Marvel’s Master of Kung Fu Takes Center Stage
DIRECTED BY DESTIN DANIEL CRETTON/2021
After a year-and-a-half in the wilderness, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is back and kicking on the big screen. A mere few months ago, there was Black Widow. Now we have the major debut of a brand-new hero and his own world unto itself, Shang-Chi. (Before the year is out, these films are scheduled to be joined by The Eternals and Spider-Man: No Way Home).
It would be great to report that the MCU is back with a vengeance or some such hyperbole, but that just wouldn’t be altogether true. While both films have their strong points (Scarlett Johansson’s Avenger faring better overall), neither are top tier super-fodder.
Far more lighthearted is Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Marvel Studio’s idea of a martial arts movie. Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton (Just Mercy; The Glass Castle), the film manages to perform its MCU due diligence for at least the first half before losing its luster with the inevitable overly-CGI-ed finale.
The most impressive physical combat sequences are early on, the first in a public bus (when our hero’s inherent chops are revealed) and the second on high-rise exterior scaffolding. From that point, the film’s abundance of highly promoted (and quite impressive) practical martial arts are unceremoniously upstaged by an even more abundant flurry of digital effects depicting lots of whooshing magic, mythical beasts, wild environments, and impossible stunts. When practical martial arts choreography is “enhanced” with CGI, particularly when such technology is used to make characters appear to leap further or hit harder, it does any true physicality a huge disservice.
Which leads to a bigger problem with Shang-Chi… Though quite fun and likeable in the moment, the film can’t help but ultimately feel… inauthentic. That may seem like an odd criticism for a movie rooted in a 1970s comic book (Marvel’s Master of Kung Fu) that itself sprung from the kung fu craze of its broader popular culture.
But more so than most Marvel films, there’s a heavy perception of the disposable, of simply going through the expected motions. Whereas many of Marvel’s best films have heart and even bear some witness to their director’s interests and even passions (Iron Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange, Avengers: Infinity War), this one lacks those attributes. On top of that, it also goes visually grey and murky in its third act. This is most unfortunate, as Shang-Chi is a major effort on the studio’s behalf to represent a culture and people different from those it’s typically dwelled upon.
This not to take anything away from the film’s ace cast, all of whom fully commit to this often exposition-heavy film and the wealth of physical effort it demands. Simu Liu (of the beloved television show Kim’s Convenience) satisfyingly takes the lead as the title hero. When we meet him, he’s dodging his destiny, making a living parking cars in San Francisco under an assumed name with his friend who’s a girl (but not his girlfriend), Katy.
Katy is played by the ubiquitous Awkwafina, who’s admittedly funny enough here doing her usual schtick; though only a few years into her fame, it’s already growing long in the tooth. Humor-wise, the movie tries hard and often, though its idea of comedy relief is to cut to its protagonists onstage at a karaoke bar, going full bore. For some reason, the filmmakers are convinced that the mere mention of the song “Hotel California” by The Eagles, apropos to nothing, is great comic fodder.
The notion of The Ten Rings criminal organization has been kicking around in the MCU since very beginning. Though it’s been many years, much of Shang-Chi is devoted to cleaning up the studio’s Iron Man 3 problem. It was in that film that it was revealed that the villainous organization known as The Ten Rings that has been plaguing Tony Stark was actually a front headed by an industrious homicidal lava man played by Guy Pearce. Iron Man’s traditional comic book big bad, The Mandarin, turned out to literally be a phony- a hired actor played Ben Kingsley. For no solidly discernible reason, Kingsley’s dopey character returns in Shang-Chi. He’s on hand to serve as yet more comedy relief as we learn the true nature of The Ten Rings.
Hint: It has much to do with Shang-Chi’s father, the powerful Wenwu, played by the great Tony Leung. This father/son dynamic is wrought with heavy baggage- one of many similarities that one could point out between Shang-Chi and the super-successful Black Panther. Both films are comprised of predominately non-Caucasian cast members, and both whisk the viewer off to a heretofore unseen exotic land. Shang-Chi, though, is no Black Panther– though Marvel fans will certainly get enough of a kick out of it.