With ‘Shang-Chi,’ Marvel proves they can still make a good movie
In July, nearly everywhere I went, ads for Marvel’s “Black Widow” jumped out at me. The internet, TV, billboards –– you name it. Barely two months later, I have yet to see an advertisement for Marvel’s latest blockbuster, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.” This is nothing short of a crime, because if “Black Widow” was good, “Shang-Chi” is a masterpiece.
That’s not to say that “Shang-Chi” is redefining the superhero genre; it is a Marvel movie, and it feels like one. But the film is far from “Just Another Marvel Movie.” It’s funny, it’s moving and it has characters that are easy to care about paired with an antagonist perhaps more compelling than the protagonists. If you’ve seen any Marvel movies recently, you know that’s far from a given.
From here on out, things will get pretty spoiler-y, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet, beware.
If you’ve heard of “Shang-Chi” before this week, it’s probably due to its status as the first Marvel movie starring Asian superheroes. That’s true, but it’s a pretty reductive way of describing the film. Far from the weird performative wokeness of movies like “Captain Marvel” (I have strong feelings about this), someone clearly put a lot of time and effort into making “Shang-Chi” as genuine as possible. The first ten minutes, and many subsequent scenes, are spoken entirely in Mandarin, leaving the English-speaking audience to read the subtitles – a rare move from a blockbuster, especially only two years after “Parasite” director Bong Joon Ho called Hollywood out on their reluctance to use (or watch) non-English languages in movies. Family dynamics, from those of our main characters to Katy’s, feel genuine, and all the animals of Ta Lo originate in Chinese legend.
That’s not all the movie has going for it, though. Yes, it follows typical Marvel Movie structure; no, it isn’t as overwhelming as it often has been in the past. The obligatory car chase scene is pretty cool, and the overwhelming number of fight scenes were so well-choreographed that most of them being largely irrelevant doesn’t matter. The cameos are funny in a gratuitous way, though the movie’s darkness otherwise made me glad whenever Trevor or Wong were onscreen. The mandatory third-act CGI battle –– between two gorgeously-rendered dragons –– genuinely had me on the edge of my seat.
But the movie truly shines in its characters. Their relationships are deeply fleshed out, whether it’s the one between Shang-Chi and Katy, as she learns all he’s hidden from her while they remain goofy best friends, or the estranged sibling dynamic of Shang-Chi and Xialing. Individually, too, they shine. Shang-Chi, reluctantly pulled back into the family business of being an assassin after 10 years as a valet driver. Katy, constantly told she should do something with her life but unsure where to go. Xialing, who built an empire from scratch at age 16. Trevor, who is absolutely hilarious. And arguably most compelling of all, Wenwu.
I could sing the praises of how much I loved Wenwu’s characterization for an entire article, but I’ll keep it short. A 1000-year-old power-hungry madman is redeemed through the power of love, only to lose it when his wife is killed. (Note: I hate the dead wife trope, and this movie doesn’t change that.) Driven by revenge and a desire to get her back and rebuild their family, he both punishes Shang-Chi for her death and believes her to be alive in her village, Ta Lo. And he’ll burn it to the ground to see her again, even if that means destroying what’s left of their family in the process. He’s clearly wrong, but he believes in his cause so genuinely it made me want to root for him regardless.
Everything in Shang-Chi revolves around family. It’s neither good nor bad, but it’s inescapable in its influence if nothing else. Identity, another central theme, is formed through family, but it’s also deeply personal. There are many scenes I can’t stop thinking about, but I want to conclude with the scene in which Shang-Chi trains with his aunt and she shows him he can be more than his father’s legacy. It, like the movie, is full of care –– care for loved ones, care for the plot and care for Chinese culture. Even if you’re indifferent toward Marvel, “Shang-Chi” is a movie you need to see. I can’t recommend it enough.