I. Simon’s review published on Letterboxd:
Yup, this is certainly a film written by Dave Callaham alright. And it was apparently shot by the great Bill Pope — Bill. Fucking. Pope. — and yet, it looks like…complete dogshit???
Substantially hamstrung by one of the absolute worst screenplays in the entire MCU—precisely what you’d expect from an utter knockout combo consisting of the writers behind THE GLASS CASTLE and WONDER WOMAN 1984 respectively. “Tell, don’t show” is a weakness present in the majority of MCU installments, but Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is especially guilty of this, so much to the point where, “Shaun, we’ve been friends for ten years!” is an actual expository line delivered early on by Awkwafina’s Katy despite no attempts to develop their relationship, let alone give us a legitimate reason to care. Whether it be the tiresome exposition, the over-reliance on half-assed and redundant flashbacks with unnecessary narration, the mechanical and wooden attempts at drama—with dreadful dialogue and painfully manufactured emotion included, that gratingly Whedonesque self-deprecating “humor,” or the vapid excuses for characters, I honestly have to commend this film’s commitment to utter laziness, almost as if the writers were in on the joke. In a film where Wenwu — despite Tony Leung’s fantastic performance; he’s so much better than this film deserves — is a woefully generic and thinly-characterized excuse for a villain, Katy is a caricature who you’d think came directly from a rejected Joss Whedon script, and the majority of the other characters simply exist as expository devices, Shang-Chi himself somehow manages to be the least-interesting character in his own film, amounting to nothing more than a muddled blank slate that feels like the result of clashing ideas from various writers and drafts. Needless to say, when the most compelling aspect of your film is a cameo appearance from Ben Kingsley’s Trevor Slattery, you’ve fucked up big time. Unsurprisingly so as both films were co-written by Callaham, Shang-Chi even reminded me of this year’s MORTAL KOMBAT with its hackneyed Chosen One narrative, which is incredibly damning. In fact, it genuinely feels like Shang-Chi is paced and structured the way it is as an attempt to cover up the risible writing, alternating between being tediously sluggish and moving at such a ridiculously breakneck pace to the point where nothing has time to breathe, another flaw present in the majority of MCU installments.
These flaws might’ve been less glaring if the action set-pieces themselves were interesting. While this is obviously not new for the franchise, rarely has it been more evident that the action set-pieces in the MCU are typically helmed by second-unit and not the directors than here. Destin Daniel Cretton is not particularly a good filmmaker and shoots all of the non–action/pre-visualized stuff in such a limp and pedestrian manner akin to a Hallmark Original Movie, while the late, great Brad Allen (may he Rest In Peace) shoots and stages the fight sequences with a bit more flair. Even then, the fight sequences — save for when Shang-Chi fights Death Dealer inside the tower, which ends up being the only genuinely good fight sequence in this because it actually allows Allen and Pope to have fun without throwing in the nonsensical bullshit that undercuts their work elsewhere — leave much to be desired. Sure, the choreography on its own is pretty decent and there’s an intriguing camera angle here and there, but Allen’s work is ultimately rendered lifeless by the drab visuals, sterile (sometimes choppy) editing, and even unnecessary CGI bullshit on occasion. One example of what I’m referring to would be the sequence where Wenwu fights Li early on in the film; everything about that sequence feels very pre-visualized, very second-unit, and very impersonal — despite how much Joel P. West’s painfully milquetoast, sleep-inducing score wants you to feel otherwise — when it should feel very intimate and romantic, and when compared to something like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or HERO, it’s nowhere near being in the same league. Another example is the bus sequence, which wholly lacks a sense of place and that lived-in quality as it was so clearly shot on soundstage with blue screen instead of on an actual moving bus, and the jarring cutaways to an unnecessary comedic relief do not help. These sequences, and others, are only further hampered by how utterly appalling the VFX and blue screen/green screen work in this are, even by MCU standards.
Actually, the filmmaking all around in this is quite poor. Not only is Pope’s work sadly and unsurprisingly flattened by the wet concrete and muddy aesthetics of the MCU house style — resulting in not only Pope’s worst work as a DP, but one of the ugliest MCU films period; even when there’s occasionally some color, it’s still horribly lit and lacks any sort of depth or texture — but in spite of Shang-Chi being co-edited by MINARI editor Harry Yoon and having set design by SHIRLEY production designer Sue Chan, you’d never know from merely watching the film. And that third act is an abomination. I don’t even mind it in concept, but could they please just try to have these CGI-heavy third acts at least look decent? For a film made on a $150–$200M budget, Shang-Chi looks and feels inexcusably cheap, even for an MCU production in 2021. It’s not at all unusual for Marvel to hire directors who lack experience in making big budget studio tentpoles, but you can really tell with Cretton in particular that he’s never made a film like this before, as Shang-Chi is quite possibly the worst-directed non-Russo MCU entry since THOR: RAGNAROK. This even somewhat hinders Cretton’s one noteworthy quality as a filmmaker, which is also the primary reason why I still have a fondness for Short Term 12 in spite of its glaring flaws: his ability to generally get laudable performances from his actors.
As far as the performances go, Leung is, as mentioned above, unsurprisingly terrific in this; in spite of both the atrocious writing and him being above this shit in general, Leung’s performance is genuine, and I honestly have to give him major props because he so easily could’ve phoned it in and I wouldn’t have faulted him for doing so. Kingsley also rules in this, so much to where you end up wishing he had more screen time. Meng'er Zhang, Michelle Yeoh, and Fala Chen are all solid in supporting roles. Awkwafina, in spite of having to work with obnoxious Whedonisms, is decent in this. As for Simu Liu in the titular role, he’s not very good here. Part of the problem is him having to work with an empty shell of a character, but it’s also evident that he lacks the necessary charisma and pathos required for the role. It’s unquestionably Marvel’s biggest miscast since Benedict Cumberbatch as DOCTOR STRANGE. Needless to say, I’m not convinced Liu can carry a film like this.
Shang-Chi is not quite the worst MCU installment, but it’s definitely one of the most lifeless and perfunctory entries in the franchise. While it feels very obligatory like BLACK WIDOW did, you could at least tell with the aforementioned film that Cate Shortland was doing her best to make something of substance with the unfair hand she was dealt. Shang-Chi, in comparison, feels largely phoned-in directionally. For a film that was said to divert from the franchise formula, this could not feel more soulless or Made By Committee if it tried, and if not for Leung and Kingsley, Shang-Chi would’ve been completely unwatchable. I’ll admit I can be a bit pessimistic when it comes to the MCU in general, but as someone who generally loves martial arts films and is fond of Tony Leung, Bill Pope, and Brad Allen’s work, this should’ve easily won me over, so the fact that I greatly hated it says a lot. All I wanted from Shang-Chi was a fun Wuxia-influenced superhero film with some very good fights, and I instead got an insufferably monotonous and ugly slog that encapsulates so much of what I loathe about the MCU. I have yet to see Eternals, and while it might not be great, it certainly has to be more interesting than this.
Tidbit #1: As a huge fan of IRON MAN 3 who finds the Mandarin twist to be one of the most ingenious creative choices ever made in this franchise and was very worried about this being spiteful towards that film since the announcement that the “real” Mandarin would be in the villain here, I’ll give Shang-Chi props for not going that route like I feared.
Tidbit #2: Regarding that mid-credits scene, it is so obvious that Brie Larson doesn’t give a fuck about playing that character anymore, and frankly, it’s hard to blame her considering how horribly she’s been treated by the studio and MCU fandom at large for over three years now. That said, at least we’ll always have that sublime first film!