This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Houston Coley’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
For anyone interested, there’s a 30-minute audio review (with spoilers) of this on my Patreon here: www.patreon.com/user?u=1017531
SHANG-CHI is a great, awesome, banger of a time at the movies - and most decidedly, it is an action film.
One funny quirk about Marvel Studios is that despite the fact that they’ve made nearly 30 action blockbusters, the conversation around most of their movies usually does not center upon the action first and foremost. Now, one reason for this might actually be that Marvel movies are so character-driven that much of discourse is focused on the heroes, their ongoing stories, and whether they were “done right.” That’s probably a good thing! And it’s not to say there are no truly great action scenes in the MCU, either; Infinity War’s fight with Thanos on Titan is a standout, along with the entire Battle of New York sequence in The Avengers, the highway fight in The Winter Soldier, the Iron Man vs. Captain America showdown in Civil War, several of the sequences with Yondu’s whistling arrow in Guardians of the Galaxy, the Monaco Raceway fight with Whiplash in Iron Man 2, and even the (super underrated) airplane rescue scene from Iron Man 3.
Especially in their crossover movies, Marvel has always done an excellent job of creating satisfying character beats within their action sequences - and this is perhaps best exemplified in the third act of Endgame, where the “beats” are often much more important than the actual “action.” Not many people remember the choreography and suspense of Captain America’s fight with Thanos, or even the genuine threat of the Chitauri army, but everyone remembers when Cap picked up Mjolnir. Not everyone remembers exactly how Iron Man got the Infinity Gauntlet, but everyone remembers when he snapped his fingers and said his famous catchphrase. And hey, maybe that’s completely okay! The centerpiece of Marvel’s success has always been its characters, and moments like these are the ones that reward fans for loving these unique heroes and knowing their ongoing stories.
Marvel Studios action is frequently creative, funny, entertaining, and abundantly character-focused. However, the one word that does not frequently describe Marvel Studios action is “impressive.”
There used to be a time when the explicit goal of action movies was to “impress” the viewer. Before the the year 2000, every explosion, every car chase, every fistfight and every use of newly-pioneered CGI was featured heavily in the marketing of an action movie to communicate one thing: this action is going to be like nothing you’ve ever seen before. we pulled out all the stops. come and be impressed.
Of course, there are some movies that still purport to this level of “action ambition” today; the Mission Impossible films and the Fast & Furious series both spring to mind as examples of franchise movies where the sole appeal of every installment rests on the questions of “how will they top the action in the last movie?” and “how much of that was practical?” The John Wick Trilogy might be another honorable mention - and as we all know, Mad Max: Fury Road is the penultimate modern example of “good action as the main attraction.”
For better or worse, though, these ambitions are virtually non-existent in the MCU. In all the conversation about the upcoming Spider-Man: No Way Home, it feels like nobody has stopped to ask, “what will the action scenes look like?” Obviously, we know they’ll feature some CGI Spider-Men slinging around on webs and fighting CGI villains from the Raimi films. I’m sure there will be some great jokes, some extremely cool moments, some compelling character beats, some creative CGI, and some satisfying payoffs. I'll probably enjoy it. But will the action itself *impress* me? That remains to be seen, I guess. I can’t think of any MCU Spider-Man action scene as memorable or impressive or thrilling as the train fight from Spider-Man 2. Maybe that’s because Marvel action does not aim to impress or thrill - it primarily aims to entertain.
The action in SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS genuinely impressed and thrilled me, and I think that’s in part because it was actually aiming to do so.
It’s rare to be on the edge of your seat with your mouth agape while watching one of Marvel’s action sequences. For the first half of this movie, my jaw almost got tired of hanging open. Every punch lands. Every piece of delicate choreography surprises you with clever use of the location, the props, the weapons, the setups and payoffs. I got chills as some of the takes stretched longer and longer with minimal cuts. And it all feels delightfully tangible and physical. In every fight, the style and the choreography communicates something about the characters - all of whom are extremely skilled at what they do.
If I was going to name every action sequence I loved in the first half, I’d just end up naming all of them - but out of the entire lineup, the opening “fight” between Wenwu and his future wife feels remarkably new for Marvel. It’s rare that an action/fight scene serves a subversive purpose that goes beyond simple plot-related conflict. But the “fight” between these two is more than a fight; it’s a dance, a showcase of unique abilities, a graceful “getting to know you” scene without dialogue. It sets up these characters’ two very different physical approaches to conflict and confrontation…and it eventually plays into how Shang-Chi unifies his heritage into one coherent mindset and fighting style. I loved it.
If the action in the film suffers from anything as it progresses, it’s the fact that every superhero movie now has to be the most earth-shattering event in the world. While the story starts as a fairly street-level adventure about a father/son crime syndicate, it eventually evolves into a Lord of the Rings-level epic about saving the world from an imprisoned race of other-dimensional Lovecraftian demon monsters who could consume the earth by sucking out the souls of all living things. There’s a giant battle with an entire kingdom of Chinese warriors from another universe, a huge dragon that emerges from the ocean and fights the Lovecraft demon kaiju, and a big ol’ CGI punch battle in front of the greenscreen gates to the underworld.
Alrighty then. I can’t say I blame Marvel for going this route; there’s something about introducing an entirely new cultural voice to the MCU that almost demands grandiosity, and much of the praise from fans for the movie has come from the fact that it feels like we’re being exposed to an entirely new cultural corner of the universe that feels fresh and expansive and fantastical. If they had kept everything small-scale and low-budget, perhaps Marvel Studios would have received criticism for not fully depicting and celebrating the breadth and richness of Chinese culture. It makes sense, and for what it's worth, I appreciated the grandiosity.
In the midst of the CGI-heavy (and lore-heavy) action in the second half of the film, two things keep it from falling off completely: the emotional connection between the characters and the direction, both of which maintain some sense of tangibility despite the overall murk. Shang-Chi’s showdown with his Wenwu (as they both wield the ten rings) is a green-screen battle that functions the same as many Marvel conclusions, but the direction and choreography still manage to provide some sense of grace and flow to the fight. That’s not to mention the fact that the characters are doing much more than just trading punches; they’re telling a story with their movements, communicating through the very different ways they wield the rings. Wenwu uses the rings with brute force, like a whip or a punching glove. Shang-Chi, embracing the heritage of his mother, wields them with an almost cosmic and mystical sense of grace and skill.
The action throughout the entire film is elevated significantly by the musical score, which is so damn good - and after listening to it for the past 4 days, I think it might even be tied with Black Panther for the best score in any Marvel movie. It’s certainly one of the only Marvel scores that feels like it transcends the superhero genre to provide something genuinely soulful and unique. It also elevates the themes of the film; Shang-Chi’s mother and father both have very distinct instrumental flavor and motifs, and when he finally finds his own identity at the end of the film, both motifs are combined to create a hero theme that is entirely new. It’s a banger.
If Marvel usually does an excellent job setting up character with impressive action sequences often taking the backseat, there are some moments here where it might feel like those two occupations have simply changed roles. Simu Liu is perfectly cast as Shang-Chi and his overall demeanor provides some much-needed good-natured earnestness to the MCU after the departure of Steve Rogers. I really appreciated that Shang is neither deadly-self-serious or obsessively quippy and goofy - even more than Peter Parker at times, he really comes across like an every-man despite his insane skills and training. If there’s one thing that feels missing, though, it’s a sense of introspection for the character; because there’s so much exposition in the film and because Shang is accompanied by his friend Katy who becomes the viewpoint for the audience, we often see him through the eyes of other characters far more than we really get to see through his eyes ourselves. Everyone has different expectations of who Shang is supposed to be and what he’s supposed to do - which plays well into the themes of the film - but I wish we’d gotten a few more scenes exploring what he wants for himself. At present, his character mostly reacts to conflict presented to him rather than proactively making choices that further his journey. I’m still extremely excited to see where he goes in future movies, though.
Destin Daniel Cretton has been a favorite filmmaker (and general favorite guy) of mine for many years; Short Term 12 is periodically on and off my all-time top 10 movies, and Just Mercy moved me tremendously. There are moments where it feels like Cretton might have been a little out of his comfort zone with studio expectations of giant CGI kaiju battles in the third act, but if there’s one thing he remains brilliant at doing, it’s directing actors and providing a sense of empathy to a script. The familial energy driving the story here is potent and strong, and despite the nonstop action, SHANG-CHI is actually one of the few superhero movies in recent memory with a semi-high regard for human life; Shang wrestles with the consequences of one decision to kill in his past, he aims to incapacitate in the midst of his fights, and even the massive number of characters who die in the 3rd act receive a proper funeral.
If anything makes SHANG-CHI stand out among Marvel movies beyond its excellent action, it’s probably the sense of storied culture and history that feels baked into the fabric of the film. Characters periodically and organically speak in Mandarin throughout the film without apologizing, and it’s great. Chinese mythology is worked into the Marvel Universe in a way that feels fresh and fantastical. And from Michelle Gough to Tony Leung, various Chinese icons appear to add some much-needed weight and gravitas to an origin story that has just begun. The presence of Tony Leung, a Hong Kong legend in his own right, immediately elevates an otherwise American movie into something that feels like the next in a long line of Wuxia action classics. Like Shang-Chi’s aunt says to him, “you are a product of all who came before you.”
SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS feels like a product of years of other cult classics and action masterpieces that have influenced the genre it’s stepping into. Some might say that means that this movie pales in comparison to the other Wuxia classics of years past - and that might be true - but it also feels like a love-letter to those movies in a way that might get people to seek them out in the future. My fiancée said when the credits rolled, “that made me want to go watch some other famous Chinese cinema,” which is probably the highest praise you can give.
At the end of the day, I think SHANG-CHI is about what it means to have multiple points of heritage, through two unique cultures but also through two unique parents. It’s about wrestling through that heritage - the good, the bad, and the ugly - to confront who you really are in the midst of conflicting expectations of who you’re supposed to be. Whether the movie succeeds in fully exploring this theme is up for discussion. But I’ve gotta say, having an action movie this good that also feels like it has mythological gravitas, and it’s really about something? That’s a big win.