Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings ★★★★

Delivering high-flying fantasy kung-fu action, humorous banter aplenty, and a handful of eye-popping set pieces, all the while riding on the shoulders of its towering Dark Father villain Xu Wenwu, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is overly reliant on gobs of cartoonish CGI but nonetheless does just about everything right in this workmanlike MCU origin story except stick the landing.

I had earlier promised a more in-depth treatise on this flick after I dashed off a quickie review while sitting in the theater on opening night as Shang-Chi’s closing credits rolled. Days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months, and I couldn’t find the time to sit down and write the promised in-depth review. Turns out starting a PhD program can put a bit of a damper on the ol’ Letterboxd throughput. But even if I could find the time to sit down and bang out another one of my signature several-thousand-word reviews the desire to do so waned as the weeks passed. Not because this isn’t a good movie. It’s a fine movie. It’s a darned fine movie indeed. But it has become quite clear to me that the film just didn’t move me enough to even want to write at length about it.

Cut to Thanksgiving dinner at the Sol residence. Young GeekGirl34 is back home from art school and we are hosting another family whose kids are into the MCU and hadn’t yet seen this jobbie. When the consensus formed after dinner to fire up the Disney+ machine and give this joint a whirl I figured I’d watch it again with a determination to find something in it this go around to inspire me to write about it in this, my much-anticipated “in-depth” review of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which you’ve all been breathlessly awaiting, I’m sure.

Well, turns out I still like the movie. I still love love love Tony Leung as Shang-Chi’s wayward Pops. I love how he is sort of a deconstructed Anakin Skywalker, cycling instead from bad to good to bad again. I still laughed at nearly all of Awkwafina’s jokes, something I didn’t expect to do the first time around either. Let’s just say I wasn’t tickled by Awkwafina’s schtick back in Crazy Rich Asians, but here she’s completely charming and quite funny and I shudder to think how dry the film would be without her. I’m totally cool with the Mandarin/Trevor Slattery-Wong-broader MCU tie-ins. I still think that the Ta Lo scenes seem more at home in a video game cut scene, and to boot they seem wildly out of place from an aesthetic standpoint when compared to the slightly more grounded San Fran and Macau sequences. And even throughout those quasi-grounded settings there is a marked bloodlessness (for obvious reasons) and an unmistakable weightlessness to the action that despite being rip-roaringly well-choreographed and executed, never comes across as palpable or perilous.

My biggest gripe about the film is unchanged since my first viewing, but it has only grown more acerbic upon a second watch, even deducting half a star from my rating this time around. My gripe concerns the most glaring flaw in the movie, which is an example of both a huge missed opportunity and yet another iteration of the lazy MCU third act CGI-fest we’ve all been bombarded with over the last 25 films. Of course I’m talking about the stupid soul-sucking monster from beyond that comes out of nowhere in the third act to absolutely steal the spotlight from the engaging confrontation between father and son that could have been comparable to the storied dialectic between Luke and Darth/Anakin had the third act showdown been handled with more care, intention, and foresight. Instead, we get a compelling battle between Shang-Chi and Xu Wenwu that is literally overshadowed and marginalized by a silly over the top space monster that no one cares about.

All the good will generated for Xu Wenwu as a top tier MCU villain is annihilated when the third-act space monster shows up, as well as all the future narrative possibilities both for Shang-Chi’s growth as a character and for the broader MCU should Tony Leung’s character be left alive at the conclusion of the film. 

I would have liked to have seen Shang-Chi face his father and defeat him, but keep him alive. The drama of that confrontation should have been big enough to carry a proper finale but Feige and co just can’t help themselves. They must have something to show for all that Disney money flying around so they continually opt for the big cut scene CGI-bang-bang ending. God forbid a mere character carry a narrative arc. If you absolutely have to have the dragon, you can make Shang-Chi defeat Pops but then Pops turns into a dragon monster and flies away and we still get Shang-Chi winning but he knows there will be another confrontation down the road, so it’s still a character victory. Anyway, that obviously doesn’t happen, and the we get the film we got, which is a very solid, highly rewatchable, thoroughly entertaining fantasy adventure that is quite good, but could have been even better.

Speaking of things that could have been better, let’s not forget about Shang-Chi’s lazy costume design. I can’t believe how utterly pedestrian a suit made out of freaking dragon scales could be! And then he only gets a top half to his suit so he has to go to battle wearing a pair of sneaks!  I better stop here before I deduct another half star…

Bottom line, Shang-Chi is super satisfying watch that will probably appeal to straight-up kung-fu fans and general audiences as much as it should to hardcore MCU initiates. The film stands on its own, so truly no prior knowledge of the MCU is required to enjoy it, but of course it connects quite seamlessly to the broader MCU tapestry as well. Recommend!

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