So here we are, finally, with a new entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and a brand new character. It feels like a long time since that was the case, especially as the first film in nearly two years was a prequel-ish apology to an already dead hero (Black Widow, in case you were living under a rock).
That all means that there was quite a lot of pressure on Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (bit of a mouthful), and coming as the first Asian superhero film Marvel has focused on, it was under even more pressure to match the impact of Black Panther. Suffice to say, while it’s not as good as that (very few Marvel films have been or will be), Shang-Chi is excellent, and a real breath of fresh air. This extends to the fact that it quite often doesn’t even feel like a Marvel film a lot of the time, which is impressive.
In San Francisco, post Endgame, slackers Shaun and Katy (Simu Liu and Awkwafina) waste time in a dead-end valet job and get drunk/sing karaoke. One day though, they’re ambushed on a bus by seriously dangerous assassins, and Shaun fights them off, revealing he’s actually Shang-Chi, the kid of a criminal mastermind known apocryphally as The Mandarin (Tony Leung). Having run away to escape his dad, Shang-Chi is drawn back in to a situation involving mysterious artefacts, a pocket dimension, his none-too-pleased estranged sister, and much more.
Not to labour the Black Panther references here, but Marvel was sensible enough to decide again that hiring an Asian-American director in Destin Daniel Cretton was the right thing to do. Known for his indies, Cretton helped write the screenplay as well as direct, and his move up to blockbusters shows his earlier focus on character hasn’t ebbed away. It’s another sign of Marvel’s sensible nature in adapting such a potentially contentious character that Cretton was picked to authentically speak to the Asian-American experience, rather than hand this film to another older white bloke.
For context, Shang-Chi in the comics was created by white American blokes (most of your favourite heroes were, obviously!) as a dodgy pastiche/offensive stereotype, and Marvel have been sensible to adapt him for the big screen by making sure the film speaks honestly and credibly to the people it represents. Heady content for a superhero movie review, I know, but it’s important to know that detail!
Cretton also succeeds in siting this film in a dramatic place rather than succumbing to constant high-octane superheroic action (there’s plenty of that, but there are also long stretches of subtitled, Mandarin dialogue fleshing out all of our main characters’ motivations). As a result, he manages to make it all feel less cookie-cutter and more unique, and shows that in this case (at least) that Marvel/Disney let the director just get on with it, and make the film he wanted to.
While it is a Marvel Cinematic Universe entry, it’s a very different type of Marvel film as a result of giving the characters room to develop (for the most part), and this – plus more mystical elements – make it feel quite removed from the remainder of the series. At times, you could be forgiven for forgetting it was part of it, bar some big surprise cameos and the expected post-credit scenes (the first of which you REALLY should stick around for).
The action depicted is really reminiscent of a lot of Hong Kong action cinema and martial arts films, with a heavy Chinese influence. The concepts and ideas might have seemed stereotypical in other hands, but all feels more centred with the cast and crew we have here. Brutal, choreographed hand-to-hand combat dominates (thankfully) for a large part of the film, and it feels much more visceral than the usual Marvel action can (until a particularly CGI-heavy conclusion, which to be honest couldn’t be done in any other way).
This action is also quite spectacular even on a lower level – an early fight between Wenwu and his soon-to-be wife goes from early aggression to flirting through fighting, in a sort of courtship dance. It’s a remarkable scene that sticks in the mind, and is definitely one of the more memorable fights beyond the main set piece on a San Francisco bus, a breath-taking brawl on bamboo scaffolding around a skyscraper, and some of the concluding conflict (before too much CGI takes hold)
Going back to the subtitles – I was really impressed how much of the exposition and character development played out in slower, Mandarin-heavy dialogue scenes. For a big blockbuster to do this speaks volumes, and given the bullshit reactions to Parasite a couple of years ago (obviously it succeeded regardless of this!), I hope this is something that continues on the big screen. Global cinema is far more interesting and diverse than many English speakers will ever know, unless they get over their issue with subtitles, and if this makes even one person look into Infernal Affairs or Hard-Boiled, then great
I think my main issues stemmed from the plot choices. Some of the aforementioned slower dialogue scenes go on a little too long, though it’s key to remember that this was the first superhero origin film I’d seen in a long time. The climax is disappointingly familiar, but more out-there Chinese mythological references and influences help it stand apart (some monstrous villainous elements are quite weak when compared to the very human foibles of Wenwu, though). There are also elements that could have been given more explanation, which speaks again to the need for secrets to be dangled in front of us and answered down the line in future Marvel films (for better or worse).
Technically, the film is snappily edited particularly during fight scenes, where action is allowed to flow and be visualised in an easy-to-watch (aka not shaky-cam) way. That’s thanks also to cinematographer Bill Pope, whose back catalogue (The Matrix series, Baby Driver) really ought to send a signal that this isn’t messing about when depicting action. His lighting is distinctive too, whether in Macao’s dystopian neons, San Francisco’s blinding sunshine, or the lush, green and vibrant regions in China during the second half.
Musically, Joel P. West’s main theme is memorable and his score balances out between martial arts pastiche and superhero bombast, while the popular music throughout is excellent, adding great wit and humour to punctuate a lot of the tension.
Simu Liu has a lot of responsibility here, and the Chinese-Canadian actor acquits himself well, holding your attention particularly in the action scenes (for which, you could argue, he’s had to train a hell of a lot more than most of his superhero contemporaries). He’s good in more dramatic scenes, but suffers from being backgrounded a fair bit (in his own film, ironically). However, he’s a very funny man in reality, and has a great comedic touch onscreen, meaning you relate more to the character as a result.
This is down to his chemistry with Chinese-American musician/comedian/actress Awkwafinwa, who is a laugh riot as Shaun’s/Shang-Chi’s best friend Katy (a platonic friendship in a blockbuster between a man and a woman?! Feels remarkable even though it shouldn’t). She’s the main comic relief and our proxy as the two enter the mad world of his life, and is excellent at conveying the utter madness of what she experiences. I’d never seen her in anything else, but I now understand the hype – her bone-dry humour and palpable comedic chemistry and timing are a huge part of what makes this film work.
Much like Black Panther and the better Marvel films, Shang-Chi benefits hugely from a well-developed, interesting and sympathetic(ish) villain. Masterstroke casting of the great Tony Leung in his first English-speaking role sees him imbue Wenwu (The Mandarin) with danger, sadness and grief that’s really interesting. Leung imbues him with a swirling mix of drives and contradictions, and you can almost say he’s the protagonist at the times, such is the focus on him. You’re never able to feel too sorry for him, and his motivations are slightly understandable, but he’s still a bastard. In any sense, it’s always more interesting to have a villain that isn’t pure, stone-cold evil!
Meng’er Zhang, as Shang-Chi’s estranged sister Xu Xialing, acquits herself well in action scenes and holds her own in more dramatic scenes with Liu and Leung. Her role is intriguing as the forgotten sister left behind in the shadow of her brother, forging a new life for herself. The character is morally grey and definitely more interesting than supporting characters we’re used to seeing.
Of the remainder of the cast I can actually discuss without spoiling things, Michelle Yeoh has a glorified cameo as a sympathetic martial arts aunt, imbuing her character’s brief time on screen with grace and sass, while Fala Chen is surprisingly impactful in a smattering of scenes as Ying Li, the kid’s mum and Wenwu’s wife.
It’s taken me a while to get round to writing this review (apologies!), and so the film may well have left cinemas. But it’s absolutely worth seeing if it’s still on near you, and is a promising sign for the more interesting, less expected films coming from Marvel post-Endgame. If you’ve missed it on the big screen, it’ll soon be on Disney+ and is highly recommended.