On the 2nd of September 2021, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) released Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings – featuring their first-ever Asian superhero in the titular role. Shang-Chi takes huge strides toward meaningful Asian representation in Hollywood and is a highly entertaining film overall. Yet, the best elements of Shang-Chi are cast aside in favour of the tried-and-tested MCU film formula. The resulting product, therefore, is a movie with huge potential that never quite hits the mark.
The film is celebrated for its cultural significance, impressive visuals, stunning fight choreography and diverse cast. But beneath the skin of a unique premise, Shang-Chi reproduces Marvel’s predictable recipe: their light-hearted tone and comedy, familiar story beats and themes, well-choreographed fight sequences and large-scale climactic action setpieces. Although Marvel has every right to favour a certain style, Shang-Chi lacks the creativity and bravery to extend beyond the limits of Marvel’s formula.
Shang-Chi and his father, mother and sister are established to have a rich and layered history. The non-linear narrative offers effective flashbacks that bring weight to the relationships and establishes past family conflict that led to present-day repercussions. These underlying themes of family and loyalty are present in many MCU films, but Shang-Chi offers a fresh level of complexity to these themes that has not been seen before. Furthermore, these themes have never been presented through an Asian context in Marvel where tradition, filial piety, family expectations and legacy are crucial values in Asian culture.
The seeds are planted for an emotionally complex and compelling film about family legacy. Unfortunately, the central family conflict is routinely shelved to inject unnecessary comedy or provide exposition. The film attempts to explain one too many fantastical, mystical concepts to set up the future of the MCU. It fails to keep the story streamlined and focused around the emotional scenes that would have added depth and layers to the story. Shang-Chi also spends excess screen time on big action sequences that feature stunning fight choreography but fail to progress the characters’ arcs or serve the story. The audience lacks the emotional draw to the sequence and the scenes end up losing their value beyond the quality of the fight.
The film excels during its quiet conversations between the main characters. This is fuelled by the chemistry between Shang-Chi (played by Simu Liu) and his father Wen Wu (played by Tony Leung) along with a fantastic supporting cast. But for all of Leung’s charisma, compelling motivation and strong emotional connection toward the protagonist – Wen Wu’s potential arc is never deeply explored. He becomes cartoonish when the film decides to attribute his motivation to external factors instead of focusing on the internal conflict and grief he felt over the crumbling of his family.
This constant dodging of character moments leads to a climax that sidelines the main family conflict and lacks a rich, meaningful confrontation between Shang-Chi and his father and sister. Instead, the movie culminates in a massive fight between two forgettable creatures that serves the spectacle but holds no emotional value.
Marvel has proven with their older films that they are capable of so much more. But 13 years into the franchise, Marvel needs to redefine what constitutes a good MCU superhero film. They have to inject more creativity into their future projects if they hope to stay ahead of the curve.
Shang-Chi is not a bad film. In fact, it is a highly enjoyable blockbuster film. The costume and set design, cinematography, pacing, acting, fight choreography and action are all outstanding. Shang-Chi has a great story at its core waiting to be told. But it is over-reliant on the Marvel formula – leaving much to be desired.