Endure the Bad for the Really Good – Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

The films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe tend to follow a fairly set formula at this point, especially for the origin stories. You get the standard hero’s journey archetype of an otherwise mild-mannered person thrust into a supernatural situation beyond their control. There are a couple of good action scenes to make up for the almost embarrassing CGI battles and/or quick-cut stunt shows where you can’t tell what’s going on. There’s a fair amount of humor and pithy one-liners. There’s usually an unnecessary love interest. The climactic fight typically comes down to the protagonist clashing with a bigger, more powerful version of themselves and embracing their destiny by overpowering their foil. The credits scene will either be a quick joke or a tease for future MCU projects and/or Disney+ shows.

There’s a reason that director Denis Villeneuve went on record last week in an interview noting that most of the MCU is just copy/paste. Of course the fanboys went apeshit and entertainment websites salivated over the latest flame war that would drive traffic. But the thing is, he’s absolutely right. That’s not a dig on the MCU in general, it’s just a statement of fact. We’re 25 movies deep into this thing by now, with a dozen more on the way over the next three years. The powers that be at Marvel and Disney found a pattern that works enough to basically print money, so they keep coming back to it. That’s not a qualitative judgment, just the reality of the industry and of franchise fare as a whole. Do you honestly believe there are nine Fast and Furious movies because of Oscar-worthy performances or stories? No, of course not. It’s a constant, almost unflinching formula that taps directly into what their audience wants, no matter how shitty it is, because they’ll keep shelling out cash. Same goes here. Whether you’re a fan or not, that’s just fact, and I consider myself an overall fan of the MCU.

That doesn’t mean there’s not room for some high art to be had, especially when a filmmaker is allowed to depart from the norms ever so slightly and introduce their own creative touches. It’s why an Oscar-winner like Chloé Zhao goes from Nomadland to the upcoming Eternals. Just because there’s a pattern doesn’t mean you can’t deviate and have fun. In fact, that’s what tends to make the best films of the MCU, from James Gunn giving us delightfully silly Guardians of the Galaxy romps to Scott Derrickson using his horror expertise to create an otherworldly feel in Doctor Strange.

Well now, Destin Daniel Cretton, who previously helmed the acclaimed drama Just Mercy, gets his turn at the wheel with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. This latest entry into the MCU not only brings in a new hero, but it presents a unique opportunity for the Marvel movies to sort of reinvent themselves and go “off-script,” so to speak. Cretton’s greatest strength from Just Mercy was in getting strong performances from his cast (particularly Jamie Foxx and Michael B. Jordan) by leaning hard into their sense of empathy and humanity. There’s a good deal of that on display here as well.

The film is overall quite good, though it must be noted that some of the creative choices were way off base, which renders the movie challenging in places. Thankfully, the good stuff really outweighs it, but you do need a good deal of patience to get through it all. Sometimes Cretton makes great use of his chances to separate the movie from the rest of the MCU pack, and other times he finds his better moments in simply enhancing the more formulaic elements.

So in celebration of that, let’s switch things up a bit in this review. Rather than a straightforward plot summary and critique of elements as we go, I’m going to dispense with the bad shit right away. This movie has dominated the box office for the past couple weeks, so if you haven’t seen it yet, there’s little I can say to encourage or discourage you from doing so. However, if you do still want to, or if you’re on the fence, it’s good to know what you’re in for, so you can brace yourself for the cheesier elements.

First things first, there are not ten rings. There are ten bracelets. Throughout the film, they’re worn on a character’s forearms, not their fingers. Unless you’re hanging towels or making an Olympic flag, there are no rings that big. Calling them rings is a misnomer. It’s even worse that the Mandarin (Tony Leung; the character goes by “Wenwu,” replacing the original character, Fu Manchu, for obvious reasons) refers to his criminal organization as the Ten Rings, as that leads to confusing dialogue when the name is brought up. At times it’s hard to tell what’s being referred to. It also doesn’t help that the “rings” have no defined powers. Apart from making Wenwu nigh-immortal, the best way to describe what they do is, “stuff” and “things.” There really is no “legend” to speak of, even when referring to the crime syndicate. Honestly, the ten rings Udo Kier wears in Swan Song have a more compelling backstory.

Second, there’s Nora Lum, aka Misspelled Bottled Water. I’m sick of her, you’re probably sick of her, and if you’re on Black Twitter, you’re DEFINITELY sick of her. Here she plays Katy, a hotel valet and best friend to Shang-Chi, known to her as Shaun (Simu Liu). Much of the first act is an endurance test, daring you to walk out of the film as she plasters the screen with her continually unfunny antics. MBW herself tried to humanize the character in the press junket by saying she’s “thrust into a world where she doesn’t know what to do,” which is a complete lie, as the moment Shaun decides to leave for his adventure, she insists on tagging along. You’re not “thrust” anywhere if you go voluntarily on no information. She’s meant to be an audience cipher, the “normal” type who reacts to everything wondrous going on around her, but she is dead weight for pretty much the entire movie, until she’s not, which is even more insulting to our intelligence. Because you see, in order for her to have something to do, and because we have to justify her presence at all by making her special, she prepares for the final battle by getting about two hours of archery training, and suddenly she’s a better shot than Hawkeye. Bull. SHIT!

Finally, there’s one of the more baffling decisions in MCU history, with the film doubling down on one of the worst moves in the entire canon. For reasons known but to God, Ben Kingsley is back as Trevor Slattery. You might remember him as the actor who pretended to be the Mandarin in Iron Man 3, a fake-out that angered and annoyed countless fans. My brother-in-law was particularly pissed, as the Mandarin was his favorite villain, and that’s how the MCU decided to do the deed. So somehow, this character makes a return, he has a CGI hundun that he calls Morris (it looks like an abominable hybrid of a tardigrade and the dog/footstool from Beauty and the Beast), and the movie goes out of its way to give him a redemption arc. Why?! He offers no comic relief, and his mere existence brings the film to a screeching halt whenever he’s on screen. I get that Disney wants to sell hundun toys, but goddamn this was a stupid idea.

Now, once you get past all that, this actually becomes one of the better MCU entries of the last few years. The story pays homage to classic Asian cinema, from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to Seven Samurai, both in terms of plotting and theme. The filmmaking style also echoes the classics, especially in the martial arts choreography. There are some really decent action sequences here, especially a very close-quarters fight on a city bus between Shang-Chi and Razor Fist, played by Florian Munteanu, better known as Viktor Drago from Creed. But even outside the bigger set pieces, there’s some absolutely gorgeous fight cinematography in the more intimate moments, like the sparring match between Wenwu and his future wife Ying Li (Fala Chen), depicted in the expository montage. And of course, if you get Michelle Yeoh in a movie, you just have to give her some acrobatic ass-kickery to display. Same goes for Shaun’s sister Xu Xialing, played by Meng’er Zhang. Even Benedict Wong, returning as Woo for the film’s main cameo, gets a moment in the spotlight squaring off against Abomination for a couple seconds.

The plot is basic, but full of possibilities. Wenwu has lived for 1,000 years possessing the bracelets and affecting some of the biggest power shifts in the world. When he sought the mystical hidden land of Ta Lo, he met Li, eventually deciding to put aside his conquests and have a family, though he still trained Shang-Chi as an assassin until his teenage years. When word reaches Shang-Chi that his sister is in danger, he returns to China, only to discover that his sister has become a better assassin in secret, and that their father is trying to return to Ta Lo, believing there is a powerful magic there that can restore the deceased Li to life.

It’s a story we’ve all seen plenty of times before, but it’s executed quite well. Part of that is because the cast (save MBW) is quite strong, but what really sells it is how Cretton puts his own spin on the core MCU elements. For one thing, it’s made explicitly clear early on that Shaun and Katy are not a couple, nor will they be (at least not in this movie). As much as I don’t like Katy as a character or MBW’s performance, it is refreshing to know right from the off that she’s not going to be a romantic interest/damsel in distress MacGuffin. Shaun still loves her as a friend, but there’s no dire need to save her if push comes to shove, no patronizing kiss at the end. We still have to endure her singing “A Whole New World” at karaoke, but that’s neither here nor there.

Second, while the climactic battle is essentially a two-tiered battle of Same vs. Same, it’s done in a creative way. Shaun isn’t trying to defeat his father, but save him. The giant CGI beasts fighting in the foreground are callbacks to classic Asian mythology and cinema. More importantly, both fights are lit and choreographed well enough that we in the audience can actually see what’s going on. Imagine that. Turns out if you let people actually see shit they might like it.

But the biggest accomplishment of the film is making Wenwu into a truly tragic villain. There’s a beautiful sadness to his character, a woeful irony to his quixotic endeavors. He’s not just some pastiche evil monster or power-hungry corporate d-bag. He’s a fully fleshed-out character with a relatable pain in his life, driven by that guilt and grief to make things right, regardless of collateral damage. While morally wrong, anyone can still concede that were they in his shoes, the thought might at least cross their mind. Only once before has the MCU given us that well drawn of a villain, and that was Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger in Black Panther. After him, you can maybe make an argument for Michael Keaton’s Vulture in Spider-Man Homecoming, but that’s it. Wenwu presents a more believable threat with more pathos in one damn movie than Thanos had in two whole films and a half dozen cameos. If this can be replicated in future films, it’ll be a huge step forward for the franchise.

Phase Four of the MCU is underway, with two films released so far in 2021 and two more coming in the fall months. And thus far, Denis Villeneuve has been proven right. Both Black Widow and Shang-Chi adhere pretty closely to the formula. But unlike Natasha’s half-assed send-off, Destin Daniel Cretton makes sure to add his own signature touches to the familiar in Shang-Chi, elevating it above the standard output. There are some shockingly bad choices on display, but the vast majority of the film tweaks things just enough to spark the imagination and keep the audience’s attention joyfully rapt. After 25 films, that’s no small feat.

Grade: B

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What are you most looking forward to seeing in the upcoming MCU films? Why would anyone sing “Hotel California” at karaoke, with the song trails off for over a minute and you’re just standing there doing nothing? Let me know!

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