Shang-Chi (Review): The MCU Tries to Escape its Comfort Zone

After infuriating fans in 2013 with Iron Man 3’s version of “The Mandarin”, Marvel makes a whole movie to apologize. Item two on their agenda: tweak their formula by focusing on martial arts action. And lastly: introduce a bunch of new lore to the MCU. Did they succeed at any of these things? Read on to find out… 

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings centers around a mild-mannered valet named Shaun (played by Simu Liu). He’s an unambitious man, content to park cars, go to karaoke bars, and hang with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina). But after assassins ambush Shaun to steal his family heirloom, he is forced into an exciting world of magic, martial arts, and secret criminal societies. Shaun must also confront his family’s dark past and choose whether to embrace or reject his heritage.

I wanna review the action sequences first because… well, they’re freaking fantastic! Most action films bore me of late but Shang-Chi was truly impressive. Its martial arts choreography was notably spectacular. Andy Cheng (choreographer) elevated basic hand-to-hand confrontation to an artistic expression of human movement, akin to dance! Some people may see that as a criticism, as if Shang-Chi is over-choreographed, but I didn’t feel that way at all. These performers move their bodies with such timing, flow and grace that I was mesmerized. The moves themselves were also badass, and environments were well-used for combat– especially the bus sequence, which is one of Marvel’s all-time best action scenes.

And you can actually see/ understand what’s happening at all times!!! Marvel has a tendency towards abundance of shaky-cam in their action and/ or quick-cut edits, both of which make an audience struggle to orient themselves with a location’s geography. But Shang-Chi’s camera work and editing masterfully serves the movie instead of hindering it. A word to Marvel (and Hollywood): please take notes on this film. I’d very much appreciate more action movies like this!

BUT… as much as this pains me to say, I didn’t like the action in Shang-Chi‘s third act. And I lay the blame squarely on Marvel Studios. I don’t believe director Destin Daniel Cretton was at fault for that. Forgive me– but I’m going to withhold my specific criticisms till I discuss the plot, because my issues concern a more fundamental problem than the action.  

Tony Leung as Xu Wenwu (The Mandarin) in Shang-Chi

Most of Shang-Chi‘s characters were noteworthy enough for me to talk about. I’ve got some opinions on most everyone (which is rare). Might as well start with Shang-Chi himself… Simu Liu is gonna be a big star after this. As he should be. I’m always happy to see Canadian talent hit the big time and I wish him the best of luck in Hollywood! I admire his commitment to the role. It’s obvious he learned a lot of martial arts to play this part. Shang-Chi doesn’t hide behind a mask, so using stunt doubles may have been somewhat difficult, but Liu is clearly doing most of his own stunts in the film. Much respect goes to him for that. Liu’s performance was also endearing and relatable. Thanks to him, I’m now a fan of Shang-Chi (he’s one of the few Marvel characters I knew next to nothing about before the MCU).

But how is the character himself? Shang-Chi is charming, with an every-man energy the MCU could use more of. My biggest gripe with is that he’s a passive protagonist. Most of this film’s plot would occur with or without Shang-Chi’s involvement, and many of his choices are made for him. This was possibly an intentional story decision? I mean, much of the first act is people criticizing him for not taking agency over his life. But even his choices at the end feel relatively forced, so I’m not sure.

I’m pleased to report that the real Mandarin was a great villain (Marvel’s best on film since Thanos). Tony Leung brings gravitas to the role. His Mandarin is also surprisingly down-to-earth. Leung’s choice to go more understated was appreciated. He’s already a calm, cool, and collected badass. He doesn’t need to be in your face about it too. Xu Wenwu isn’t an alien, android, or wizard (as Falcon once joked)– just a long-lived guy with powerful artifacts, good motivation and amazing screen presence. Oh yeah– he’s also got a secret society of followers, but that’s just icing on the cake.

Shang-Chi’s friend Katy was a character I was cautious of going in to this movie. The trailers made me worry she’d be this annoying comic-relief character I’d grow to hate quickly. I was half-right. Katy was definitely the comic relief but she was legitimately funny! And she didn’t overstay her welcome. I’d bet another actress might have been more 2-dimensional in their performance and gone over-the-top, whereas Awkwafina held herself back in the appropriate moments. Her friendship with Shang-Chi is heartfelt and I cared about them as a duo. It also helps that Awkwafina has great chemistry with Simu Liu.

Michelle Yeoh is excellent as always. ‘Nuff said there.

Shang-Chi’s sister, Xu Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), was the only disappointment of the main cast. And that’s only because she didn’t have as big a presence as she should have. In many ways– her motivation was even stronger than Shang-Chi’s. And she was definitely more driven in her quest. Yet the film relegated her to a secondary supporting character. I still liked her because she’s one of the few Marvel characters who doesn’t quip all the time.

In addition to the above, Shang-Chi featured some surprise characters I won’t spoil here. Some were awesome, others were hilarious, and others were… intriguing.  

Ooh! The rings! The Mandarin’s “precious”…

Moving on to the plot now: Shang-Chi begins with an epic story, telling us the history of “the ten rings” and Xu Wenwu. This opening immediately intrigued me. I thought to myself “Hmm. This story has potential!” And I teased this point in my intro, but Shang-Chi did a fantastic job at expanding MCU lore. The amount of new locations, characters, and other-worldly threats established in this one film was impressive!

I was further shocked by how much of Shang-Chi‘s dialogue was in Mandarin (with English subtitles). That was a bold move which I loved! Lots of people hate subtitles though… So be warned: there’s a lot of ’em. They’re particularly used during the flashback sequences which are set in China. And that makes sense. It’s become a pet peeve of mine when native speakers of another language randomly choose to speak English in movies without a good plot reason (for example of a “good” reason– Star Trek has the universal translator where everyone can understand one another regardless of language or species).

Speaking of those flashbacks, they were the most interesting aspect of the movie. Shang-Chi‘s modern setting sets up a few mysteries which the flashbacks sporadically answer throughout the film. But the real meat of the story is in the past. Basically: stuff went down back in Shang-Chi’s childhood, and the modern setting is where he has to reckon with said stuff. My only problem with the flashback sequences is that they occasionally killed forward momentum in the modern-day plot. We’d be going somewhere to do something and then we’d skip back to Shang-Chi‘s childhood. The content of those sequences was great, which made the interruptions passable, but the film’s structure irked me more as it went.

At its core Shang-Chi is a drama about one messed up family. Those elements were strong! The family dynamic impressed me for being messy and complicated. It wasn’t a simple case of “Xu Wenwu is a terrible human being so of course his son should oppose him.” Everyone in the family had their own side of the story (in the flashbacks), and they all made sense.

WARNING: rant incoming. Now we get to my complaints about Shang-Chi’s third act… Here’s where the movie jumped the shark from relatively grounded martial arts drama to full-on Marvel movie. The beginning of this act seemed promising enough. But then they had to fight a CGI army and other computer generated monsters and I became bored quickly… The whole thing felt disconnected from the rest of the film and left a bad taste in my mouth. And I 100% put the blame for that on Marvel studios. The thing about their style of film-making: Marvel’s special effects teams generate these big CGI set-pieces long before the movie releases– sometimes even before the script is finished. This is generally the reason many of Marvel’s third act battles feel similar. No matter what a director does for the rest of the movie, they seem to defer to Marvel Studios for huge chunks of the biggest action sequences. There doesn’t seem to be much room for original vision.

Shang-Chi came SO close to breaking Marvel Studios’ formulaic film-making. Yet everything about the movie felt like it was one-step-forward-two-steps-back for the brand. If you scoured the internet for all of a few minutes you could find a reasonable list of complaints MCU fans have had about the movies in recent years. All such problems are likely to be found in Shang-Chi as well. It’s just that this film handles them better. That’s arguably more frustrating though… If Shang-Chi hadn’t been attached to the MCU it may have taken a few more risks– and those risks could have taken this film from solid entertainment to outright action classic. Being a Marvel movie held this one back. But it also gave the film a built-in audience and turned it into a success. Can’t complain about that. Maybe Marvel will have finally escaped its comfort zone by the time a Shang-Chi sequel films…

Shang-Chi loses some points for some plot issues (and its whole third act). Still–its gorgeously rendered action sequences and layered performances were Pretty Darn Good and a step in the right direction for Marvel’s phase 4.

NOTE: It’s actually my favourite Marvel film since Infinity War.

Is the MCU formula becoming grating to you as it is to me? What did you think of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings? Please share your thoughts in the comments (no spoilers please). If you have any ideas for future articles, or any questions, let me know. Also be sure to Like this article on Facebook and share if you enjoyed!

Till next time,

Joe Morin

REVIEW METRIC: Don’t bother; If you’re bored; Worth a watch; Pretty darn good; Must see; Watch it A.S.A.P.

By Joseph Morin

Joe's passion for film and entertainment began at 7 years old when his younger brother demanded to watch Duel of the Fates every day for weeks (on DVD). Joe admired the sequence so much, he decided to dedicate his life to film-making and storytelling. He has a degree in Cinema and Media Studies from York University. Joe loves DC superheroes (especially Superman), the first six Star Wars movies, and arguing about media with anyone who will listen.

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