A new phase for Marvel means a new origin story. Or the same origin story for the twentieth time. I’m not going to lie, I thought a lot was going against this movie. Marvel origin stories have had a history of struggling, to the point where it was a good thing for a new character to be introduced inside the plot an ensemble movie rather than their first solo movie (i.e. Spider-Man and Black Panther). Then there was also Destin Daniel Cretton coming on as the director, who has done films that I liked but an action film seemed really out of the left-field for him. While Shang-Chi and the Legend of Ten Rings could’ve used a lot more risks, it comes together into a great action movie and by far the best film of the MCU’s Phase Four (but keep in mind what has been released so far).
Daniel Deston Cretton does a pretty good job directing the movies but it’s hard not to feel like his surrounding crew does a lot of the heavy lifting. Former The Matrix cinematographer, Bill Pope, does a lot of the visual work when it comes to filming the action (which is most of the movie). The choreography on display is also top-notch with fast and fluid movements that can mix around an even amount of hard heavy heat and floaty-like moves that resemble something like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. To give credit to Cretton, he did work on a mostly solid script, was able to guide his cast during the emotional beats, and was also able to pick the best crew he could (in an interview he did say that he picked Bill Pope because of his work on The Matrix). Cretton does also come up with some beautiful imagery that his VFX team does a brilliant job bringing to the screen. Cretton does a great job directing, but he allows his larger crew to show off their talents.
The music by Joel P. West is also great. Exciting beats mixed with slow emotional scores fill this movie. Between Loki and Shang-Chi, Marvel has weirdly been killing it with the music lately.
Marvel has always been able to pull in a great cast and that isn’t any different here. Simu Liu makes for a great leader and can bounce off of Awkwafina fantastically. The big standout is Tony Leung Chiu-wai as the main villain. He can bring so much to this emotionally complex character that comes across as menacing but vulnerable enough so that the audience can understand why he was once a good man.
I’m going to start with a minor thing. While I did say Cretton does an admirable job as director, this film does lack the personality of many other Marvel movies. There is enough of a voice here to hold everything together, but it’s nowhere near the level of the Guardians movies, Thor Ragnarok, or Black Panther.
The movie can also have pacing and sequencing issues. Information is revealed a little too late into the film which is especially strange because it feels so much of it is set up at the beginning. It’s not like the opening of the film was getting slow for more backstory. If anything, the beginning moves too quickly. It could be that the writers wanted to hold onto some revealing information to create dramatic tension. This doesn’t pay off because so many of the reveals don’t feel like they add towards any sort of drama.
The movie can ask for too much suspension of disbelief. Shang-Chi is portrayed as a character that has been out of action for nearly a decade. Despite that, he seems to have no issues getting back into fights. While I like Awkwafina, I do question her inclusion in most of the film. Shang-Chi seems like a pretty poor friend to let his best friend get into so many dangerous circumstances when she has no fighting background.
The biggest issue here is the story. It’s by no means a bad story, but it can feel like it’s nothing more than a vessel for cool things to happen. Many conflicts can feel short-lived which can make for exciting action but does negatively affect the drama that is supposed to hit in the end. While I do stand by the film is well cast, many of the characters can feel like nothing more than bit parts. I was excited to see Michelle Yeoh in the movie but was ultimately disappointed by how little she had to do. Also, the arcs of the film are pretty weak. There are two directions that it seems like most characters go in, either they aren’t explored enough for their arcs to matter or they don’t change that much by the film’s ending. The relationship between Simu Liu and Awkwafina isn’t tested and neither of them changes. When it feels like there is so much more room to grow with these characters, it’s hard not to be disappointed. This lack of strong character arcs is the most prevalent with Tony Leung’s the villain. I love his role in the movie so it hurts so much that it feels like the story blatantly ignores his tragic background. As a villain, I understood aspects of where he was coming from. Was he completely right in the end? No, and most of the blame for the film’s conflict does still fall with him. I don’t want to spoil too much of the story, but I can talk about the ending referring to a far better Marvel movie, Black Panther. At the ending of Black Panther, T’Challa learns that while his villain’s actions were wrong he wasn’t completely unjustified in his philosophy. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings needed a moment like this. Arguably speaking, Shang-Chi’s central conflict wouldn’t exist if a group of characters didn’t give the villain a chance. For some reason, The Legend of the Ten Rings never wants to acknowledge this. Typically it’s okay for a movie to not take up certain opportunities if it allows for a tighter and more cohesive experience. In this film’s case, it can feel like the story is lazy by taking the easier route in exchange for more action scenes. I found myself asking “why” way too much in this film and it felt like the writers didn’t care about the “why.”
The Bottom Line
Yes, Shang-Chi’s first movie is a waste when it comes to story, though this doesn’t mean that the viewing experience isn’t great. The entertainment value does save this movie with fun and exciting action set pieces. If we do see a return of Shang-Chi we are going to need a lot more than this film does. The best way to put it is that this film is a great mindless viewing experience, but if you think about the movie it has very little going on. Despite my big grievances with the story, I can see myself returning to Shang-Chi’s first big-screen adventure. Ultimately, for such a safe and lazy story, there is still a good time to be had with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.