Sunday, September 05, 2021

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

It's almost ancient history now, but there was a point when the conventional wisdom was that superhero movies would rise and fall on their villains. The heroes, after all, wore masks and were simple do-gooders who had to be around for the next movie, while the bad guy was a meaty role with a rise and fall. The Burton/Schumacher Batmovies could swap new actors into the role of Bruce Wayne without a lot of complaint - and Jack Nicholson was billed above Michael Keaton in the first, with the bad guys being the things people pointed to later. Even the Sam Raimi Spider-Movies had a little bit of that going on; Alfred Molina's terrific Otto Octavius is a big part of why the second is a favorite versus the third with its forgettable Topher Grace.

The current run of Marvel movies has never really been about that; as they built to the Avengers, charismatic leads the audience would want to watch interact were important, and villains were either disposable or supporting characters like Loki (or Magneto, if you include the X-movies). In twenty-five movies, by and large fairly enjoyable, there have only been a handful of really memorable bad guys: Kurt Russell's Ego in Guardians 2, Michael B. Jordan in Black Panther, maybe Hugo Weaving's Red Skull, possibly Thanos (although he's more about scale than anything Josh Brolin does). Tony Leung Chiu-Wai is arguably the first Marvel Cinematic Universe villain to really overshadow the hero in the way that used to be the case.

It's an understandable choice - Leung is terrific, after all, - but it means I don't really know how much I'm anticipating future Shang-Chi movies as a result of so much of this one being tied up in Leung's Wenwu. Simi Liu is plenty likable, but he's not quite able to assert ownership of his movie in quite the same way as the other Marvel leads have. It's fine that he's part of a great ensemble, but I feel like I've got more concrete reasons for wanting more of Awkwafina and Meng'er Zhang in sequels than Liu himself. That's going to be the challenge for Cretton (if he returns) and Marvel, although the hints that they're pulling from Matt Fraction's Iron Man run and maybe his and Ed Brubaker's Iron Fist comics (it sure seems like they were referencing the Seven Capital Cities of Heaven at a couple points) suggest they'll have interesting material to work with.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to catching it again, probably on an Imax screen after watching it from maybe too close in 3D this time. It's a fun 3D watch - given the amount of stereoscopic techs listed up with the cinematography folks rather than down in the visual effects credits, I think Marvel is certainly working harder to build a good 3D experience than many other studios, which makes Disney's abandoning of 3D discs a bummer - but not an essential one. It certainly seems like it has re-watch potential, at least.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 4 September 2021 in AMC Boston Common #18 (first-run, RealD 3D DCP)

A funny thing about Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is how it is in large part made up of pieces that Marvel couldn't use elsewhere as much as his original 1970s comics: On the one side, an Iron Man villain who no longer works as his arch-nemesis when targeting a global market; on the other, what looks an awful lot like Iron Fist material that was too large in scale for that character's Netflix series. Those elements are almost literally this character's DNA comes from in the film, pulling him away from his pulpier origins toward something which fits more comfortably in the Marvel movie mold. It's a good mold and Shang-Chi is a pretty good movie, but it could maybe use a little less Marvel Universe and a little more Master of Kung Fu.

Shang-Chi is the son of Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), a warlord whose mysterious armbands have allowed him to live a thousand years and wield incredible power; he went looking for a hidden city 25 years ago and found Ying Li (Fala Chen). There was no happily ever after, though, and in the present, Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) has been living in San Francisco as "Shaun" for ten years since escaping his father's fortress, happily underachieving as a hotel valet with best friend Katy Chen (Nora "Awkwafina" Lum). The past he'd thought he left behind is about to catch up with him, as his father's men come to steal the jade amulet his mother gave him, as well as the one in the hands of Shang-Chi's sister Xialing (Meng'er Zhang), who has similarly fled their father and made her way to Macau.

Shang-Chi's name may be in the title and Simu Lieu may be billed first, but for all that there's good material to build around him here - or, from another perspective, important parts of his character like why he never went back for his sister that are just completely glossed over - that will probably have to wait for a sequel, because this is very much Wenwu's story. It's not so much that Tony Leung Chiu-Wai steals the film as much as how, when a production manages to land Leung, it's only natural to give as much of it to him as possible. He makes Wenwu one of Marvel's best villains yet, effortlessly carrying off the haughty belief that he is born to rule in a way that makes him seem dangerous rather than a simplified cartoon - watch how he quietly dominates a "family dinner" scene - but also shifts that charisma in a way that makes his love for Li genuine. It drives the back half of the movie in clever fashion, because it makes Wenwu both villain and victim, but the latter doesn't let him off the hook - Leung, director Destin Daniel Cretton, and his co-writers make the toxicity of his grief clear. They don't make Wenwu a sympathetic villain, but one can empathize.

The main cast is pleasant enough, though - Simu Liu and Awkwafina have a fun best-buddies-who-could-be-more chemistry that doesn't feel generic, fun to watch with Liu doing a nice job of revealing how his secret past has been a weight for Shang-Chi, while Awkwafina makes Katy one of the most entertaining normal people pulled into a superhero story Marvel's done; she's given a chance to be funny, gobsmacked, and useful. Meng'er Zhang has an auspicious movie debut as Xialing, giving weight to her issues with both father and brother, while Florian Muneanu makes a henchman much more fun than he could be when given a chance. It also never hurts to be able to pull out Hong Kong action legends Michelle Yeoh and Yuen Wah at the halfway point.

It also doesn't hurt to have Bradley Allan on hand for second-unit and action work; a veteran of Jackie Chan's stunt team, he and Cretton do excellent work together when it's time for martial arts, with an early fight scene on a crowded runaway bus a standout that has a lot of Hong Kong in its DNA. What's equally impressive is the way they are able to downshift at points, especially in Wenwu and Li's first encounter, as the combat becomes dance and a terrific example of how to get emotion out of action sequences. Even as the film begins to expand into something larger, Cretton and company do their best to keep things focused on how the action is an expression of what's going on for the Xus.

The story can't quite escape the pull of the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, of course, and not just in how the filmmakers spend a fair bit more time than necessary on how Xu Wenwu and the "Mandarin" from Iron Man 3 are and are not connected. Shang-Chi has never just been the Master of Kung Fu, of course, and the way Cretton and his team come up with nifty ways to use the Ten Rings is impressive (akin to how the Russos figured out ways for Captain America to do more with his shield than throwing it), but once it's revealed that Wenwu is not the final boss and the village of Ta Lo is guarding something bigger, it's almost inevitable that the film wil head to a big, effects-heavy finale, which means there's only so much room for punching and kicking, with Shang-Chi just too small compared to what he's fighting for the sort of straight-ahead action choreography that Allan's mentor is known for, which (fairly or unfairly) is often more impressive than the big digital rendering.

And then there's the inevitable mid-credits piece to connect everything even more directly to the franchise, because Marvel's got no reason to stop doing what has worked so well for them over the past decade or so. Heck, it works here, more or less; folks will come out of this movie wanting to see Shang-Chi and his supporting cast in more adventures on top of maybe wanting to see more from Tony Leung Chiu-Wai. Fans of the Hong Kong action that originally inspired Shang-Chi will probably wish there was a little bit more of that, but that doesn't make it any less a reliably pretty-darn-good Marvel adventure.

Full review at eFilmCritic

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