Shang-Chi had its work cut out for it as a Marvel Movie. While Black Widow ended the stories and strands left by Avengers: Endgame (while introducing some potential new characters) Shang-Chi is the first of Marvel’s new “phase” and setting the groundwork for whatever new Thanos-sized threat the new version of The Avengers is going to have to face. Luckily, for the most part, Shang-Chi does this very well.
Black Widow seemed to set a darker tone for the Marvel movies and to some extent, Shang-Chi does the same. The story told in the first three quarters of the movie is a fantastic one. Involving assassins, secret empires, super-powers and martial arts, it covers a whole host of both familiar ground for Marvel movies but also areas the series hasn’t really touched upon before.
This only works if the central, titular hero is up to the task and Simu Lu brings a likeable if slightly generic character to the screen. There is nothing here with Shang-Chi we haven’t seen a ton of times before, particularly in Marvel movies, and like so many of the other origin films in the series, you are waiting for the character to reach his full potential.
Luckily, his support is very good at filling in the character gaps. Awkwafina is a clear rising star and she is on her usual A-game here. If you’ve seen The Farewell or even Raya and the Last Dragon, you know what to expect from the actress but that isn’t a bad thing and she plays the audience’s ignorant eyes and ears to a whole new world within the Marvel Universe very well, while still getting a very good character arc of her own.
What makes the first two acts of this film so successful is the villain. Tony Chiu-Wai Leung plays Xu Wenwu, Shang-Chi’s father and the wielder of the Ten Rings, and unlike many other origin movie bad guys, his story is the most compelling of the film. He feels like a huge threat, holds menacing presence in every scene but like all of the best villains, has actual, clear and somewhat justifiable motives for his actions. The scenes involving his family are heart-breaking and feed into that darker feel the more current Marvel movies seem to have adopted.
Xu Wen is arguably the best thing about Shang-Chi had it not been for the action scenes and blistering martial arts. Its a tricky balance with any movie featuring martial arts to avoid the scenes feeling the same and having the fight sequences too quick to follow but Shang-Chi gives each action sequence its own identity. A sweat-inducing attack on dodgy scaffolding, a fight which becomes a romantic dance in a garden or a brawl in a fighter’s cage means that each sequence offers something slightly different. The stand-out is the bus attack sequence. It comes early in the movie and is never topped and could even be considered one of the best scenes in the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe so far.
With all these strengths behind it, what the movie becomes in the third act and the elements it introduces will come down to personal taste. The final act becomes too fantastical for me and introduces aspects both brand-new to the Marvel Universe but also which felt almost “silly” in this movie compared to what the first two acts had been about. It takes a directional, story and tonal shift and although some people may get on-board with this, I found myself disappointed that the darker more edgy elements the movie had relied on at the beginning hadn’t been maintained.
It also falls into, although only ever so slightly, the same usual Marvel Origin Movie traps. It bucks the usual formula somewhat, particularly with such a stand-out villain, but you can’t help wishing we could see the sequel to this movie immediately as we now have the super-hero fully formed and fully powered.
As the beginning of Marvel’s new phase of its Cinematic Universe, Shang-Chi does a very good job. It introduces us to a character who has plenty of potential and could fit very well into any new Avengers. It also raises some interesting questions to be explored further, as well as giving us a cool new potential villain. It also manages to call-back to some of the weaker elements to the Marvel Universe, delivers the surprise return of the most unlikeliest character and goes some way to putting right a very large cultural wrong from a previous film.
Overall, Shang-Chi has a lot to differentiate it from the usual Marvel Origin Movies. A great villain, effective story and some of the best action sequences make it a stand-out. However, it falls into the fantastical and silly for the final act which undercuts some of the great work. It does a very good job of kick-starting a new phase in the Marvel Cinematic Universe though by introducing a solid new super-hero, raising some new questions and hinting at a good potential new villain.
Rating – 3.5
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