Self-important, windy, drowning in lore, full of flat characters and just plain old dull, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is everything it shouldn’t be, a spectacular own goal from Marvel.
It looked like an open goal, too. Moving the Marvel Cinematic Universe to China is a great idea – a civilisation with millenia of history, superheroes aplenty and enough dragons and lion-headed creatures to stock a whole other pantheon of characters and an entire alternative bestiary. Plus, not to be forgotten, a massive population waiting to be sold stuff.
The film is based on Marvel’s 1973 creation Shang-Chi, who was originally the virtuous son of the villainous Fu Manchu (Marvel later back-pedalled on that when they lost the comic-book rights) and was modelled – shirt off, ripped physique – on Bruce Lee, the hottest thing in martial arts at that or any other time.
As part of the back-pedalling Fu Manchu became Xu Wenwu. Here he’s played by Tony Leung as a superhero from the mists of legend who has gained great power in his immortal trek through the ages, aided by his ten magical rings. In poorly told backstory – the first of many, many visits back to the past – we learn that the power-hungry Xu Wenwu had been transformed by the love of his life, who gave him two children, Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) and Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), before she was captured and taken prisoner.
Driven back to the dark side, the father trains his son to be the greatest of warriors, the daughter also learning martial arts skills on the sly (sexism being part of the Xu Wenwu package), before the grown children fly the coop to hide from their increasingly insane father out in the world of mortals.
Giant breath. The film starts here – Shang-Chi, using the alias Shaun, being discovered in San Francisco and then heading back to China for an Oedipal showdown with dad, having picked his sister up en route, and with best pal Katy (Awkwafina) along for the ride as the human equivalent of one of those cutely comical Disney sidekick animals (never forget that this is a Disney movie).
But never mind all that, are the fights any good? They are, Marvel/Disney having borrowed the wire work and wuxia tricks familiar from films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Michelle Yeoh also borrowed, as Shang-Chi and Xialing’s aunt). While this film keeps moving, it keeps alive. It’s in between that it sags badly, as yet another bit of the past is re-introduced in airless dialogue delivered by actors whose faces telegraph discomfort.
Characters arrive only to suddenly disappear again, when even the main characters – Xu Wenwu, Shang-Chi, Xialing – are not adequately sketched. Ben Kingsley arrives at one point, playing an actorly actor called Trevor Slattery, Kingsley’s Liverpool accent aiming at Scouse poet Roger McGough’s and getting most of the way there. Suddenly, things spark back to life as everyone involved remembers that this is a Marvel movie and Marvel movies are as much about sass and fun as about action. But Tony is soon forgotten, lost in the plot debris as yet more arcana is (sigh) unearthed and (bigger sigh) explained.
Barely any battle can be joined, or new character introduced, without a reverting back into the mists of time, where someone did something to somebody else and a thing of great import was set in train which blah blah blah…
I didn’t like it much. I’m not sure Disney did either. The CG was second rate, which at this point in the MCU game really is letting the side down. And Joel P West’s soundtrack seemed to have flicked one of the Rentascore generic settings and then sat back. At points it aped the orientalist ching-chang-pling-plong of the Charley Chan and, yes, Fu Manchu Hollywood films of yore.
There were dragons. I liked the dragons. I liked the brief appearance of Chen Fala as Shang-Chi’s mother – a graceful presence who looked like she was going to bring more to the martial arts table than the Marvel Power Stance. I liked the big finale, when things did eventually take off in “more powerful than you can possibly imagine” style
The great indie director Destin Daniel Cretton does not disgrace himself in his attempts at broad brush energy but does find himself outflanked by the marketing machinery of both Disney and Marvel. After Black Widow and before Eternals, this is the second of a planned 11-film run in Phase Four of the MCU. Will there be a Phase Five? Will Phase Four even make it to completion?
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© Steve Morrissey 2021