Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton
Written by Dave Callaham, Andrew Lanham, and Destin Daniel Cretton
2021 has been just the worst year for Marvel Studios' ongoing campaign to make nerd shit everyone's shit, though their features have (so far) fared slightly better than their Disney Plus streaming shows. Black Widow glimmered with promise before it fucked up its third act—but they all do that, don't they? (Well, Falcon and the Winter Soldier is an incoherent slog for the entire duration. Loki, ill-conceived as that show is overall, at least tries to shake up the formula, getting the "bullshit in the sky" stuff out of the way before a lower-key finale, even if that finale turns out to be a covid-protocol conversation scene that lasts forty minutes and pretends to be philosophical by repeating the same key points eight or nine times.) I mean, I know: that the Marvel Third Act will always be kind of crap is so widely-accepted as a fact of life that to even complain about it thirteen years in is to brand oneself a bore. But, I swear, they're actually getting worse. The upshot is that, for all that I've always believed I had a natural immunity to superhero fatigue, I really may not. Anyway, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings glimmers with promise before...
But it really glimmers; at its best, Shang-Chi shines. Things begin with an expositional flashback, Lord of the... well, high fantasy-style, anyhow, and for a few seconds there's nothing to get too excited about, as we're recited the history of an extremely vague and misty version of ancient China, and China's greatest warrior, who has acquired many names but we will later learn was born Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung, the MCU's biggest olive branch to the Film People since Tilda Swinton, but obviously a highly welcome addition). Thousands of years ago, this man found the ten rings of power—even the narrator does not know exactly where or how—and this has given him the superhuman might to defeat any who dared oppose his conquests. But somewhere in between, and for no reason the narrator deigns to tell us, this warrior retired to the shadows and his empire became a secret one, and as the rings gave him immortality in addition to power, that empire persisted under Wenwu for centuries, until he turned his attention to realms beyond the earthly, and sought access to realms closer to heaven. His first target was the mythical village of Ta Lo, a riftland half in another dimension already, hidden behind a living forest that presents as a moving maze, and occupied by magical warriors at least as powerful as he. Wenwu discovers that the instant he sets foot there, and this is when Shang-Chi actually gets great.
At its heart, if only it had one, Shang-Chi is a love story, and the first person Wenwu encounters in Ta Lo is Ying Li (Fala Chen), possibly charged with guarding the village, though it's heavily implied she's just a random inhabitant out for a walk and Wenwu's arrogance offended her. Here Shang-Chi earns its wuxia bona fides with a kung fu battle between the precipitous conqueror and the mystic fighter, staged across a stream through a glade, and it's basically everything I wanted The Grandmaster to be but wasn't. Captured with this particular film's and probably the whole 4000 minute MCU's best cinematography, courtesy Bill Pope, the fight choreography is arrayed to simultaneously evoke beauty, violence, and above all, eroticism, to the extent that it might be fair to call it a Marvel movie's first sex scene, an interpretation Shang-Chi enthusiastically encourages since, as we resume our opening montage, Li's already pregnant in nearly the very next shot.
The product of that union is Shang-Chi (eventually Simu Liu), shortly joined by his sister Xialing (eventually Meng'er Zhang). The lovers having accepted Li's exile from Ta Lo, and Wenwu having laid down his rings, they attempt to live a "normal" life, but this does not work out. Li dies; Wenwu renews his plans for global domination, now animated by vengeance, an obsession he inflicts upon his son and heir, as well. But Shang-Chi flees, changes his name, and puts together a quiet and hopefully anonymous life in San Francisco as "Shaun," where he works as a hotel valet (and, given the deeply grating prominence of the product placement throughout a film that is much more about cars than it probably should be, a pitchman for Bavarian Motorworks) alongside his best bud, Katy (Nora Lum). It's around the time we catch back up with "Shaun" that agents of his father do, too, leading him to reveal the almost-superhuman skills his father trained into him in his youth, and sending Shang-Chi and Katy back to China and through the living forest and to his mother's home, where Wenwu has become convinced his wife still lives, held captive by Ta Lo's inhabitants. Their assertion, however, is that it's only the evil that Ta Lo exists to guard against that's snared him, and only Shang-Chi can put a stop to his father's madness.
This is roughly the first hour (with some overlap into the second), and that first hour might be enough to restore your faith in the Marvel Method, particularly in its (mostly) appealing blend of superheroics and martial arts cinema, and it works like a Marvel project has not worked in a very long time. There's no use pretending that Wenwu, in terms of dramatic interest but particularly as incarnated by Leung, is not by a tremendous margin the most compelling thing on the screen, but Liu and Lum are a pleasant pair to spend time with—the overpowering presence of Leung is, in a sense, good for Liu's performance, as, after all, he's playing a character overshadowed completely by his father's legend and force of will, who had to run to the other side of the planet to find any personality to call his own—and Liu manages a quiet, self-contained charisma that somewhat compensates for a protagonist who's written too instrumentally to be interesting in his own right. Lum, inevitably, is just doin' an Awkafina, but as that kind of "WOW GUYS" buffoonery is her territory, she winds up being well above-average for the clunkily-written comic relief in a Marvel film. There's no doubt that Shang-Chi would be a considerably better motion picture if she were the only comic relief in it, though of course she is not, and every other joke here feels like a studio note, starting with the guy on a bus live-streaming Shang-Chi's first fight. Marvel finally figured out what martial arts movies have been missing for years: arrhythmic reaction shots of some jackass making inane observations.
To the extent that there's been complaints about the editing of Shang-Chi's martial arts (three editors worked on the film; one strongly assumes that the fight scenes were handled, at least initially, by Leitch/Stahleski veteran Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir), that's probably where it's coming from. Otherwise, for a good long while, I was prepared to call the damn thing a revelation: even after the Wenwu/Li match, which would be superlative just for existing in this context, Shang-Chi manages genuinely innovative fight choreography that fits its martial arts shockingly seamlessly into a superpowered universe, with the battle on the bus between Shang-Chi and his dad's goons (mainly Creed II's brick shithouse antagonist, Florian Munteanu) being especially inventive, splitting the difference well between "CGI destruction" and "actual intensity," even giving Katy something cool to do in a sequence that (despite the degrading running commentary) flows from beat to beat downright musically. (It's also where the CGI already starts to strain, which I don't necessarily hold against Shang-Chi, though it's very frequently composited so badly it's no more persuasive than a film from the 1940s, and they might as well have just rear-projected it. Katy also never gets anything cool to do ever again, though the movie pretends she does toward the end.) The quantity of action in this first hour is something new, too: at least four major martial arts set-pieces, all with a different feel and all set against different backdrops that get used in interesting ways. Plus there's another chief henchman in a bitchin' mask who never gets an onscreen name or any backstory besides seeming pleased with abusing Shang-Chi during his childhood tutelage (and ultimately the dude just eats it unceremoniously). And I love that there can be a minor character in a Marvel movie who's basically just a "look"; it doesn't turn out to be Wenwu's other, disabled daughter, or anything.
Unfortunately, it's also downhill from here; to the extent Shang-Chi is "revelatory," it's revealed about as much as it's ever going to in its first half hour, and while it maintains a genuinely exciting "what now?!" quality for the next one (including a battle in a glowing Macau with Mask Guy that's trying hard to homage Skyfall, and has better stuntwork), it never exceeds those first two fights, nor comes all that close. Then, at a certain point it downshifts, extremely hard. This boundary can be defined with atomic-scale precision: it is exactly when the other major comic relief character shows up, and I'd already said to myself, "actually, I don't need this to be squared with Iron Man 3, thanks," when Leung was tasked with tediously explaining why "the Mandarin" is offensive but "a supreme criminal who secretly rules China" is not.
Anyway, at this point the movie is basically over, and it tacks into a third act that feels like it lasts an hour, because it lasts an hour. (The last wholly good scene in the film arrives during Shang-Chi, Katy, Xialing, and Unwanted Surprise Character and His Living Plush Toy's journey into Ta Lo. They're required to pass through the living, hostile bamboo forest, and it's a splendidly creepy idea, offset only by how gorgeous it is.) After this point, however, there's precious little left for Shang-Chi to even get to besides an unconvincing magic village that already feels like the EPCOT version of itself, the waste it makes of its extended Michelle Yeoh cameo, and some dragons. And there are dragons, so that's not nothing...
But this second hour starts to double-down on the weaknesses already incipient. A small one, conceptually, is that for reasons I'll charitably ascribe to the screenwriters' desire to keep things simple (in a movie that already can't make more than two-thirds of the surviving Xu's narratively useful), the comic book Mandarin's ten rings have been reduced in functionality from an idiosyncratic collection of varied individualized elemental powers to Wenwu's ability to shoot blue lightning bolts and use the rings as mind-directed projectiles. At least it only occasionally resembles a Sonic the Hedgehog game, though "occasionally" might still be too often.
The big one, aesthetically, is that I am almost unwilling to accept that director Destin Daniel Cretton meaningfully directed anything good in this movie, and certainly not the fight sequences, and not just because all of his previous films have been in the middlebrow drama quadrant, though his idea of "directing" any scene in Shang-Chi that's about people talking makes me want to stay as far away as possible from his movies that are only about people talking. I'm reasonably convinced the fight sequences are entirely the creatures of the various choreographers, fight coordinator Andy Cheng, and stunt coordinator Brad Allan (who passed earlier this year and to whom Shang-Chi is dedicated), and good grief, they generally even have better, more interesting, and more diverse cinematography, Pope managing everything from the saturated colors and almost scroll-like feel of Wenwu's pas de deux with Li, to the aforementioned blares of color that render the background of the fight in Macau as giant pastel swatches like a violent version of those old Apple commercials, to the Greyish Marvel Movie Standard of the bus fight in San Francisco, and even this has a Wachowski-ish gloss. (There's a minor fight sequence that even glances at the Hong Kong New Wave.) Cretton, on the other hand, will illustrate a conversation with exactly as many shallow-focus shots and accompanying reverse shots as there are lines in that conversation, even if the conversation has over a dozen and runs three minutes long. In any event, it's directed real bad whenever it's not moving and it's not moving for a long stretch before its finale, which retrenches into joyless formula. Even the opening, wuxia-inflected phase is like the golf course finale of Black Panther, except now it's minigolf; the climax, meanwhile, is even more disorienting and unreadable than "Marvel third act" already implies. It "has dragons" but just saying that creates expectations these dragons likely won't live up to—though I've decided that I kind of like that the good one is a more traditionally Sinicized design and the bad, Lovecraftian one is European, which is a more subtle and interesting gesture in that direction than film-halting discourse about how "Mandarin" isn't a real Chinese word.
The real problem is that Shang-Chi just runs out of ideas, and (I hate to always say this) clearly would be more comfortable being 90 or 100 minutes long. It's 132, because of course it is, which means that you feel every moment of our heroes' content-free preparation for battle, and keep expecting some convolution to arise. There's a reveal about Shang-Chi that does, at least, give the hero a bit of moral cloudiness that's fascinating (and would be more fascinating if the film showed it instead of just told it). Otherwise, no convolution comes at all, even when it easily could. It's just so frictionless, and emotionally mute, as the characters virtually turn into robots moved by a laggard yet completely basic fantasy-movie script. While it's no use rewriting a movie they already made two years ago, it's bizarre that a quest to find Shang-Chi's and Xialing's dead mother doesn't interest Shang-Chi or Xialing even slightly, not even in a world where there's magic all over the place and where death is demonstrably not the end, since—as the film even reminds us of early on!—another obsessed man went on another magical quest and brought four billion people back not so long ago. Anything actually meaty about this exists solely in Leung's yearning gaze and exhausted bearing. This movie has a dead wife, and sends her grieving husband plunging into the den of a dragon that eats souls, and the dragon that eats souls isn't even a metaphor.
I promise that I do not go into these things looking for problems, and if nothing else, it's rarely actively bad. In the end (that is, as a rhetorical device to end this review; the pair of ending credits scenes are actually the dullest possible dishwater), Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a reminder that Marvel can make good content, and I've regained at least some mild, cautious optimism about the direction of the franchise, because they did make half of a great movie here. I wish it could've at least been the other half, but that's life.