On our way to see Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, my friend asked me how excited I was for it, on a “Marvel movie scale.” That qualifier is wholly necessary. The chances of any Marvel movie being truly transcendent or categorically catastrophic are generally equal to the odds of being killed in a tragic pudding-related accident: never zero, but not likely.
One of the most profitable corners of the House of Mouse, Marvel Studios has reduced crowd-pleasing spectacle to a virtual algorithm. Hiring exceptional indie directors like Chi’s Destin Daniel Cretton ─ whose Short Term 12 is an all-time favorite of mine ─ and Chloé Zhao and then attaching them to boilerplate blockbusters is the new Hollywood fad diet of trying to simultaneously have and eat cake. Packed with a ton to like but little to love (or hate), audiences will leave Chi with frosting on their lips while cinema aficionados once more bemoan nothing substantial on their hips.
The first hour of Chi is a pastiche of kung fu classics and banal superhero origin stories. A fantasy preamble explains that Xu Wenwu (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung) found some bangin’ bracelets a thousand years ago. They do…magic stuff… The parameters are never explained, but they are certainly very violent jewelry. Wenwu becomes evil because having disproportionate power inevitably turns people into supervillains. Right, Jeff?
Wenwu’s son, Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), fled his dad’s crime empire 10 years prior to the current-day events in the film, after pops asked him to become an assassin. He now works with his friend, Katy (Awkwafina), as a valet, a job at least 20% less dangerous than assassinry. When a guy named Razor Fist (Florian Munteanu), who has a razor for a fist, shows up to take Shaun’s magic amulet, he is forced to confront his past. This means reconnecting with his sister, Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), and traveling to a magical land filled with Chinese dragons, fuzzy and headless butts with wings, and a Lovecraftian nightmare beast that’s trapped in a cave.
The weirder Chi gets, the better. Give me all the headless butts with wings! The semi-dull, quasi-predictable first hour is punctuated by some top-notch fight choreography and buoyed by the relentless likeability of Liu and Awkwafina. As a child weaned on fists both furious (Bruce Lee), legendary (Jet Li), and goofy (Jackie Chan), I can say that the homage falls out into that Marvel window of pleasingly adequate. It’s like wanting a martial arts Dr. Pepper and getting a karate Mr. Pibb.
The second half, while overlong, is more joyously goofy, provided you can set aside some attempts at gender equity advocacy that nobody really thought out. Proudly proclaiming “Women should be able to do killing fight murder too!” is weird to begin with, but any proto-feminism therein is cut short by the fact that only Shang-Chi (and not Xialing) then gets trained in the super-secret martial art strategy of…keeping your hands open instead of making fists? Hey, at least there is a giant Falkor sky puppy that fights a tentacled monster bat, and Shang-Chi uses his supernaturally powered bangles to do cool jump kicks?
The film nakedly, openly wants to be for Asian audiences what Black Panther has been for Black ones. That intention is totally fine, as representation is an underrated superpower capable of transforming ordinary children into magical beings that grow up with something called “hope.” The problem is that Marvel simply tried to replicate Panther instead of taking things to a new, original, separate space. The resonance of T’challa’s journey, the knowledge he gains about culture, race and power, isn’t mirrored by Shang-Chi here, who basically gets some new accessories and learns the generic lesson that he “can’t run from his problems.” The end result is a Marvel movie at the high-middle of their trademarked range, which ranges from highly middling to middlingly high. About where I told my friend I expected it to fall…
Grade = B
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Katie Smith-Wong of Moviemarker says “By delivering a superhero film that offers stunning performances from Liu and Leung while celebrating Asian culture without poking fun at stereotypes, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a tour de force.”
Akhil Arora of Gadgets360 says “Shang-Chi is standing on the shoulders of giants — and I hope this film pushes Marvel fans to explore movies and entire genres that it’s inspired by.”
John Lui at The Straits Times says “The racist tendency to monetize Asian culture but erase its people is something of a Hollywood speciality, so it is exhilarating to see this movie break several barriers in one go.”