At this point in 2021, it is not necessary to be a fan of comic books or even movies in general to have a surface level familiarity with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). With a total of 24 films across 13 years grossing nearly $23 billion at the worldwide box office, this franchise has become a staple in our modern pop culture lexicon. The 25th entry in the series is upon us with “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, co-written by Dave Callaham, Cretton, and Andrew Lanham, and based on characters from the Marvel comics developed by Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin.
From the get-go in “Shang-Chi,” the characters are examined with a concentration that is often lacking in MCU films. Cretton and company make sure that the audience understands and appreciates who these characters are, and why they are doing what they do. Casting director Sarah Finn – with connections to the MCU stretching back to its first film, “Iron Man,” in 2008 – has once again worked a bit of magic by bringing together a beautiful blend of new and familiar faces to the spotlight. Simu Liu – whose acting background is predominantly in television and, indeed, smaller indie productions – stars as our titular hero. The delightful Golden Globe-winning actress Awkwafina has the role of Katy, Shang-Chi’s best friend and adventure partner. Acclaimed legend of Hong Kong cinema, Tony Leung, plays the primary antagonist and father of Shang-Chi, Wenwu. Michelle Yeoh, another famed talent with a staggering background in Eastern cinema, is the fierce character of Ying Nan, a loyal protector of ancient secrets and sister of Shang-Chi’s late mother, Jiang Li (Fala Chen). And, newcomer Meng’er Zhang portrays Xialing, highly skilled martial arts heroine and sister of Shang-Chi.
From these descriptions alone, it is obvious that the core narrative is a family affair. This film is edited by the trio of Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir, Nat Sanders, and Harry Yoon, incorporating a heavy dose of flashbacks that aim to poetically capture the theme of family as it relates to generations of the past, present, and future. I will say that these frequent reminiscences began to feel somewhat nebulous as we got further into the runtime. As I was watching, there came a point at which I was ready to settle down with our characters and story in the present, and not return to the past. But, the flashbacks kept rolling. However, this is a relatively minor qualm that had a negligible impact on my viewing experience in the grand scheme of things. “Shang-Chi” earnestly attempts to communicate the message that the scars of the past can haunt you if you do not acknowledge their existence. If you hide from your demons, the pain will only be prolonged. I respect the storytellers’ attempt to mine these philosophies, even if the vehicle for their exploration became slightly bogged down at times.
The commitment to sharpening the characterization in the script translates into the action sequences as well, which remain character-driven throughout the entirety of the film. There are a multitude of set pieces that make use of many different physical environments, choreography styles, and superb practical stunts – but the emotional stakes are always in focus. While I personally find something to enjoy in most MCU movies, it is no secret that some of these flicks have trouble with delivering action in an emotionally satisfying fashion. We often get swept up in the adrenaline rush of the spectacle on screen, but when we reflect back on the “why” of it all, details and motivations are hazy. Thankfully in “Shang-Chi,” each action sequence plumbs the depths of the inner-workings of our heroes and villains alike. Even as the third act falls into the gluttonous trap of an overreliance on CGI that has unfortunately come to be expected in the final set pieces of most MCU projects, I was still thoroughly invested in the soul and personality of the character arcs. This was also sold by the solid performances of the cast from top to bottom. The central conflict between Shang-Chi and his father, Wenwu, is a tragic rivalry of pride, honor, and familial legacy. Simu Liu and Tony Leung both turn in performances that hone in on the empathetic roots of this clash. (But if I am being totally candid, it is really Leung who does most of the heavy lifting. Liu is good, but Leung has been mastering his craft for much longer and is simply on another level).
I was also pleased with this movie’s willingness to, frankly, get weird and bizarre. Just when you think you have seen every corner of the universe that the MCU has to offer, there is another layer folded away somewhere that is finally brought to the light. “Shang-Chi” shows us hidden magic villages, portals to dark dimensions, and even dragons of multiple varieties. All of the incredible folks behind the scenes in the art department should be proud of the imagination they brought to life in this film. This is all captured by the lens of Director of Photography Bill Pope. One of my personal favorite DPs, Pope has previously been known as the director of music videos for the likes of Rod Stewart, Peter Gabriel, Night Ranger. I can see this influence in the very rhythmic nature of the camera movement in this film. Everything seems to be carefully timed and calculated, yet also somehow instinctual and reactive. It flows, shifts, and maneuvers around the action on screen in lively flourishes. On other visual notes, this globe-trotting adventure takes us from neon-lit cities to lush, enchanted forests bathed in effervescent color. There is a lot of pretty stuff to look at. To give a little more background on the impressive catalogue of Bill Pope as a DP, he also shot “The Matrix” trilogy; Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man 2” and “Spider-Man 3;” Edgar Wright’s last three films, including “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, “The World’s End,” and “Baby Driver;” Jon Favreau’s photorealistic remake of “The Jungle Book;” and the Robert Rodriguez-directed and James Cameron-produced “Alita: Battle Angel.” For the past 20 years or so, Pope has had his finger right on the pulse of the latest advancements in technical filmmaking and photography. His efforts on “Shang-Chi” tell me that he does not show signs of slowing down any time soon.
Marvel Studios is known for bringing in filmmakers from much smaller, independent projects to work on their blockbusters – think Joe and Anthony Russo, James Gunn, Taika Waititi, Ryan Coogler, and Jon Watts. The pick of Destin Daniel Cretton to direct “Shang-Chi” certainly follows this pattern. Cretton has a filmmaking background in indie social dramas such as “Short Term 12,” “The Glass Castle,” and “Just Mercy.” Suffice it to say “Shang-Chi” is by far the largest production that Cretton has ever helmed. To be handed such a massive responsibility of introducing a new character at a very pivotal moment in the history and trajectory of the MCU – along with its status as the first Asian-led superhero film from Marvel Studios (or any major US studio, for that matter) – is a lot for a director to carry on his shoulders. With all this in mind, the sheer achievement of “Shang-Chi” on a filmmaking and artistic level is stunning.
While it is likely clear by now that I was thrilled with most of what Destin Daniel Cretton and his crew brought to the table with this installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it is important for me to note that I am in no way qualified to speak on the cultural significance of this film as it relates to the Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders community. I highly recommend seeking out pieces written by AAPI journalists and critics who can describe their personal experiences as viewers. Their voices should be amplified to ultimately drive the conversation surrounding this film.
“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” opens in theaters on September 3, 2021.