Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Destin Daniel Cretton
Dave Callaham, Destin Daniel Cretton, Andrew Lanham
Simu Liu, Tony Leung, Awkwarfina, Ben Kingsley, Meng’er Zhang, Fala Chen, Michelle Yeoh, Yuen Wah, Florian Munteanu
After thirteen years and countless films, how does a movie studio continue to build its comic adaptation empire without feeling stale. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is the kind of film that helps answer that question.
Although there is a formula to films made within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, certain filmmakers have been able to tinker with that formula and make the narrative and action feel original. Black Panther and Guardians of the Galaxy managed it. To a lesser extent, Ant-Man, Thor: Ragnarok, Captain Marvel, and Black Widow also did so. More akin to the first two films in this list, Shang-Chi delves into the Wuxia genre with great relish while retaining an MCU identity that keeps it feeling tethered to all that has come before it. It’s the perfect setting for giving the MCU its first Asian superhero in the form of Shang-Chi (Simu Liu).
Shang-Chi is an émigré to America, escaping his haunted past and his tyrannical father (Tony Leung). When a group of thugs ambush him and his friend (Awkwafina) on the San Francisco city bus, his father’s plan begins to unfurl as he reveals that he is seeking to rescue their entrapped mother (Fala Chen) in the mystical realm of Ta Lo. Along with his estranged sister (Meng’er Zhang) and a figure from the MCU’s past, they discover that he’s being misled by dark forces who want him to unleash catastrophe on the world.
It’s fairly common for Wuxia films to blend ancient mysticism into their intense and creative martial arts choreography. Director Destin Daniel Cretton works hard to enfold those traditional themes and action sequences into this film, making the picture stand out easily among its peers. Shang-Chi takes the MCU in a whole new direction and that can only help alleviate some of the frustration and trepidation that surrounds this new story arc in Disney’s massive Marvel moviemaking machine.
Liu makes a tremendous impact as Shang-Chi who is affable, charming, funny, and fluid. As his breakthrough feature film, Liu shows the kind of capacity to grow and improve as an actor with this skilled performance. He’s ably supported by Awkwafina in one of her funniest roles to date. Her understated comedic talents shine through at just the right moments. It’s also nice to see Michelle Yeoh continue to display the kind of grace and dependability she’s brought to all of her work over the last three decades. Zhang is frequently underutilized and does well enough in the scenes she’s given, but her terse delivery comes off feeling both off-putting and charmless. While part of that is a byproduct of how the character’s written, she doesn’t quite seem to have the force of personality that can overcome such deficiencies of character.
Disney has been commendably shrewd in its selection of filmmakers to tackle its late-stage properties. While names like Cretton, Cate Shortland, and Chloé Zhao may not be incredibly familiar to American audiences, they bring a world of experience to their roles as director. While Disney has a shrewd, but demanding control over their product, these kinds of filmmakers can help elevate otherwise mediocre works into something more impressive. Shortland proved that with her spy thriller Black Widow and Cretton has continued the tradition with his Wuxia-inspired Shang-Chi. It gives one hope for the future of the franchise, but history suggests it might be a short-lived burst of creativity, like how Black Panther and Guardians were followed by a slew of less impressive efforts.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Ring could do for Wuxia what Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon did. Whether Disney ultimately leans into that success remains to be seen. However, for one shining moment, they’ve managed to overcome their worst tendencies and we’re all the better for it.
Guarantees: Visual Effects
Potentials: Production Design, Costume Design
November 15, 2021