‘Shang-Chi’ Review: The Marvel formula dulls its impact


For a franchise so large that its popularity is partially holding together international geopolitics, it’s interesting how little time Marvel has spent over the last four or five years devoting individual films to introducing their new heroes, who will presumably become the backbone of the franchise once all the contracts are fulfilled for their top-flight talent. Instead, they’ve chosen, much like their four-color ancestors, to introduce their newbie characters in surefire hits to make sure that they work (think how both Black Panther and the MCU’s Spider-Man were introduced back in Civil War) and to give them a sense of outright legitimacy from the get-go. After all, why would one devote a full-on film — a high-value proposition, full of risk like any other investment — to a character or property that isn’t a sure-fire hit? Once Marvel moved on from releasing two films a year to releasing three to now releasing four in the span of six months, those introductory films that remained on the schedule slowly grew further and further apart. Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man were separated by a year, and so was that latter film and Doctor Strange, but it was a three-year gap between that and Captain Marvel. Eventually, they didn’t need to spend much time introducing new characters in their own stories in order to keep the momentum going. That was, at least, until they made it to the Endgame and then needed fresh blood to prop the universe up like they were a vampire or a youth-obsessed venture capitalist raiding Silicon Valley blood banks for sustenance.

This places Daniel Deston Cretton’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings in some relatively interesting territory for the studio: it’s the first time they’ve introduced both a character and the actor playing them to mainstream audiences since Chris Hemsworth first showed off his chiseled body in Thor (remember that doofy haircut he had the first time out?). It seems to go fundamentally against the Marvel model, which stopped trying to find new talent sometime after Guardians and instead tried to slot as many possible familiar faces into roles, no matter how small, and this is the one true deviation from the formula that they’ve established that you’ll find in Cretton’s film. Happily, it’s a risk that pays off well, as Liu is a charming and endearing fellow, who has decent chops as a stuntman as well as an actor and will probably make great, must-see B-action films whenever Kevin Feige decides to make The Death of Shang-Chi or something. But a whole lot of how one will respond to Shang-Chi (pronounced Shaung-Chi, and the movie helpfully educates Western idiots like me on how to say it) will depend on whether you like what Marvel does, and how that’s applied to a semi-novel idea, and what that does to that concept as opposed to what another guiding ethos would.

Here’s what I mean by that: since the parts don’t matter as much as the whole, Marvel’s been able to reap heaps of rewards by having their individual films mimic other successful blockbusters, each of which was tested on some level by the prior box-office approval given to the movies they were drawing from. If you liked The Rocketeer or any manner of late ‘00s revisionist WWII cinema, you’d like Captain America; if you liked Star Wars or ‘80s-adjacent science fiction, you’d like Guardians; if you liked the visuals of something like Honey, I Shrunk the Kids!, you’d probably be a person who would be particularly excited for Ant-Man. Others managed to innovate before they did — based on Wonder Woman’s success, it wasn’t a surprise that Captain Marvel would be a hit — but Shang-Chi and Black Panther stand on their own for specific reasons centered around representation. Regardless of how you feel about the movie’s politics, its impact cannot be denied: It was novel and poignant for audiences to see an Afrofuturist society like Wakanda depicted on screen in a truly big-budget fashion, especially after years of Black Pain being a wellspring for Hollywood prestige, and it was a unique experience that only this studio was willing to explore.

Shang-Chi has the opportunity to do something similar in how it presents its perspective: it is one of the first Hollywood productions of this size and stature to truly place the Asian-American experience at the forefront of this type of fantasy adventure. One only need to look at Asian-inspired western fantasy films to see how often they’re rooted in white perspectives — I’m not even talking about Big Trouble in Little China, which relentlessly mocks Jack Burton, but something like 2007’s The Forbidden Kingdom, which starred Hong Kong screen legends like Jet Li, Jackie Chan and Liu Yeifei but is somehow told from the perspective of fucking Michael Anagaro — and realize how much of a lack there is of anything really speaking to that experience. Sure, Cretton tries, wisely rooting his feature in the tried and true old country/new country conflict between a traditionalist father versus his slightly Westernized son, though, instead of sharing different values, the Dad also is a nearly immortal warlord dubbed “The Mandarin” by his enemies (Tony Leung, who chafes against the screenplay) whose relationship with his son is strained by the fact that his kid, whom he trained as an assassin ran off to America and became a valet in San Francisco instead of taking over the family business. He lives a peaceful enough life there, but it’s all shattered when he’s attacked on a city bus by a couple of his father’s goons. As such, he and his pal Katy (Awkwafina) must head off to Hong Kong in order to investigate what his father’s doing and to find his sister (Meng’er Zhang), who has become a low-level gangster in his absence.

This sort of globetrotting adventure used to be the domain of companies other than Disney, but its cost has proven prohibitive over time, and as such we’ve come to accept less than we used to. It’s the Marvel formula, distilled: Cast right, write a few well-timed quips, try to give the impression that the fights are thrilling and well done, use surprisingly dodgy VFX, and, when all else fails, bring in familiar faces and remind everyone of the bigger picture. If you don’t like it, well, maybe they’ll fix it in a sequel or you’ll finally get it when the next Avengers movie rolls around. It strips each individual film of identity beyond the needs of the universe, and forces a kind of unnatural cohesion between disparate elements — these films want to breathe on their own, but can’t. Therefore the problems that plague each and every Marvel movie are present in Shang-Chi: the quips are forced and plentiful, from the YouTuber filming Shang-Chi’s first fight on a city bus to Awkwafina’s banter (though she is often funny); the action pales in comparison to even the most mediocre product released by Hong Kong filmmakers, though to Cretton’s credit, the fight scenes are at least comprehendible even if they’re full of motion blur and unnecessary CGI especially when they go full Lord of the Rings; the CGI backgrounds often look somewhat unfinished; and the cameos are plenty, as revealed to anyone who happened to watch the trailers. Together they have an effect that’s stifling as opposed to invigorating, which is what Ryan Coogler was able to do with Black Panther despite being beset by the same issues (though that film is unusually serious for a Marvel movie, perhaps due to Boseman’s gravitas).

I just couldn’t help but imagine what Shang-Chi might have been like had it been removed from the Marvel system. Keep the same cast, the same plot framework, the same director, hell, even the same fight choreographers: you would have a movie with a more confident sense of its identity as a piece of art rather than the fusion of art-product-episode that Marvel wishes for it to be. It may have been the safest route for Feige and company to go down, but it isn’t the most fun and it definitely isn’t the most meaningful. It’s the first time I can remember not feeling particularly passionately about a Marvel film, as well: having liked most of the first three phases (though not enough to rag on Martin Scorsese for having an opinion about them), it’s a weird thing to actively dislike Black Widow and feel genuinely nothing for Shang-Chi. Perhaps it’s the pattern finally making itself fully manifest, as each subsequent film in the series has been subject to decomposition, being successively stripped of its most meaningful assets simply by the passage and decay of time — those being a legacy of truly iconic storytelling to judiciously draw material from, unceasing momentum in the release schedule, plentiful star power overcoming weak scripting, and a clear series of goals — and what remains is the skeleton (or, to make the metaphor more accurate, the withered embalmed corpse), free of identifying features, impossible to distinguish from the fake ones surrounding it at the MCU carnival. All this is to say: I won’t be unhappy to see Shang-Chi again when he pops up in some inevitable side-quel, but I wish he weren’t beholden to shared-universe machinations, instead of being the master of his magical domain.