The next instalment into the Marvel Cinematic Universe delivers a masterclass in superhero storytelling.
It's easy to be cynical, when viewing a multi-million dollar blockbuster, crafted by the finest suits in all of Hollywood with a world-spanning marketing engine behind them. It's particularly easy when that particular blockbuster seemingly is crafted only to pander to the world's now largest theatre-going audience.
It's easy to be cynical, but the truth of the matter is, there's nothing cynical about Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. In fact, from its opening frame, to its end credits, it's one of the most lovingly crafted, strongly told and competently put together Marvel origin story films to date, and if there's even a hint of interest in the MCU left in you, you ought to give it a try.
We'll get to the potential pandering, and why it overcomes that cynical notion, in a bit, but let's first back up. Shang-Chi is the story of yet another powerfully born and bred, trained hero-in-the-making completely in denial of his heritage, or his responsibility, who must overcome personal insecurities and accept the mantle, and take his place within a world, a multi-verse even, filled with unseen dangers. It's a tried and tested formula, sure, and it's at the point of breaking due to its sheer familiarity, but within lurks a more ingeniously constructed story fit with charm, culture, tradition and pride.
Shang-Chi starts out with titular hero hiding out in San Francisco, having escaped his father, Wenwu's grasp. He controls the legendary Ten Rings, giving him untold power and the ability to live forever. However he now seeks Shang-Chi, and his sister, and together with his friend Katy he must finally face his father, and stop his evil plan to find the legendary realm of Ta-Lo
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The story is heavily anchored by the subtle but effective central performance from actor Simu Liu, who plays the role of Shang-Chi to near perfection. In a more surprising turn, Akwafina turns out to be both comic relief, but through a heartfelt performance she's never unwelcome, even if she mainly serves to ground and even ridicule the more caricatured events on screen. It can get a tad bit "Bathos'y", but ultimately, the movie does buy into even the most outlandish parts of its premise, and Awkwafina is both caring, effective as a sidekick and incredibly funny throughout. Tony Leung's role as the primary antagonist is by far the most surprising, giving his character depth and even sympathy. Overall, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is incredibly acted, and wonderfully paced, combining strong action choreography with essential cinematography, which always work together to serve the narrative, not the other way around.
It's a story steeped in oriental folklore, iconography and imagery, and evokes both classic kung-fu movies of old, seeing as martial arts does play a significant part in the story, which weaves a coherent tale using various Chinese folk tales. From the bustling streets of San Francisco to a land filled with mythical creatures, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a colourful, eventful and gorgeously realised picture throughout its two-hour running time.
While the story is effectively told, and thought provokingly different, even if it does flirt with the same "origin story" themes, the action sequences are some of Marvel's very best to date. Director Destin Daniel Cretton clearly has a perfect eye for intensely dynamic scene composition, as he swoops in when it's necessary to see the brilliantly choreographed movement of the stunt performers, only to then zoom back out, giving us a much needed overview of the fight. Whether it's on the side of a skyscraper in Macao, or in a moving bus on the streets of San Francisco, Shang-Chi constantly one-ups itself with strong fight sequences.
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Any gripes beyond the familiarity of the basic concept? Well, this might be a divisive one, but I'm through with big blockbusters opting for pop songs as scene establishing music in between segments. It's hopeless pandering, and it doesn't fit nearly as well as its original score, which is actually brilliant. It's disturbing and distracting, and makes the film itself seem infantile.
But apart from that, Shang-Chi is a masterclass in superhero storytelling. It is still a superhero movie though, of that there can be no doubt, but it does fill me with hope that Marvel does have the storytelling chops to bring new heroes to life in interesting and thoughtful ways.