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Shang-Chi review: Marvel retcons history, delivers new magic

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Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, a Marvel Cinematic Universe film, begins like a fairy tale. An ancient warlord discovered ten magical rings that granted him immense power and immortality, which he used to conquer the world. He accumulated power for a thousand years until he fell in love and abandoned his quest. After his love was lost, he went back to secret warmongering, losing his family in the process. The story picks up in the present day when he decides it’s time to reunite his family — violently.

This mythic opening neatly sums up all of Shang-many Chi’s aspects, which he mostly succeeds in folding together. It’s a remarkably well-paced action film and a serviceable family drama with comedy elements in the first half. It’s a surprising but languid fantasy film in its second installment, where, like Black Widow before it, the expectations of a Marvel conclusion clash with the rest of the story. Shang-Chi is refreshing in its lack of concern for big-picture universe-building details, as it is the first MCU film set firmly post-Endgame since 2019’s Spider-Man: Far From Home (a Sony production). Instead, the movie focuses on an extremely personal story that also implies exciting things about the future of Marvel movies.

Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) appears to be the most ordinary character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe at first glance. He goes by the anglicized name “Shaun” and lives a low-key life in San Francisco, parking cars at a boring hotel valet job by day and drinking with his best friend Katy (Nora “Awkwafina” Lum) at night. They’re a bunch of slackers who are capable of much more, as their friends and family constantly remind them, but to no avail. The audience and Katy learn that Shang-Chi was trained as a child to be one of the deadliest fighters alive — and that he is still extremely good at combat.

Shang-Chi draws yellow magic power from the ten ringsImage: Marvel Studios

The bus fight occurs early in Shang-Chi, and it’s a great example of what the film excels at: a long spectacle that combines effects-heavy action with exciting fight choreography and personal stakes. Every fight scene in Shang-Chi advances the audience’s understanding of characters and their relationships, with a few minor exceptions and one major exception. The fight scenes often do a better job of this than the plot, which is heavy on exposition and eager to move its characters from one scene to the next, from San Francisco’s Chinatown to Macau’s neon nightlife.

Wenwu (Tony Leung), Shang-father, Chi’s is introduced to the audience through narration, but viewers get to know him through combat — first as a warlord who single-handedly humbles entire armies, then as a man on the verge of a forbidden land. When he meets Jiang Li (Fala Chen), the guardian, their blows gradually become steps in a dance in which they fall in love. Similarly, Shang-true Chi’s identity is revealed during the bus fight. Physical confrontations are used throughout the film to help him overcome his family’s history and the tragedy that forced him and his sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) to leave home and not see each other for a decade.

Shang-Chi is, at its heart, a family drama about three people coming to terms with long-suppressed anger and grief. Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12, Just Mercy), who also co-wrote the script with Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham, unfolds this drama tenderly and with plenty of humor — anchored by Tony Leung’s outstanding performance, which brings a level of subtle humanity to every moment he’s onscreen.

It feels like a betrayal when the color drains from the frame and the cliché CGI third-act battles begin. The film pivots to become a fantasy film in its second half, transporting its heroes to a beautiful land of myth, at the cost of gradually introducing a threat unrelated to the story’s stakes. It’s all in the name of a long battle against CGI creations that, despite being unlike anything seen in a Marvel film thus far, still swallow up human characters at the pinnacle of their arcs.

Wenwu and Ying Li fight and fall in love in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.Photo Credit: Marvel Studios

The change is also a disservice not only to Leung and the other actors (some of whom will come as a shock to long-time MCU fans) but also to cinematographer Bill Pope (The Matrix), who captures the action clearly without succumbing to the Marvel impulse to shoot fights with wide shots and no subjectivity. Fights can be seen through windows, against the light, from behind, above, and below. On the screen, Shang-international Chi’s team of fight coordinators does not go unnoticed.

Shang-Chi is more interested in retcons than future developments once it has established its place in the Marvel universe. Prior plot points from the Iron Man films about the Ten Rings terrorist organization and its puppet leader, The Mandarin, are reworked in this film. It creates a cohesive new status quo that mocks the source material’s racist stereotypes while offering a new and less problematic path forward. It’s an intriguing bit of IP housekeeping that aims to turn an embarrassing product of the time into a viable 21st-century franchise, and Cretton and Callaham deserve credit for crafting a story that accomplishes these goals while still telling a human story. The script’s light world-building reinforces the notion that Shang-Chi isn’t just a character in this universe, he’s tied to its future in a way that may be made more explicit in future films.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings has a fairy tale ending as well. After returning home after their miraculous journey, some of the characters return to their mundane lives, unsure how they will ever live in the mundane world they left behind. Then comes the obvious response: they don’t have to. From here on out, things are going to be strange and exciting for them. Hopefully, this holds for us as well.

Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings premieres only in theaters on Sept. 3, 2021.

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