I enter every Marvel screen production with a mix of anticipation and trepidation. The anticipation should be obvious – the quips, the action, the holy shit moments. The trepidation is because I frequently disagree with how they tell stories. Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings is a perfect example of why I feel both emotions.
I watched this movie at home. I turned it on, paused at twenty minutes because I realised I wasn’t in the mood to pay as much attention as it deserved, and then turned it back on the next day and enjoyed it immensely. Then I paused again – at one hundred and twenty minutes it turned out – because I was curious at what point I was feeling “hrm”. Then as the final action scene dragged on, I went online to dissect it with friends rather than paying full attention.
At first I said I had nothing bad to say about the first two hours. That’s clearly not true as in hindsight there’s a lot of story scaffolding missing here but at the time, I meant it. Those hours are a rollercoaster of Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) having fantastic fights and verbally sparring with his bestie Katy (Awkwafina). The moment where Shang-Chi refinds his sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) is handled really well and the fight on the scaffolding is absolutely fantastic, even if I’m left thinking the fighters of the Ten Rings went to the Storm Trooper marksmanship academy.
Could I have told you who Shang-Chi was at this point? No. And why would I care? The movie is awesome without him having appreciable character traits. But as the movie progressed and his character traits were meant to be more of a driving force, this became more of an issue. Honestly, I still can’t tell you. Later dialogue and wiki makes it clear he’s not sure who he is but there doesn’t feel like there’s any detail inside the rough sketch. Is he feeling divorced from his birth sub-culture of the Ten Rings? Does he feel like he doesn’t fit inside the Asian community or the American community, and it makes sense to those who’ve lived that? Is he feeling any conflict with having trained to be an assassin? I don’t know, and if the point was Shangi-Chi didn’t know either so they just left possibilities around, it’s a stupid point. It’s like telling me you’ve built a house and showing me a pile of building materials when I come around.
Although of course things could have been helped if the movie picked an arc and stuck with it. Shang-Chi finds Xialing who is ever so slightly upset at him and I’m, right, here’s a major thing to be developed. But that felt forgotten when their father, Wenwu (Tony Leung) comes onto the scene. Okay, father-son issues, classic, let’s do this. But nope, Shang-Chi accelerates straight through that into “let’s stop this guy”, and that means one last piece of emoting and a massive battle. Okay, and the underused aunt Ying Nan (Michelle Yeoh). The massive battle mostly features people we’ve never seen and impersonal stakes. At some point, one side character has to stop what he’s doing to deliver some exposition about the big monster that’s appeared to screw up everyone’s day. That should be a giant storytelling red flag.
I’ve had one friend (hi Ariana) muse to me on whether this movie could have ever really fitted all of the Immortal Warlord, Secret Magic Village, and Dragons in. It’s a good question. I think they could have, but they’d have had to really focus on these things. They’re given, what, half the movie? It’s not enough. Similarly, the focus on Asian Diaspora suffered for being pushed aside to make room for the heroics at halfway through. Also sacrificed is a full exploration of Shang-Chi’s and Katy’s dynamics, Shang-Chi and Xialing as mentioned… in fact, there’s nothing set up here that I felt came to true fruition. They threw the kitchen sink and the attached wall at this. It could have been two movies. I think it should have been two movies.
Instead we have one very fun but frustrating movie. I would give a lot to have been a fly on the wall during the writing part. In a lot of ways, it is testament to just how fun it is that I found it so frustrating; I wouldn’t have cared if I was less invested. I guess the only thing to do is hope its sequel fulfils the potential. I wait with anticipation and trepidation.