An action-adventure story with plenty of charm and creativity that is fighting to get out of the confines of the Marvel malaise, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a regrettably lackluster film that falls short of its great aspirations. The biggest disappointment is that those aspirations still flicker through in brief moments though are never given the chance to fully shine, leaving only a dull hint of what could have been. Those moments may be enough to carry the film for many, though only just barely.
The biggest positive the film has going for it is most certainly its cast. Liu as the brave yet broken Shang-Chi, who mostly goes by Shaun in a cover name that is played for a joke, is a compelling lead. He does not just the necessary amount of emotional heavy lifting, but also the physical heavy lifting as well. When paired with Awkafina’s Katy, his best friend, the duo form a heartfelt core. In particular, Awkafina isn’t just relegated to her typical role of being comic relief (though she does have many of the best jokes). Instead, she develops and grows alongside Shuan in a manner that left me recalling her outstanding performance in 2019’s The Farewell.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is an origin story through and through, and falls prey to many of the narrative shortcomings of its own structure. Shaun is living in hiding from the mysterious Ten Rings organization. The rings are a magical item that bestow immense power on whoever wears them—in this case, Shaun’s father. Played by a brilliant-as-usual Tony Leung, Wenwu (also known as the The Mandarin) is a villain of sorts to his son as he both cares for Shaun and also seeks to control him for his own ends. Soon, Shaun will have to take Katy and his sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) on a globetrotting adventure to stop his father from unleashing an evil force on the world. The details of this journey grow frustratingly trite as it all exists to get the characters from one place to the next.
The most interesting narrative elements of the film are those of the core family tension, with Leung imbuing every moment of his screen time with a deeply felt presence. For those unfamiliar with his filmography, Leung has been in some of the best films of the last several decades. Foremost amongst these is the timeless Wong Kar-wai masterpiece In the Mood for Love, where Leung gives an understated yet breathtaking performance. When Leung makes appearances on screen he commands every inch of it, making one wish that the rest of the movie better served his talents. This is true for the rest of the cast, who end up feeling increasingly aimless.
When evaluating the merits of a Marvel movie, there is a temptation to grade on a curve. The story and level of engagement often feels secondary to the central action. So let us evaluate that action. An opening scene on a bus when Shaun and Katy are first attacked seems like a promising sign of what is to come. Characters leap and jump around, doing a violent dance with the fluid motion of each strike flowing into the next captured clearly. It is a remarkably well-constructed scene, a further example of how stunt work and martial arts is an art form in its own right. The fact that it was done on a runaway bus going downhill ups the stakes without taking away from the grounded feeling of every single blow.
It’s unfortunate that just as the bus was going downhill, so too does the quality of the subsequent fight scenes. Each new action sequence grows larger in scope while losing sight of the characters. The film begins to shift into heavier usage of CGI, and every new special effects creation takes up more screentime. The discipline and focus on display early on gives way to chaos for the sake of chaos, in the hope that you remain so in awe of the scope that you ignore the film’s narrative shortcomings.
There are moments of visual brilliance, particularly the quieter moments when the film mixes elements with mythical creatures. The rest just gets so over the top that the characters and story feel like the sideshow to the shallow mishmash playing out before you. This is a shame as writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton has made emotionally sharp work—2013’s Short Term 12 and 2019’s Just Mercy come to mind— which you can see echoes of here. The relationship between Shaun, his sister, and his father provides an opportunity for a compelling character drama. It just is always dragged down by an insistence to spell everything out in heavy exposition dumps about needing to find the next item to get to the next place in order to do the important task. It is so fraught with uninteresting dialogue that characters no longer feel like actual people and instead are reduced to walking disseminators of plot details. It ensures small character moments get completely lost.
It all leaves the core of the story to be completely eroded and ultimately subsumed by a misguided focus on spectacle over substance. For many Marvel fans, such storytelling is par for the course and part of the appeal. The big action sequences are what wake people up from the dull plotting. It just is hard not to wish there could be something resembling a balance struck between the characters and the cavernous cacophony of excess. As unexpected as it may be, the film I found myself thinking of as having struck this balance was the recent The Suicide Squad. It is by no means a perfect film, though the characters within that film were not left out to dry in the big action sequences. Instead, they gave the film something resembling life and soul. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings loses its grasp on anything resembling a soul, instead becoming just yet another film on the Marvel factory conveyer belt of corporate carbon-copies that are momentarily thrilling but ultimately soulless.
You can see Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings in theaters starting Friday, September 3.