by Rob DiCristino
There are bits in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings that recall Marvel’s 2015 marketing campaign for Ant-Man: That film’s diminutive hero is just barely visible on many of his own posters, dwarfed by more recognizable franchise characters and iconography. The goal, of course, was to convince an audience unfamiliar with Ant-Man that he is actually a bonafide member of their favorite cinematic universe. “We approve of him,” Marvel is telling us, “and so will you.” Though that was only six years ago (and others have been introduced since then), that same task feels more daunting after Avengers: Endgame. After all, Black Widow and Wandavision are victory laps. We know these people. Shang-Chi, on the other hand, is Marvel’s first real risk in what feels like forever, so it’s not surprising that they would hedge their bets by threading in a few cameos and bits of dialogue reminding the audience that — through galactic cataclysm, the death of heroes, and, it has to be said, a global pandemic — the MCU lives on.
At Shang-Chi’s core is a classic hero’s journey, a tale of hidden worlds, ancient demons, and powerful forces passed down through generations. Though the mild-mannered Shang (who has westernized his name to “Sean” since moving to San Francisco) insists throughout the first act that a “normal” life is fulfilling, artifacts of his true identity bubble up until they can no longer be denied. He follows his sister’s trail to her underground fighting ring in Macau (where we’re treated to the film’s best action scene and a very welcome Marvel cameo), through to his father’s compound (where we’re subjected to a much less welcome Marvel cameo), and finally beyond the gates of our reality for an elegantly-staged final battle that trades Marvel’s usual goop grey backgrounds for vibrant colors and textures befitting its mystical setting. Shang confronts his destiny in the usual way, tapping into a legacy of love and peace to overcome his father’s descent into chaos and darkness. Familiar, but no less satisfying.
Director Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12, Just Mercy) calls upon iconic wuxia imagery for Shang-Chi’s martial arts scenes, utilizing gravity-defying wirework (or its CGI cousins) and long takes to grant the fights a sense of spirit and scope. Variations in camerawork give each contest a different tone — the lens sweeps dramatically over larger-scale battles and comes in close for intimate one-on-ones (Ones-on-one? My style guide failed me). There’s still some digital trickery, of course, but even the final battle — which pits father against son and kaiju against kaiju — syncs nicely with the rest of the film, retaining its focus on character and story over spectacle. There’s nothing groundbreaking here (one colorful image is even lifted right from Skyfall), but as Marvel expands its cinematic character base, expanding its genre sensibilities is the next logical step. On the strength of Shang-Chi, a budding western cinephile may be inspired to check out wuxia like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Hero. That feels worthwhile.