Shang-Chi: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly
At this time last week, I had the opportunity to watch Marvel’s latest motion picture, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. I really wanted to like it. I did not like it. However, a summary survey of film reviews and my friends indicate generally positive sentiment, so I’d like to structure my thoughts in writing so I don’t have to repeat myself.
To start off, I want to clarify some biases, and dismiss some potential invalidations of my criticism. Firstly, I have no problem with Marvel, despite my penchant for pretentious arthouse film. I’ve been meaning to write a response to Scorsese’s crusade against Marvel for some time now, and but have never gotten around to it. I like Marvel. I love Raimi Spiderman, Rob Downey Jr. as Iron Man, the Guardians soundtrack, and most recently the Wandavision series. I’ve seen each Avengers movie in theatres, and believe that they are an important cultural landmark in early twenty-first century America. An Asian American Marvel movie? Fire me up.
Secondly, although I wrote a post half a year ago criticizing Simu Liu, I ended up concluding that he was a reasonable man, someone who broke out of his yuppie mold and pursued his dreams of becoming an actor. He’s outspoken, and engages with the community. And although he does post some pretty cringe shirtless pictures on Instagram or jump the gun a little, he’s just one person with the burden of all Asian American representation on his shoulders. So I was rooting for him too.
Lastly, I was well aware of the weight of this movie. This was perceived to be a watershed moment for Asian American culture, an Asian superhero joining the Marvel pantheon. The African Americans only got one movie, and the Latinx population isn’t represented at all (except for Micheal Peña in Ant-Man). It’s not a zero sum game of “us-versus-them”, but deep down I wanted Shang-Chi to be as successful as Black Panther was. When I arrived at the theatre last Thursday, there were women in dresses and kids in suits.
As I’ve written about before, I was well aware of the standards I tend to hold these sorts of movies up to, that since there are so few of them, I demand that they are excellent. I’ve since tempered my expectations, and begun appreciating them as just movies instead of seminal Asian-American works. But even as a movie, as a Marvel movie, I think Shang-Chi disappointed. Mild spoilers ahead.
First off, about language choice. The first ten minutes of the movie were exclusively in Chinese, which was completely unexpected and an interesting choice. As someone who understands Chinese, I thought it was a nice touch, and speaks to America’s new tolerance for subtitles.
One subtlety I noticed was that virtually everyone speaking Chinese in the movie was not a native Mandarin speaker, which works well when it’s Simu Liu speaking his ABC (as Ronny Chieng was quick to joke about), but bizarre when the immortal Mandarin Tony Leung speaks as though he’s a Hong Kong real estate magnate. This is still filed under “good” because I’m a Tony Leung stan. It was also quite humbling when Meng’er Zhang speaks a few lines of rapid-fire Chinese and I could not follow, which makes sense: I don’t think I’d be able to understand the boss of an underground fight ring barking orders at her minions either.
Then, the fight scenes. Though by no means thoroughly versed on martial arts movies, I thought the diversity in fight scenes was incredible, and the choreography was neat. For example, the initial fight scene in Ta Lo was in the spirit of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, complete with floating flying, and hidden wires, whereas the second fight scene on the bus was more Jackie Chan-esque, respite with slapstick humour and usage of the environment. As the fights progress, the Marvel action feel is increasingly blended in, lending it a unique flavour. Tony Leung’s opening castle raid scene was more like a Chinese historical drama, while the one with him massacring the men who killed his wife had almost Wong Kar Wai colours and feeling to it.
The Ta Lo fight scene in particular is additionally fascinating because Tony Leung is fighting his future wife; the taiji sticky hands and joint manipulation seemed flirtatious, like an extremely aggressive tango. The varied styles in which the scenes were filmed both dated and located the action in different places: older and in China, versus recent and in America.
Then of course, there was the nice “aimless millennial” mumblecore touch that the film starts off with. We are first introduced to Simu and Awkwafina working as parking valets, then it cuts to their friend lecturing them for not having a focus in life, before they drink the night away. The next morning, they are lectured by Awkwafina’s parents on the same topic before the action begins. This is obviously a watcher stand-in moment (“You unambitious unmotivated Marvel movie watcher, you too have endless potential and you too can be the next Shang-Chi) and cheap characterization, but I think the gaze and judgement of the more productive members of society are well captured.
These moments of background-building also provide an excellent opportunity for a few Asian American plugs: a zoom on Simu taking off his outlet mall Jordans when he enters Awkwafina’s house, scene of them singing karaoke, and a line from Awkwafina’s grandmother asking Simu when he’s going to propose. None of these felt forced, as these moments often do when onscreen.
There was also nothing grossly racist, another breath of relief. No uncomfortable moments, no sly jokes open to misinterpretation. My previous fears of the movie pitting Asian-American against Asian-Asian seemed to be quite overblown; Tony Leung was a supervillain from Asia, not an Asian supervillain. Though it can still possibly be construed as Yellow Peril of some sort, he is given enough depth and humanity beyond Asian.
Aside from the previously discussed scene between Tony Leung and his wife, I felt as though the other fight scenes were short of original. The much-publicized bus scene, although well done, employs the environment much like other movies, and Marvel-fies it by giving someone a sword for a hand and a few slow motion sequences. The following fights become more classically Marvel, with a lot more flying and bodies knocked back. The final fight between Tony Leung and Simu Liu culminates in Simu redirecting the Ten Rings in a taiji style that is laughable similar to the climax of Shaolin Soccer.
As a reader of the original comics, I was disappointed when the Mandarin’s rings ended up being represented as melee weapons or a gauntlet. In the original comic, the Mandarin’s rings were designed to fit around his fingers, not his forearms, and allowed him to emit energy blasts, control temperature, create gravity, and project light. I’m not an elitist comic book fan, and I’m relieved that Marvel managed to sidestep the racist portrayal of the original Mandarin, but I couldn’t stop thinking of how similar they were to the iron rings from Kung Fu Hustle.
I can appreciate that there are only so many fight choreographies available, and most Western audiences haven’t seen Shaolin Soccer or Kung Fu Hustle, but the kicker is that both were movies from the early aughts parodying kungfu movies. I’m not sure whether it was because taiji and iron rings were already tired tropes, or because Stephen Chow couldn’t think of anything more ridiculous, but the resemblance made it laughable for me to watch.
Furthermore, the acting left something to be desired. This is not to say that any of the leads acted poorly, but none of them had standout performances. I love Tony Leung and he looks great, but wasn’t special, and the same goes for Michelle Leong. Awkwafina always steals the spotlight as a supporting actress, but I found this to be her weakest performance yet. And Simu, in his breakout role did a solid job, but it wasn’t a career launching performance, just a respectable performance, respite with great martial arts prowess, and lacking emotional depth.
Though the previous complaints seem minor, they are ultimately symptoms of my biggest problem with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings: an incoherent plot. No, I’m not going to go internet nerd and criticize plot holes or talk about how things don’t make sense. I’m more interested in why the movie didn’t engage me as I watched, despite being an Asian American, allowing me to nitpick on all the aforementioned issues.
At the core, the movie is like any superhero origin story: the hero’s journey. The hero is plucked from their ordinary life, forced to undergo tasks and trials, before returning as a changed person. At a superficial level, Shang-Chi checks these boxes. Simu is attacked in SF, returns to China to save the world, and then returns to home as a changed man.
What leaves me unsatisfied is that there is no substantial character development. There are no tough decisions for Simu, no realizations of what he wants versus what he needs. He is adamantly opposed to his father the entire time, and ends up winning a fight. Peter Parker and T’Challa learn about responsibility, Tony Stark and Thor gain some humility, and Steve Rogers is a dumb superhero. As is Shang-Chi, so it would seem.
It can be argued that Simu’s decision is one to confront his father instead of running away from his past, but at no point was that painted as one of his flaws. Running away was already an act of defiance. When he meets Tony Leung, he tells him that he will never join him right away. He struggles with a toxic relationship with his father, and decides the right thing to do is to kill him? The delivery of that line would have seemed less empty if the screenplay supported it.
It doesn’t help that Shang-Chi isn’t a very exciting superhero. His epithet is the “Master of Kung Fu”, and his powers are, being very good at kung fu. In effect, Marvel just made a kung fu movie with an ABC protagonist and some MCU characters thrown in. And this wouldn’t have been so bad if it was better written, because he does get the rings at the end, granting him powers.
And so to compensate, the movie is loaded with CGI Lovecraftian monsters, a Fast and Furious style car chase sequence, a Porg-style faceless dog, and a Hobbit-style amateur archer shooting a dragon. It seems like in order to distract from the weakness of the plot, the writers threw everything else into the pot.
So I didn’t enjoy Shang-Chi. I thought the poor writing revealed poor pacing and uninspired action sequences. That doesn’t necessarily make it a terrible movie, or anywhere near the worst Marvel movie. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should to do so this weekend to form your own opinion :)