Before we start, let’s just look at the scoreboard for Marvel’s 2021. Since January, they have released three live-action Disney Plus shows (WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Loki), an animated show (What If…?), and a theatrically released film (Black Widow). Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the focus of this review, is coming to theaters almost exactly two months after Black Widow (and a lawsuit against Disney by its rightfully miffed star Scarlett Johansson) and two months before Eternals, for some reason directed by the recent Best Director and Best Picture winner Chloe Zhao (we’ll discuss come November). There is going to be a show about Hawkeye in November, and another about Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel at some point this fall. THEN, after all of that, we have a third Tom Holland Spider-Man film at Christmas. And THEN at least four movies and four shows in 2022. Stop it!!!!
Anyway, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is the first Marvel project this year tasked with introducing a new superhero instead of working on post-Endgame cleanup. Shang-Chi, originally based on or ripping off Bruce Lee, is an expert martial artist with ties to the supernatural that are sometimes racist, sometimes not. Mercifully, Marvel had the sense to not call the dragon in this film by his original name, Fin Fang Foom. Like most MCU heroes, he starts as something of a reluctant hero, slowly understanding his divine purpose and stepping into the role of a hero to save the world. Simu Liu gets the physicality down, but struggles to emote beyond pained looks or angry grimaces. He has a decent enough banter with friend Katy (Awkwafina) who is along for the ride, but you never feel like he’s any more than a B-level Avenger who can help take out some of Galactus’ minions, or whatever.
The real story of Shang-Chi is that they managed to hire Tony Leung, one of the greatest screen actors to ever live, as the film’s chief antagonist and father of Shang-Chi. This is an original character, as Disney knows they can’t market a film where Shang-Chi’s father is called Fu Manchu (I know…). Wenwu is a thousand-year-old criminal mastermind, conquering armies and creating a criminal organization with the power of the titular rings. The origin of the rings is left purposefully vague (at least until Shang-Chi 2!), but they’re mostly used to do big CGI punches and Jedi jumps. When Shang-Chi is a child, his mother (Fala Chen) dies and Wenwu is heartbroken. He becomes obsessed with bringing her back by gaining access to her magical homeland, Ta Lo. Tony Leung portrays this grief and obsession perfectly, because he is Tony Leung. Marvel is never going to get someone on his level ever again, partly because there is no one on his level, and partly because Disney is being exposed as ready to screw over talent thanks to ScarJo’s lawsuit. So don’t get used to it unless the dumptrucks full of money get even more full!
Shang-Chi also faces what I call “the Wasp problem,” in which the secondary female lead is supremely more interesting and compelling to watch than whoever’s name is on the poster. In this film, this role is filled by Shang-Chi’s sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), a pissed off woman who left her father’s empire and created her own. She even has the same haircut as the Wasp in the first Ant-Man film. Her anger is much more fun than Shang-Chi’s reluctance, and she takes over whenever she is on screen. Hopefully any Shang-Chi sequel gets the Ant-Man and the Wasp treatment with equal billing.
Like all Marvel movies, this one ends with a weightless CGI battle involving a dragon and a demon. It’s like a smaller scale Black Panther battle, with less emotional resonance. Though Leung saves the villain role from being totally generic by playing up his grief and sadness, he’s still made to wave his arms around and throw magic rings at his son. It’s the kind of film that leaves your head the second you exit the theater, which is the only way these things can survive. By the time I review Eternals, I probably won’t even remember that Ben Kingsley reprised his Iron Man 3 role here.
It is impossible to review a Marvel film without feeling entirely overwhelmed by what Disney has done. This is the second Destin Daniel Cretton I’ve reviewed for Hassle after Just Mercy, and I fail to see any directorial links beyond a Brie Larson appearance. I didn’t hate the movie, it simply provoked a deep indifference. And Tony Leung got paid. Again I ask, is this “just okay” enough for people?
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
dir. Destin Daniel Cretton
Opens Friday 9/3 only in theaters