Shang-Chi is a film that seeks to right two of Marvel’s major wrongs: namely, its lack of diversity and its blatant mishandling of one the comics’ biggest villains in Iron Man 3. Both of these two issues were major complaints leveled at the franchise, so really, Shang-Chi making them right really comes a little late, but that’s not a criticism that should be aimed at this particular film.
Opening with a brief monologue to offer context for the film’s titular legend (the one regarding the Ten Rings – both the organization and the mystical artifacts it was named after), Shang-Chi‘s story proper starts promptly and quickly begins to deliver on its solid martial arts-action premise.
One thing in particular that stands out about Shang-Chi is how well it blurs the lines between its many inspirations. The most obvious of these is its story, which is very much rooted in Asian culture, which is presented in a way that appeals equally to a Western audience. The film’s martial arts scenes are well-choreographed and visually reminiscent of various styles of Asian cinema in turns (particularly from films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Enter the Dragon, and even the Dragonball franchise), but they still carry the distinct Marvel hallmarks – and this is something that works incredibly well to give Shang-Chi a unique style among its MCU contemporaries.
One film in particular that Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings surpasses is Doctor Strange – a film accused of whitewashing by many, and accused of abusing CGI by yours truly. Doctor Strange‘s action was rendered almost entirely in CGI, with spells flying back and forth driving every single action sequence – and Shang-Chi tackles that issue deftly by using its CGI to bolster solid martial-arts based sequences. While visual effects are almost always key in any fantasy or sci-fi action sequence, Shang-Chi is able to mitigate its reliance on CGI by using it sparingly, and that’s something that enriched the experience as opposed to ruining the film’s immersive potential.
Visual effects aside, Shang-Chi is a gorgeously designed film. From the streets of San Francisco to the neon skyline of Macau before moving on to the beautifully idyllic and fantastical village of Ta Lo, Shang-Chi puts as much stock in its settings as it does in its characters. They’re all visually distinct from one another, and they help the story progress in a visual sense, lending a little more weight to the narrative as it unfolds at a consistent pace.
While so much about Shang-Chi is excellent – its costume and set design, its pacing, and its action sequences – it does fall apart a little in the writing. There are a few plot holes; small, but nagging questions that threaten to unravel the enjoyable story, and at times, its plot development feels a little predictable.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Katy’s arc (if it can really be called that). From the first scene, she’s being told to grow up and realize her potential, and – spoiler alert – she does. There’s very little done to actually explain her transformation, but rest assured, it happens, and now she’s Shang-Chi’s sidekick. The thing is, as weak as the sub-plot is, it’s not even a bad one, as she’s still an interesting character who offers a considerable amount of comic relief, but it’s just one example of an aspect of the film that rings hollow.
One more of those small-but-glaring criticisms is Shang-Chi‘s casting. Naturally, as it shows the titular hero at various stages of his life, the film requires numerous actors to fill the role. The issue is, while they’re all Asian (I guess Marvel get one point for that), none of them look even remotely alike. There’s a super-cute baby Shang-Chi – okay, no criticism here, it’s a baby – then, there’s a 6-year-old Shang-Chi, who clearly doesn’t resemble Simu Liu in the slightest, and then, to top it off, a 14 year old version of the character who looks like none of the other Shang-Chi actors. It’s such a slap in the face, that each time the film presents a new Shang-Chi, it’s forced to clumsily explain exactly who he is, which I cannot believe that Marvel signed off on.
That, combined with a relatively predictable, if still exciting, climax, makes for a frustrating but ultimately incredible experience. Yes, it has a few majorly annoying issues, but Shang-Chi is very much the sort of film that the MCU needs – it’s respectful of the source material while still being innovative, and it introduces new aspects to the wider narrative that build genuine excitement for future installments.
Summary: It’s not without its flaws, but Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is an outstanding addition to the MCU. It’s got solid acting, a decent story, brilliant action, and plenty of comedy, and that’s more than enough to overcome its minor weak points.
Highlights: Shang-Chi as a character is potentially one of the most charismatic heading into Phase Four, but in terms of performance, Tony Leung really steals the show throughout the film, being simultaneously creepy and sympathetic.