The second film in phase four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is finally out, and it’s excellent. Until it’s not.
The Ten Rings have sorta appeared in the MCU once before. In Iron Man 3, Ben Kingsley portrayed a fictional version of the Mandarin who wore 10 rings on his fingers. As this movie opens we learn the truth behind the Mandarin, a man whose name is Xu Wenwu (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung) that discovered ten magical armbands centuries ago. These powerful rings prevented him from aging and gave him the strength to build an army and influence many of the major events throughout history. But, in a beautiful pre-title scene, he meets a mysterious woman who melts his heart. Wenwu sets aside his evil ways and they begin a family. They have two children, Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) and Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) They’re a big, happy, martial-arts family until Wenwu’s violent past catches up with him, and tragedy strikes. We jump forward to present day and Shang-Chi has escaped to San Fransisco, now goes by “Shaun” and has a lucrative career as a hotel valet.
Shaun’s best friend and fellow valet is Katy, a hilarious and endearing woman played with delightful energy by Awkwafina. Shaun and Katy seem to be happy with their lives but they suffer from arrested development. They apparently have no desire to have a real career, or anything more than the rather immature life they lead. It’s refreshing that these two characters aren’t love interests. They are truly best friends. Even if Katy doesn’t know nearly as much about Shaun as she thinks she does. It’s not until Shaun receives a cryptic postcard from his sister that they both take a journey of self-discovery and explore their true potential as adults.
The first act of this movie is brilliant. The opening exposition is beautiful, and the martial flirting between Wenwu and his soon-to-be wife channels the best moments of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” The cinematography floats around them in ways that haven’t been possible in the past. Our introduction to Katy and Shaun is fun and engaging. Even better, the first true action scene, an exceedingly well-choreographed fight scene aboard a runaway bus in San Fransisco is one of the best of its kind in the entire MCU.
The second act, when Shaun and Katy travel to China to track down his sister, confront his father, and square off the gang of assassins known collectively as The Ten Rings, is also quite good, but cracks in the narrative begin to show. There are still exceptional fight scenes, including one amazing sequence on, in, and beside bamboo scaffolding; a staple in any self-respecting martial arts movie. But this is where a shift in tone beings to happen. The humor gets a bit too immature. The action starts to rely more on CGI. And the pacing begins to get bogged down in further exposition.
It’s not until the third act when the film really jumps the shark. There’s a fuzzy pokemon character that guides them through a dangerous, magical bamboo forest. There’s also a “teach the villagers to fight before the bad guys arrive” montage that is one of the most tired tropes still making the rounds. (Last seen in Season 1, Episode 4 of “The Mandalorian”) None of this would have been two bad except for the amount of terrible CGI the entire climax relies on. The fight scenes degrade into pure CGI arm-flailing that lacks any physical presence. If this wasn’t bad enough, it culminates in some of the worst dragon-riding visual effects I’ve seen since “The Never Ending Story.” It’s a shame that a major MCU movie, that is trying so many new things, and an almost entirely Asian cast, is all pulled down by CGI that is far worse than anything seen on the Marvel Disney+ series. The poor visual effects border on being offensive, especially when so much is riding on what Disney has allegedly called an “experiment.”
Should you see “Shang-Chi?” If you are a martial arts or MCU fan, absolutely. It can be enjoyed best when expectations are tempered, and if this “experiment” is successful, perhaps we can see a better film with these wonderful characters in the future. It’s just a shame that the first half sets up an experience that the second half doesn’t deliver on.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings