Marvel Monday - Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Poseur – Noun: a person who pretends to be what he or she is not : an affected or insincere person.
In the lead up to revitalizing my interest in getting the site back up and running again, I’d binged a fair number of movies, many of them showing up in our current #MovieMonday segments. I didn’t write reviews for all of them, figuring that I could always remember them and sit and write reviews that way…like reviewers from the long lost days where home media copies just simply weren’t a thing. A week ago, I sat down and tried to do that with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
And I couldn’t remember a damn thing about it.
That’s not a good sign, so last night I sat down to try and refresh my memory…and that takes us to the opening of this review: the definition of poseur. We’ll get to that, rest assured my dear reader, but first, a synopsis:
Shaun has a secret. Although he might look like a normal valet parking expensive cars with his friend Katy, turns out he’s actually the son of an immortal warlord and a woman from a mystical Chinese village. Trained as an assassin throughout his youth, he must use these skills to track down his long lost sister before confronting their father as he attempts to unleash an unspeakable evil onto the world.
The thing you have to know about Shang-Chi is that it’s really trying to be the best of Asian cinema: the epic vistas, scores upon scores of extras, the elaborate martial arts, often times done in long takes and a mysticism that is equal parts wonderous and terrifying.
And it fails at pretty much all of them.
The epic vistas are very blatantly digital. “Epic” fight scenes consist of like, 15 people tops. The martial arts sequences aren’t bad per se, but they’re surrounded by so much digital effects that said effects end up distracting the viewer from what we’re supposed to be there for: the chop socky! I will say that the mysticism works…but the problem is that it’s not really tethered to the more interesting aspects of the Marvel Universe that I COULD have been. To elaborate further on some of these, we have to dive deep for a moment and take a look at Shang-Chi’s comic origins.
It's the early 70s…and kung fu is big. Not only in the cinemas, as Bruce Lee was making his presence known of the big screen (albeit tragically brief), but also on TV thanks to the popularity of the Kung Fu TV show with David Carradine. As such, writer Steve Englehart and artist Jim Starlin shopped around a kung fu themed comic book. DC proved to be shortsighted, thinking this cinematic phase would die out quickly and thus the pair took their concept to the House of Ideas itself, Marvel. Marvel had some notes, notably that the main character had to be half-white (ugh) and that he had to be the unknown son of a recent Marvel acquisition: the pulp villain Fu Manchu. As the series continued to run, the artwork started to steer more and more into the character’s primary influence: Bruce Lee himself.
That little aside brings us full circle: If you’re gonna make a film about a character based on Bruce Lee, then brother, you better bring the Bruce…and sadly, this film doesn’t. Like I said, the martial arts sequences aren’t bad. They’re halfway decent by American standards. But for fans of Hong Kong cinema? Man…get this weak ass shit outta here. Compare Shang-Chi to, say, a random Donnie Yen film or hell, even the old 70s films of Bruce Lee himself and you find fight direction and choreography that is exhilarating. I mean, by the end of the fight sequence, you’re sweating like you were in there throwing punches and kicks! Here, well, like I said, it’s serviceable. It’s the difference between going to your favorite hole in the wall authentic Chinese cuisine restaurant and warming up a PF Chang’s skillet meal at home: the former is an experience while the latter just keeps you from being hungry.
Let’s get to the other main thing that kills this film for me: the virtual landscape. You see, part of the wonder of setting your film in the East are all the different jaw-dropping vistas you’re able to capture, for example the films of Zhang Yimou. Given the recent trend in Hollywood kissing China’s kiester (and rightly so given the emerging market there), how hard would it have been to sweet talk the government in giving the crew access to some of these fantastic landscapes? Especially since the House of Mouse has more money than it’ll EVER know what to do with? On the other hand, let’s assume for comedy’s sake that Disney actually was one of those civic-minded corporations that wouldn’t want to do business with a country known for human rights abuses and thus would either opt to look for locations elsewhere or create them digitally. Why on earth would you NOT choose the former before being forced to rely on the latter? Well, to be honest, I phrased that very specifically because I suspect that given the fact the film was being shot during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, it likely WAS a better idea to just keep the entire production locked mostly in Fox Studios in Sydney Australia to keep cast and crew safe in a controlled environment. But boy howdy does the film suffer for this.
Last in our negative column is the wasted potential of the film. Yes, I admit that the big bad, The Dweller in Darkness, does indeed harken from the pages of the comics, but at the same time, there’s not even a hint of Marvel’s other, more notable eastern influenced big bad…say it with me now:
I mean, come on, we’ve got the Joker-fish looking dragon of Ta Lo fighting the Dweller, but you mean to tell me we can’t work in a quick nod or even historic cameo? Hell, it was Foom who was the source of the comics’ Mandarin’s Rings, you mean to tell me we couldn’t get a nod in this film’s prologue? Look, I know I’m being a little hypocritical here as I often chastise my friends for having expectations when going into a film as opposed to letting the filmmaker take them on the intended journey and judging the work by that, but man, what a missed opportunity.
Okay, I’m tired of flinging poop at this film, let’s say something positive: the cast here is pretty good. I’ll address my biggest fear first: I was scared that Awkwafina was going to be the stereotypical comic relief sidekick. In some ways, she is, but the fact that she also gets to be a serious character in the film offset that and really worked in her favor. Another plus to her performance? Oh man, she gave off such a strong Carrie Fisher vibe, even with her tone of voice. I mean, there’s smartass and then there’s smartass with a razor blade tongue and Awkwafina definitely fell into that latter category. I was truly impressed. Simu Liu does a fine job in the title role, deftly going from playful to serious in a way that keeps his character interesting and sympathetic. Meng’er Zhang as Shang-Chi’s sister, Xu Xialing, has a fantastic femme fatale vibe going and oddly I found her more engaging as a martial artist than I did Shang-Chi. Lastly, there’s Tony Leung as Xu Wenwu…essentially the comics’ Mandarin while moving away from the dated and racially insensitive term. Or, as the movie points out, “how can an orange be threatening?” True that. Honestly, Leung’s performance probably carries the most weight throughout the film: you’re never allowed to forget he IS the villain, but we’re also given glimpses of the portions of him that are indeed a good man and one that cares deeply for his family. When he dies, he does so for the right reasons, not the usual ‘I’m the baddie so I’m gonna cackle as I fall to my doom’ antagonist demise.
That’s probably the saddest thing about this film: everything surrounding the cast failed them. Perhaps these things were casualties to the pandemic that was going on at the time, who can say? But we’re left with a film that’s trying to be something it’s not: a kung-fu styled superhero movie. Instead, we get a standard Marvel movie that feels like it fell victim to its own big bad, the Dweller…a movie that’s had its soul consumed. The end result is something pretending to be something it’s not, a poseur, and ultimately, a fairly forgettable film. It’s fine if you’ve got two hours to kill and you don’t want anything to show for it, but I can’t really give this film any more than a Plain Cat rating. The only thing preventing it from an Angry Cat is that given the forgettable nature of the film, I can’t work up enough emotion about the film to get angry with it.