Tony Leung and the 10 Rings
spoilers ahead - funny story about spoilers (actually you might not find this funny): I used to be the ultimate "spoiler" in my social circle, snapchatting my friends after The Force Awakens "Han Solo dies" and my Instagram caption the day after Endgame being "Iron Man dies." I've actually lost two friends over this matter (eventually won them back) - reflecting on this behavior, I fully recognize this was nether funny nor value-add. I'm sorry Jack and Annie.
As a follow up to my Shang Chi anticipation post, here's a "review" of the movie after watching it in the most full theater I've seen in two years yesterday. I watched it alongside my brother and a (not surprisingly) mostly Asian theater with my mask off. I'm not sure if I'm a victim of social conditioning or Hollywood capitalism but I had the same jitters I had when I went to the premier of Crazy Rich Asians (for reasons I probably don't have to explain). A quick disclaimer before I get started - whenever someone is asked to review or talk about something they've watched through writing (or any medium), I think the human mind jumps to negative things. I'll try my best to compliment the movie as I think it's a solid standalone movie and tops the origin stories (I'm sorry but Captain Marvel was rough), but I also do think typical progressive Reddit is having an aneurysm over anyone that criticizes it because it's the FIRST ASIAN LEAD MARVEL SUPER HERO MOVIE and you're apparently not supposed to criticize anything with a minority as the lead. Well, as a minority I hope I'm allowed to say a thing or two.
To get the main positive out of the way, in an attempt to not be a negative nancy, I think Shang Chi does a phenomenal job establishing a character out of thin air, especially considering that this movie is part of an extensive decade old universe that can draw from a century of source material. Obviously much of the work is based off existing comics, but I think this is the first movie for Marvel in awhile that has no deep roots in another work of the franchise (maybe aside from the 10 rings organization from Iron Man 1, which seems kind of a stretch from Feige, but still great work and Trevor of course). It's always difficult to world build and character build to an audience that has been conditioned to a certain universe and are expecting a certain "vibe." Shang Chi is quite different in various ways from its counterparts and Director Cretton does a phenomenal job creating a world of its own while adhering to the subliminal rules that any function of the MCU follows. Aside from introducing us to a whole new array of characters, the film mostly takes place in a foreign and mystic world (just a cooler way of saying not the United States), which could very well be a setback as much of the plot explanation depends on explanation-dialogue. However, there seems to be no issue with helping the audience immerse into this new world within the Marvel Universe we already know and love. It almost seems like a sin at this point to not mention this (hence my blog post title) - Tony Leung's performance as the leader of the 10 rings (he hates being called the Mandarin!) is unreal. There's something about the weight that he carries, just with his eyes, that's hard to describe. I actually don't think it's unfortunate that he outshines Simu as Shang Chi is quite literally about living in one's family's shadows, and what it means to have those that come before live through you.
On that note, I thought the most poetic and under-discussed aspect of this movie is the thematic virtues that it communicates through the last battle - maybe I'm being overly AP English about this, but the final sequence is quite literally about keeping your demons locked up until you gain the courage to fight them yourselves, only through the strength and ability that your family has built inside of you. I personally think the most powerful scene in the entire movie is the moment that Wenwu realizes that he has made a grave mistake by listening to the devil behind the gate, is moments away from losing his soul, and recognizes that what he has left is passing down his legacy to his son. There's not a word spoken during this scene, entirely dependent on Tony's ability to convey a juxtaposition of regret, realization and recognition all in one unified facial expression (also huge shoutout to Simu who delivered scene perfectly as well). I know this could be just a simplification of the "Asian family culture" or "father son dynamics," but I think this carries beyond just a racial experience. There's an unspoken bond between all fathers and sons, filled with both a lack of communication and understanding, only to be realized once experiences are shared and extremes are at stake. Both Simu and Wenwu facing their own devils (the loss of a mother and wife as well as the complicated family dynamics and wanting the other to be better) and coming together to understand that family is ultimately what matters - this may have been one of the best depictions of a real world family dynamic in a Disney movie (hot take I know).
I think the issues are not unique to Shang Chi but uniform across all of the MCU. There's too much dependency on CGI - you can clearly tell that most scenes are shot in front of a green screen, with much of the action done through computer art rather than martial arts. Of course the action in this film is praise worthy and the choreography far exceeds some of the other movies in the franchise, but whenever the ten rings are used and 90% of the dragon scenes at the end seem more like a high quality video game than a theater-based film. I know that this was solely the case because there was no other way to push the plot forward, but I wish they focused more on Shang's life in the US and him living as a regular millennial in San Francisco to establish him as a human before he was a hero. The time the feature has is limited and it's probably more important to get him to fly in the sky with a wingless dragon rather than a scene of him grabbing boba with Katy, but his character development was a bit fast for my taste, especially if he's going to play somewhat of a central role in the universe as time passes. I'm sure Feige and the team knows this better than I do and there's other plans for Shang I simply don't understand (as clearly shown by the first end of credit scene). On a similar note, I'm not entirely sure how the Ten Rings organization will fit in with the rest of the universe, just given the scale of how big the various power dynamics and villains have enhanced through the TV shows (Khang literally can jump across parallel universes and I just don't think martial arts can fight against that).
Aside from that, there's just a range of knit-picks that only nerds like I care about and can be applied to any movie ever. The idea that Wenwu somehow needed to lure in Shang Chi to his sister's underground fighting ring just so that they are captured together in a dramatic setting, the fact that Katy was the one archer (who has had 3 days of experience compared to the centuries held by others) to hit the demon dragon's neck, and the reality that Wenwu did not find the love of his life until 10 lifetimes in although he (probably) had access to all of the women of the world given his power standing.
All in all, I think most of my anticipation was met or exceeded by the film and I didn't feel like I wasted my $13 or two hours on Labor Day. I'm quite excited to see how Shang Chi will play along with the rest of the universe (and how Katy is going to be shooting arrows next to Hawkeye). I'll probably listen to The Hotel California on my way to the Karaoke tonight.