'Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings' Review
Am I getting too old for the MCU?
During their first three phases, Marvel Studios has embraced and celebrated most of their beloved catalog of heroes. Some movies shined more than most, but with each phase the films got better and better. Somewhere along the way, a formula started to arise. Shang-Chi follows this formula to a T, with its side characters, the usual comedic relief, and the standard hero’s journey.
To begin, I should clarify, I enjoyed watching this most recent MCU entry, but it’s not one I’ll revisit. This one felt fresh and really unique for the first half and then… just kinda lost me in the second half. It went from just being about a guy with family issues trying to make up for lost time to a save-the-world plot so quickly. When the gang gets to the fantasy land of Ta Lo, I felt as though I had started watching another movie. I am aware Ta Lo is fantastical like this in the comics, but this, along with the addition of Morris and Trevor, just contributed to the whole movie feeling very elementary. To some extent, it definitely is supposed to be elementary (kids are a major part of the target audience, after all, but lighthearted superhero movies have proven in the past that they don’t need a silly little fluffy creature or an old, delusional guy to keep their younger audiences engaged. (See Iron Man, Spider-Man 2, X-Men: Days of Future Past.)
More interesting than the silly side character plots we get throughout Shang-Chi are some one-off story beats that aren’t given enough time to sit before the next action set piece occurs. We go from “Shawn” hiding the fact that he did, in fact, murder the person responsible for his mother’s death and wrestling with the possibility of killing his own father to soul sucker wyverns emerging from what’s literally called “The Dark Gate” and harvesting souls to feed their master. If you were to pick two random frames from this movie and put them next to one another, hardly anyone would guess they were from the same film. The double edged sword of the shared cinematic universe idea is on display multiple times here. With its massive popularity, it does make sense that the MCU thinks it needs to cater to as many moviegoers as possible, from casuals to hardcore fans. However, this isn’t enough reason to comprise the entire tone and theme of their movie. MCU flicks at their best have a personality, as all good movies do, with a director’s vision fully embraced and celebrated in every minute. There may be silly one-liners or Drax level humor that’s funny because of just how stupid it is, but those moments should always be in service to the story. The grounded kung fu action in Shang-Chi is fun, unique by Marvel standards, and inspired in all the right ways, and it should have kept that same focus throughout. Maybe introduce the otherworldly demon monsters in a more appropriate, dimension shattering context (like Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness) because at the end of the day, those CGI dragon fights don’t add anything to the story. It’s simply eye candy that distracts viewers from a deeper, emotionally charged climax about a power-hungry father, his broken family, and the limits to which each family member will go to save it.
Simu Liu delivers a good performance, but his Shang-Chi doesn’t have any standout character traits like the other Avengers; he’s like the guy in your friend group that doesn’t talk much but everyone likes a lot and wishes would talk more. Awkwafina as Katy is one of the better sidekick characters we’ve gotten in the MCU and some of her comedic beats really shine. Meng’er Zhang, who plays Xu Xialing, has a very sad backstory that isn’t explored a lot in this movie, but is apparently left for the next Shang Chi installment, which is great. Her motivations for taking over the Ten Rings makes sense with her story, and I’m glad the overall antagonistic presence of the Ten Rings isn’t gone, but I was wondering along with Katy, “How DID she start an underground fight ring in Macau at 16 years old?” Thing is, all these characters share the same admirable, but rather boring trait in the end: they don’t want to save the world for any other reason other than because it’s the right thing to do. If the climax wasn’t centered around a multi-dimensional alien threat and was more grounded, with Tony Leung’s character just wanting to destroy Ta Lo for not letting him live there with his wife, Shang-Chi would have had much more emotional heft.
While I can appreciate the many inspirations and aspirations this movie displays to a certain extent, I can’t help but dream about a more focused Shang-Chi movie, a movie that can be enjoyed as a modern urban kung fu action movie without having the MCU behind it, weighing it down. A movie that has room to focus on good, old fashioned storytelling.