Marvel’s most recent film, “Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” promises a bright future for both the franchise and the film industry as a whole, but still raises a few red flags at the same time.
Director Destin Daniel Cretton’s film has become the highest-grossing movie domestically since COVID-19 hit. It follows Shang Chi (Simu Liu), a young man trying desperately to outrun his father’s sinister history and his own destiny. Unfortunately, the past always catches up, and he soon finds himself drawn back into the mysterious Ten Rings organization and a family torn apart by loss.
“Shang Chi” throws it back to the old days of “Thor” and “Captain America: The First Avenger” by casting a relatively unknown actor in the lead role.
Once again, Marvel nailed it. Liu is excellent from his inherent likability to his insane martial arts skills. His chemistry with Nora Lum, commonly known as Awkwafina, who gives a perfect performance as the comic relief best friend, really pops too. I’m very thankful the writers didn’t try to force a romance between them. We don’t get enough genuine friendships in movies like these.
The film also boasts one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s (MCU) all-time greatest villains in Wenwu, also known as the Mandarin. Wenwu is played by the masterful Tony Leung, who has quickly become one of my favorite actors. He’s fantastic in Chinese classics such as “Infernal Affairs” and “In the Mood for Love,” and per usual, he absolutely kills it in “Shang Chi.”
Wenwu is a much different villain than we’ve seen before. Sure, he’s an immortal tyrant, but he’s one who gave it all up for love. His motivations are extremely personal, and I almost found myself rooting for him in the end (maybe that makes me a bad person, I don’t know).
Beyond the characters, the action is worth the price of admission alone. I love “The Winter Soldier,” but “Shang Chi” might even top that. It’s classic Jackie Chan kung fu mixed with the elegant beauty “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” wire fu.
Cinematographer Bill Pope breathes life into these sequences with pitch-perfect camera work. He uses beautiful long takes and wide shots, and the camera gracefully glides to match the movement of the scene. I mean, this is the same man who shot “The Matrix”!
There’s so much I love about this movie, but at the same time, there’s a tighter, more emotionally resonant version within grasp. Shang Chi feels like a film that’s fighting tooth and nail to be its own wholly unique martial arts, family-focused, fantasy epic, but much like the titular character, it just can’t seem to shake off its past and the baggage of the MCU formula.
The majority of the humor landed for me, but in typical Marvel fashion, it goes overboard at times, never quite knowing when to let an emotional scene breathe. There’s a side character introduced halfway through who admittedly had me in stitches, but ultimately overstayed his welcome and yanked the focus away from the core element of the story: family.
The ending lost sight of this too, and I really felt the MCU constraints calling for the filmmakers to go bigger. Instead of a heart-wrenching emotional climax, we get a CGI battle in the sky with some shockingly poor special effects.
In the end, despite a few frustrations, I walked out of the theater both times I saw this movie with a smile on my face. Ultimately, “Shang Chi” gave me hope — hope that the franchise hasn’t run out of compelling and diverse characters, stories and genres to explore, and hope that movies can actually still be successful post-COVID-19. Especially after the excellent post-credit scenes, I can’t wait to see what the future has in store.