nostalgia reasons, and Thor: Love and Thunder is the only one I genuinely think I’ll enjoy. I don’t “stan” any of these or any other comic book cinematic universe’s characters, and I say this as someone who has been reading comics for over thirty years. While on the surface seeming like a fresh new property, Shang-Chi is another boring, well-tread origin story that we’ve seen a thousand times before.
Shaun (Simu Liu) is a valet in San Francisco who spends almost every waking hour with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina). However, their mundane life is disrupted one day by the arrival of well-trained fighters on a bus who seem intent on taking a jewel Shaun wears around his neck. This forces Shaun to reveal to Katy that his real name is Shang Chi, and he is the son of Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung), a powerful and seemingly immortal Chinese warlord who possesses the ten rings; artifacts of cosmic levels of power. When he was a teenager, Shang ran away, resentful over his mother’s death and desperate not to end up like his father. Now, he’s being forced back when he learns his mother might still be alive in the mystical realm she originally came from.
I’m honestly shocked at how bad Shang-Chi was. If this had been something that came out in the 1990s, the technical issues could have been forgiven, but this is from Disney’s seemingly well-oiled movie machine. I don’t think I’ve seen CGI this bad in a decade. I was honestly stunned at how bad so many action sequences looked. You could see it transition from a real person to a computer puppet. If there was one single thing this movie needed to nail, it was martial arts action, and it ultimately failed to deliver. It’s come out in recent months that Marvel may be storyboarding and designing their action sequences for each film long before they hire a director. One of the potential directors of Black Widow said she was told this when she was in talks on that movie. It certainly feels like it while watching Shang-Chi; there’s a distinct shift between character scenes and action sequences as if two pairs of hands are working on the same film.
While I’ve only seen one of Destin Daniel Critton’s movies (Short Term 12), I don’t dislike him. I think he’s a very competent journeyman director. His work always appears to be centered on the characters before the plot, which is a great way to make good movies. But when Marvel gets their hands on a young filmmaker, they basically put him in the driver’s seat while steering the car themselves. Edgar Wright famously walked away from Ant-Man because they refused to let him put his own spin on the movie. I’ve always wondered how Taika Waititi got away with Thor: Ragnarok, but maybe they were desperate when it came to that franchise. I had hoped Marvel would come to a realization after that picture and James Gunn’s success on Guardians of the Galaxy and let directors do their own thing. However, these last few releases feel even more bland and formulaic than usual.
Every character is Shang Chi, except maybe Tong Leung’s Wenwu is forgettable. It’s definitely not the fault of the actors but a cliche riddled script. Multiple McGuffins and action set pieces don’t serve to develop the characters or further the plot. Any good production design is destroyed by the harshly lit sets, which are majority green screen with actors pasted around them. I was stunned during certain scenes where you could basically see the actors walking downstairs with a dragon pasted over them or people standing against backgrounds that it didn’t seem like an attempt was made to blend together. Whether you love or hate Martin Scorsese, he’s certainly not wrong that Marvel & Disney have made billions off of two hour-long plus amusement park rides.
Shang Chi was a character custom-made to be in a great movie. He was inspired by the popularity of kung fu movies in the 1970s, so his roots are in martial arts cinema. It might have made sense to employ a director with experience in that subgenre of action…that is, unless the corporation is making the fight sequences before they’re even sure who’s going to direct the thing. By the end of the movie, I didn’t care at all about what happened to these characters or if I ever saw them again. I haven’t even talked about the inclusion of Ben Kingsley as the actor playing The Mandarin from Iron Man 3 and how cringingly awful that whole bullshit was. The entire affair lacked the emotion and chemistry you would need to make such a cliche origin story palatable and felt very much like an appeal to American sensibilities about Chinese culture and myth. I can’t even imagine how bad Eternals will be, ugh.