Kevin Feige and the folks over at Marvel have undoubtedly found a formula for success; the kind of formula that currently rules Hollywood with an iron fist. A formula so strong that most every film under the Marvel banner has more or less copied and pasted onto itself with overwhelmingly successful results. However, the formula is far from perfect and that’s largely due to the ever-glaring problems with their final acts. When Oscar-winning gamechangers like Black Panther suffer similar issues as the worst of the MCU — ahem, Thor: The Dark World — it’s time to start repairing the cracks.
Shang-Chi, the newest character introduced into the MCU arrives with a new set of inspirations and a much-welcomed new perspective. Director Destin Daniel Cretton, known for the criminally underseen Short Term 12 and the compelling Just Mercy injects a visual panache from the very opening that most Marvel films sorely lack. Taking cues from the works of Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee, to filmmakers like Ang Lee, Zhang Yimou, even The Matrix and Kung Fu Hustle, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings uses its martial arts influences to infuse a fresh new twist on the typical superhero action.
By introducing a new array of characters and fantastical worlds, Cretton does well by expanding the Marvel mythos to some compelling new directions. Backed by legendary cinematographer Bill Pope, Shang-Chi contains some of the most visually inventive set pieces to exist under the Marvel banner. An early action sequence on a bus is thrilling in ways even the best of Marvel films rarely deliver. Guided by excellent choreography by the late Brad Allan, the hand-to-hand combat sequences showcase that you don’t need planet-ending stakes in order to thrill your audience in a superhero blockbuster. It also helps that most of the action here is presented in fluid long takes that avoids editing overkill.
Star Simu Liu has all the physicality to be a lasting action hero, but his dramatic chops aren’t quite up to snuff. Wisely, Cretton surrounds him with a vast ensemble of actors who are all putting in the work, even when folks like Michelle Yeoh are relegated to being exposition machines. Liu is a likable enough screen presence, but not only does the character wind up getting lost within the chaos of his own movie, he’s perhaps the least interesting character in the film. Meng’er Zhang as Shang’s estranged sister, Xialing, who runs an underground fight club, is a much more layered and interesting hero. Admittedly, the one-two punch of Liu’s underwritten hero and the actor’s lack of range is done a greater disservice by pairing him against the incomparable Tony Leung as Shang’s father who also serves as the films villain. Leung is far and away the films most richly textured and complex character. Leung plays the villainous Xu Wenwu, aka The Mandarin, with pathos in a performance that’s almost too good for the film it’s contained within.
So much goodwill that Cretton garners is tossed aside for a tiring, uninspired final act that’s among the most ill-conceived, visually drab finales in a blockbuster since every film with a $150 million+ budget contained a climactic sky portal. The climax trades in the slick, visually stunning set pieces for a hodgepodge of CG and incomprehensible spectacle. Instead of clean, engaging fight sequences that features actual humans performing impressive stunt work, Cretton shifts the action into large CG monstrosities that smash against each other with no sense of visual cohesion. Shang-Chi also has a serious issue with introducing compelling characters, only to not utilize them past their initial entrance. The funniest character in the film, someone I can’t actually mention without giving away major spoilers, is introduced, only to literally be thrown into the background. Awkwafina, who is reliably fun as Shang’s best friend, Katy, who follows Shang on his adventure, is given a forced, late-in-the-game character arc that feels too underdeveloped and lazy to make much of an impact.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is largely a refreshing new spin on the Marvel formula until it isn’t. It occasionally flirts with greatness, but squanders so much of what makes it stand out from the normal superhero crowd in its muddled climax. While there’s much to commend, this is yet another instance of the Marvel formula in need of some retooling.