As a longtime devotee of might Marvel mags, I am familiar with the Chinese hero who is known to be a master of kung fu. In the lead-up to the character making his debut on the big screen, I still had an admission of ignorance to sheepishly put forth. Because reading isn’t the same as hearing, and because I am woefully inept at names and language different from the very whitebread culture in which I was raised (and I’m not so hot at those either), I didn’t know how to pronounce Shang-Chi. Among U.S. moviegoers, I’m likely not alone, and the creators who toil within the Marvel-industrial complex clearly suspect as much. At about the point that the new film Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings clicks into its second act, the title titan (played by Simu Liu) takes care to articulate the correct pronunciation of his name for his traveling companion, his longtime friend Katy (Awkwafina), repeating it several times. It’s structured as a comic moment — and a good, funny one at that — but it serves a clear purpose. Needing the coaching, I appreciate the tactic, even as I recognize that the purposefulness of the moment underscores the way offerings from Marvel Studios as products. Other filmmakers get to base their choices on what serves the film. Marvel filmmakers, it can often seem, are foremost obliged to fulfill the mandates of the greater corporate storytelling apparatus.
For the love of Kirby, I am absolutely not trying to clamp jumper cables onto the debate over whether Marvel movies are cinema. I don’t even intend for the above observation to be condemnation or even particularly negative. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is highly entertaining, like most of its predecessors in the string of movies that popularized the phrase “cinematic universe.” The characterizations are engaging, the humor is crisp and good-natured, and the action is well-staged, at least until the inevitable CGI smear of a finale. Marvel movies are the gumdrops of modern entertainment. They’re all shaped roughly the same, set apart only by their different bright colors. And they’re tasty without a whit of nutrition. The sense of repetition is compounded by the COVID-scrambled Marvel release scheme has the misfortune of placing Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings back-to-back with, and within weeks of, Black Widow. Both films feature origin-story flashbacks to children abusively trained to be killing machines and draw at least some of their emotional heft from the revival of a sibling relationship scarred by the betrayal of abandonment. The fireworks are still nifty, but the flaring starbursts do look the same.
Director Destin Daniel Cretton does well with the material. He doesn’t merge his own artistic vision with the Marvel house style in the manner of the strongest entries in the canon, but he skillfully colors inside the lines. The emphasis on hand-to-hand, martial arts–based combat, especially in the first half of the film, brings an added level of complexity, which he meets with welcome solidity. Sequences that evoke Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the oeuvre of Jackie Chan come off as respectable echoes of superior predecessors. It feels appropriate that Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings gratefully acknowledges the film culture of the country where a significant portion of it is set. Even the casting of Hong Kong acting legend Tony Leung as Shang-Chi’s father, and the antagonist of the narrative, comes across less as calculation and more like a gracious gesture of prioritizing authenticity over appropriation. That Leung gives far and away the best performance in the film reinforces the wisdom of the choice.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings fulfills its determined role as blast of visual-storytelling razzle-dazzle, with little thematic or political heft beyond the representation of a superhero of Asian descent (which, to be fair, is no small thing). That’s a fine accomplishment to celebrate. Maybe it’s just another brick in Marvel’s wall. But that wall gets bigger, sturdier, and more impressive with each new act of movie masonry.