Summer movie season is always filled with plenty of competition for your entertainment dollar. Disney and Marvel Studios are keenly aware of that and their position in the industry. Leaning heavily into the rich and extensive history of kung fu films, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings kicks off the next generation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with a colorful and expressive bang.
When two runaway children are tracked down by their ancient and powerful father, they’re drawn into a supernatural world far beyond the reaches of their imaginations. I’ve heard some criticisms that the story is too derivative of other kung fu films, but there’s a reason many of the narrative elements have held up over time and this story pays homage to that.
Director and co-writer Daniel Destin Cretton has amassed quite the catalog so far. Films like The Glass Castle and Just Mercy show off the filmmaker’s heart and emotional awareness, and that’s a big part of what makes Shang-Chi work so well. Along with screenwriters Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham, they laid a grounded foundation for these characters so when the time comes for the audience to care about their journey(s), the investment is earned. Whether it’s through drunken karaoke or cultural family interactions, the traditional and contemporary sides of the equation are represented authentically. That kind of groundwork opened the door to some strong performances from a well-rounded cast.
There were some sizable empty shoes to step into, but Simu Liu nailed the lead role. Many MCU characters get their introduction as supporting characters in smaller roles, but Liu got a trial by fire which says a lot about the studio’s confidence in him. His temperament is just the right blend of not too serious and not too comedic, so the action works and the jokes work in synchronicity. I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but I think the MCU found one of its future stars.
Opposite Liu was Awkwafina. Her brand of humor is very specific but she also showed great dramatic range in The Farewell and, even though this is more of a comedic sidekick role, there’s more than enough substance there. Her chemistry with Liu is wonderful and it’s one of the most important parts of how the movie succeeds. Meng’er Zhang is going to be a fan favorite for her role as Shang’s sister Xialing. This was an impressive debut from her even though the majority of the emotional heavy lifting was placed elsewhere.
There are a lot of strong performances but, for my money, it was Tony Chiu-Wai Leung who had the make-or-break performance as Shang and Xialing’s father. Marvel has always done a wonderful job casting their “villains” and that stays true here. Leung plays a character who is mostly broad strokes during the first act but shows his vulnerability and complexity down the stretch. This story is as much his as anyone’s, even though he’s not the main character, and he owns that responsibility with intensity and grace.
The visual elements are what you’d expect from a big-budget Marvel blockbuster but with heightened, almost hyper-realistic, colors. Much of the production and set design is meant to pay homage to the cinematic path that was laid before it and it does so with plenty of imagination. It’s big, it’s bold, and it feels happier to embrace those elements than some of its cinematic counterparts that like gritty realism.
There were a lot of options when it came to how Disney/Marvel wanted to launch their next wave of theatrical titles and I think they made the right choice here. It’s a fun, new way to move forward and an important piece of representation for the Asian community on screen.
Recommendation: If you’re a hardcore MCU fan, you’ve probably already seen it but, if you were on the fence, Shang-Chi is a very enjoyable experience, especially if you grew up with Kung Fu movies.
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