Movie review

Reviewing «Shang-Chi»: a breath of fresh air for Marvel

Luca Fontana
Translation: Patrik Stainbrook

I certainly didn’t see this coming: «Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings» feels fresh and unique. Largely. And that’s no easy feat, this being the company’s 25th entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe and all.

First off: my review contains no spoilers. Any information stated here is featured in trailers already released.

When Marvel announced that it would be making a film based on its 1970s comic «Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings» including significant aspects of Asian culture back in 2019, reactions from Chinese correspondents were mixed, Partly influence, of course, by Marvel’s obvious targeting of Chinese film audiences. After all, China is a vital market for Hollywood studios. Soon to become even more important than US domestic cinema.

High time then to mix up the market with a Chinese superhero.

  • Background information

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On the other hand, Marvel has faced backlash for its choice of main characters. Tony Leung, a Chinese actor, is slated as the villain. The protagonist, on the other hand, is portrayed by the Canadian Simu Liu, leading to cries of «discrimination». Accusers seem to be ignoring the fact that Liu, a Canadian, is of Chinese origin.

Now, two years later, «Shang-Chi» is out. In cinemas. Despite the pandemic. A misstep, according to some critics. However, I don’t think so. After all, following the middling «Black Widow», «Shang-Li» is a massive improvement.

What «Shang-Li» is all about

Shaun (Simu Liu) isn’t who he claims to be. His girlfriend and co-worker Katy (Awkwafina) has no idea about this. How could she? She’s known Shaun for ten years. He hasn’t ever achieved anything of note. Or defended himself. Neither of them are making anything of themselves. Their everyday life is monotonous: they park cars for filthy rich hotel visitors before getting wasted in karaoke bars at night.

But all this comes to an end when one day a mysterious squad of highly trained fighters tries to ambush Shaun and Katy. Because suddenly, Shaun lays down the law. Apparently, he’s actually called Shang-Chi. He’s also got a father (Tony Leung) who’s supposedly extremely powerful.

It quickly becomes clear: Shaun’s father isn’t just anyone. He’s the leader of the Ten Rings. A hidden organisation that has allegedly been lusting after power and wealth for 1000 years. Shaun – or rather: Shang-Chi – has been trying to evade the Ten Rings for half his life. His reasons: unknown.

Until now.

A breath of fresh air in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

The task that Japanese-American director Destin Daniel Cretton set himself wasn’t an easy one. Aside from the discussion regarding a cinema release during the pandemic and accusations of racism and discrimination. Especially because China doesn’t have the best relationship with artistic freedom. To put it extremely mildly. Regardless, «Shang-Chi» is something else entirely:

the 25th entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).

For director Cretton, this meant one thing, first and foremost: show them something new. Something that hasn’t been seen a billion times in previous MCU films. But don’t deviate too far from the formula: «Superheroes plus action plus cinema, sprinkled with fun and a dash of humour. Or something like that.» Same Same, but different. But still the same.

But despite the challenges, Cretton manages to succeed brilliantly exactly where «Black Widow» failed: in bringing freshness to the MCU.

Simu Liu as Shang-Chi
Simu Liu as Shang-Chi
Marvel Studios

Starting with the action. The fights. Or more accurately: the martial arts. I’ve never seen anything like it. Not in any Marvel movie, at least. Not even in a Marvel series: Netflix’s «Daredevil» comes pretty close. The three-minute, one-shot hallway scene is still among the best television entertainment has ever produced.

But the encounters in Shang-Chi are quick, creative and technical yet chaotic at the same time. Drenched in a vibe akin to early Jackie Chan films, where the Hong Kong Chinese actor zips around at high speeds, using anything in his environment to fend off hordes of enemies. Even if it’s his own jacket. Yeah, just like Jackie-Chan. Shang-Chi does the same. Again and again.

I can’t help it. Whenever I see something like this, tears of joy start welling up. It’s exactly the kind of martial arts I was hoping for after the first trailers came out, and you get it throughout the first act of the film.

There’s more: director Cretton didn’t just lift from Jackie Chan, but also from traditional Chinese martial arts films. Think «Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon» or «Hero». No wonder: I’d do the same if I had «Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon» actress Michelle Yeoh in my movie.

Because whereas Shang-Chi is the young, fierce Jackie Chan-like fighter, the flashbacks mostly feature his father. Scary, brutal, but simultaneously graceful and elegant. His story spans over 1000 years. During his fights, the camera often floats through beautifully opulent, feudal Asian sets. Actors fly through scenes on wires that have been edited out perfectly – I love that – while running along walls and performing a kind of poetic dance with their counterparts in duels.

Tony Leung as Father, Fala Chen as Jiang Li
Tony Leung as Father, Fala Chen as Jiang Li
Marvel Studios

What I like even more is how Cretton never loses sight of the big picture in all this action. Not even in the smallest of spaces. Camera work at its best. It’s obvious that, even after 25 Marvel movies, hand-to-hand combat has never been staged better or more gripping than in «Shang-Chi».

But then: a relapse into old patterns.

After the first, near-perfect act, I was sure: «Shang-Chi» is already great, no matter what comes next. Nevertheless, I didn’t leave the cinema in quite such a euphoric mood.

The second, significantly slower act isn’t to blame. It’s necessary. Especially after the fast pace set in the first act. The plot gets some time to shine. And I get to take a breather. Plus some character exploration. Shang-Chi’s father, played by Tony Leung, is given unexpected depth. I won’t spoil why. But this much can be said: finally, we have another well-written, approachable Marvel villain who isn’t just there to stand in the way of the good guys.

The third act is to blame for my slightly curbed euphoria. It seems as if «Shang-Chi», the film, suddenly remembers it’s a Marvel movie: almost out of nowhere, the now totally predictable CGI thunderstorm fighting bonanza takes place.

This almost feels like Dragonball.
This almost feels like Dragonball.
Marvel Studios

Honestly, Marvel, it’s just not needed. Not always. It works in «Avengers: Endgame.» The colossal end of an era. I get it.

But just as in «Black Widow», which was originally marketed as a spy thriller, the studio went for a completely unnecessary CGI spectacle. And «Shang-Chi» even surpasses it. This really doesn’t gel with the «small» film that was presented to me before. Especially when characters suddenly fly around as if they were in «Dragonball», throwing around Kamehamehas at will.

Shame. Less would have been more.

Nevertheless: finally, Marvel succeeds at humour

Despite the CGI fest: there’s still enough solid martial arts left to satisfy. Thank God. Tony Leung in particular really gets to let off steam. As mentioned above, his perspective on things is definitely as exciting as Thanos’ views in «Avengers: Infinity War.»

He stands opposed to the actual main character: Simu Liu. Charismatic and likeable at the same time. I like him. But I enjoy his humorous sidekick Katy even more. Katy is portrayed by Awkwafina. And she’s hilarious. Not in the typical Marvel way, where humour is usually used to lighten serious and emotional moments. An absurd trend, by the way. It’s as if someone at Marvel doesn’t trust younger audiences with something like, well, feelings.

No, Awkwafina has timing and is funny when it fits the story. And when things get emotional, she keeps her mouth shut. Thank you!

Awkwafina as Katy
Awkwafina as Katy
Marvel Studios

Only Shang Chi’s sister Xia Ling, played by Meng’er Zhang, falls flat significantly among the cast. At some point in the film, a character even presses a knife into her hand and says something like «It’s time for you to step out of the shadows». Almost as if that character was aware of what a minor role Xia Ling had played up to that point.

As always, a few cameos involving well-known characters from previous Marvel movies can’t be missed. My tip: don’t spoil yourself. Let yourself be surprised. You’ll be even happier when said characters are there all at once.

Conclusion: «Shang-Chi» has some small weaknesses – really small ones, to be fair

Despite the overly opulent third act, «Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings» is a lot of fun and, thanks to its martial arts, a wonderful breath of fresh air in the Marvel universe.

The fights are too much fun. They’re choreographed near-perfectly. The camera settings as well. And the matching, subtle Asian-inspired music. A true joy for Marvel fans that definitely won’t disappoint.

«Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings» can be seen in cinemas starting September 2. Runtime: 132 minutes.

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I'm an outdoorsy guy and enjoy sports that push me to the limit – now that’s what I call comfort zone! But I'm also about curling up in an armchair with books about ugly intrigue and sinister kingkillers. Being an avid cinema-goer, I’ve been known to rave about film scores for hours on end. I’ve always wanted to say: «I am Groot.» 

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