Crouching Marvel, hidden action

3/10 Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings has a lot of good components, but they never really come together, and the put-together product is instead so forgettable you can sometimes forget you’re in the process of watching it. But the point wasn’t ever to make a good movie.

In Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung) finds a set of power Hung Ga rings that turn him into an invincible immortal and becomes China’s greatest warlord, building an organization of bandits that somehow has no formal governmental power despite hundreds of years of military rule over Southwest China. In 1996, after centuries of this, Xu finally notices a woman and settles down to raise a family with her.

In the present day, Xu Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) lives in San Francisco, estranged from his father and sister, Xu Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), when he’s suddenly attacked by Xu Wenwu’s assassins. Along with his life partner Katy (Awkwafina), Xu Shang-Chi returns to Macau to protect his sister and confront his father.

Just like Black Widow could have been a superhero-level espionage thriller, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was primed to be a hardcore kung fu movie, $200 million worth of kung fu movie, kung fu done at a scale never before even conceived of. That’d be exactly the kind of genre movie the MCU was built on, but this is Marvel Studios, where action scenes are carved up like roast turkey as a standard practice and all movies are defacto buddy comedies with window dressing, so of course it isn’t. There are a few fight scenes that I don’t hate every second of, mostly in the first hour before the CGI bonanza begins.

Marvel reportedly brought in Liu, for whom this is his first major film role, because he’s an experienced stuntman, and they’ve got “stuntman” posted in all his online bios and had plenty of ink spilled over how hard he trained to perform Xu Shang-Chi’s fight scenes, but he clearly doesn’t perform most of those scenes. The consistent and obvious pattern has him doing a couple of the first moves, then his face suddenly obscuring and his character beginning to move much more rapidly as a real martial artist takes over. He’s really got much more experience as a model than as a stuntman, and that’s fine! He does a fine job with a character who isn’t particularly interesting – the movie really belongs to his father – and it’s not fair to expect actors to also be high-level martial artists. I’m just glad they developed a fighting style, which Liu describes as “a mosaic of martial arts,” for the actual fight team to perform that looks as comic-book as it does.

As a counterpoint to this, as always, I would recommend The Raid: Redemption and The Raid 2, for which already top-level Silat masters were brought in and taught to act, which is a much simpler skill to build in the short term, than the other way around, for clear looks at what martial arts films with actual ambition can look like even for a fraction of a fraction of the cost – the two movies combined cost about one thirtieth of the low-end estimate of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ budget.  

The problem with Shang-Chi isn’t that it lacks ambition, it’s that the ambition is not to make a great movie. The ambition of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is framing. This movie is about existing at a high profile and showing off East Asian men and women as attractive and powerful, and we have a century of history that tells us how important framing is. Most of the movie was designed around avoiding stereotypes in the source material and throughout cinematic history. Shang-Chi goes beyond Disney’s longstanding courtship of Chinese viewers or making Twitter racists mad, this movie is actively trying to correct racism as it has been expressed on film throughout Hollywood’s history. But when it feels like everything important to a 132-minute movie could be drawn from just a few still images of the lead characters in visually dominant positions, you have to wonder where the rest of the movie comes from.

Shang-Chi, and we’re going to be seeing a lot of this with Marvel moving forward, is made in part to backfill more major characters into this series who were somehow silent members of it earlier. As far as that goes, the Ten Rings organization actually makes a lot of sense – Xu Wenwu, operating in what is now Southwest China near the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush, would have centuries of lived experience telling him that a single military force could only realistically rule a small area of land, and suddenly I’ve extrapolated a much more interesting character who’s much more tied to both history and the present day than we actually get to see in Shang-Chi.

Xu Xialing, an original character for this movie who seems to exist only for this framing, is a particular problem and a particular illustration of this larger problem. She strikes up some mighty poses in executive chairs and talks at length about about what a girlboss she is, but she doesn’t really do anything. She’s in a few fight scenes, but she doesn’t make any decisions that alter the plot, she doesn’t have any kind of emotional arc at all and all the reasons we’re given to hold her in esteem are for things she did offscreen. They want that elusive “strong female character,” well, characters like Ellen Ripley or the bride or Imperator Furiosa have movies that are actually about them in which they’re the chief participants in their conflicts and their characteristics are demonstrated through meaningful decisions – they get to make meaningful decisions in the first place. Xu Xialing, instead, could easily have been written out of the entire movie.

There’s also Katy, another original character for this movie, who is perfectly positioned to be a perspective character, guiding viewers into Xu Shang-Chi’s dangerous and new world, but she also doesn’t have much to do. She’s a really good driver and she gets some good lines – it’s nice having her on the screen, but she has no narrative purpose, and the narrative role she’d be perfect for simply goes unfulfilled.

The role seems tailor-made for Awkwafina, the comedian whose star has been rocketing skyward the past several years, but who notably featured in Crazy Rich Asians, which most recently established Americans of East Asian descent as a power filmgoing demographic. It kind of surprises me that she and Michelle Yeoh are the only alumns from that movie’s sprawling cast, just like it surprised me the movie’s real breakout star, Henry Golding, signed on to play a ninja for Paramount while Marvel got Liu, and I wonder again what they wanted from him. Liu isn’t who you’d get if you wanted someone for Awkwafina to really play with, and he obviously isn’t enough of a fighter to really contribute to that aspect of the role – and again, he’s fine, I just wonder what the job of playing Xu Shang-Chi was actually supposed to entail.

Xu Shang-Chi and Xu Wenwu are the only characters who really need to be here. At its most basic, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is the story of a son confronting a father who has gone mad with grief – quite literally, the inciting incident is Xu Wenwu hearing his dead wife call out to him – over the terrible things he’s done. That’s a great, feature-length worthy emotional core, especially with a legend like Leung in the elder role, but the movie isn’t interested in really exploring this part of itself either.

International screen legend Ken Leung is a godsend as Xu Wenwu, bringing every ounce of wounded tiger menace he wanted to the character.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings “shattered Labor Day records” with its $94.7 million four-day opening, which is a pretty obnoxious way to describe it. Labor Day is a notoriously poor weekend at the box office, Shang-Chi was never intended to be a Labor Day release – it was initially slated for Feb. 12, 2021 pre-pandemic – and this Labor Day would never have turned into a major weekend at the box office if it weren’t for the pandemic slapping the release schedule for years, but it’s technically correct that they more than tripled this record, so whatever. Warner Bros. tried to make Labor Day weekend a big return-to-the-movies weekend last year when Tenet released, but that was before vaccines had been completed, and the plan was to draw the release out over a few months instead of frontloading it into one weekend.

Tenet, that was a movie whose pure ambition was to be a good movie. That was what you’d call “cinema.”

With the pandemic limiting the MCU to just two releases since late 2019, Martin Scorsese’s famous press tour insult still hangs fresh over these movies, and it’s only going to get harder to watch these indistinguishable, CGI-smothered things that are trending increasingly toward no-name talents behind and in front of the camera and not think about what Scorsese and other screen legends think of them. If someone asks point-blank whether or not Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is “cinema,” the obvious answer is “no.”

So why am I still watching?

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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