As my showing of Shang-Chi began, the lights in the theater remained on for a few minutes before a manager fixed the issue, and the glossy veneer of the Marvel Studios title sequence, something that since its conception has indicated the film about to begin, flaws and all, is an event, seemed to be gone. That feeling permeates the newest film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings; as Marvel makes the shift to television alongside its feature films, the same theatricality of its past releases feels like it has faded in a sense, and the deluge of new content that they are putting out is trying to mimic the charm of its past films.
Of course, Shang-Chi isn’t without its own delights, as Tony Leung makes for a truly compelling villain that, much like some of the MCU’s other great villains, is stuck in a film that doesn’t quite do them justice, and both the fantasy and martial arts action were a refreshing change of pace. Where The Suicide Squad embraced a comic-booky tone, both visually and in terms of story, to great results, here, Shang-Chi only ever dips its toes into the bold, fantastical direction it shows glimpses of. However, the screenplay does have some shortcomings, as the rocky first act is littered with pandering humor and music choices that come off as clunky. Awkwafina has proven capable of both strong dramatic and comedic work in other films, notably 2019’s The Farewell, but here, her character is mainly just grating, exemplifying the worst of Marvel’s comic relief model.
Shang-Chi does excel in its pacing, however, using intermittent flashbacks that highlight Tony Leung’s show-stealer to build intrigue and add depth to the key players. While there are a host of side characters that struggle for the spotlight, Shang-Chi himself is well-developed and his arc is given the proper care and development needed for the film to work. Simu Liu and Tony Leung are both plenty charismatic as the titular Shang-Chi and his father, and Liu’s past tenure as a stuntman is visible in the physicality of the many well-directed fight sequences, which culminate in a third act spectacle that, while still cluttered with CGI, is a fun diversion from the norm for Marvel.
Expository dialogue, excessive humor, and an overstuffing of the narrative plague Shang-Chi, and despite its best efforts to set itself apart, at times it can’t help but buckle under the MCU’s familiar trappings. In any case, Shang-Chi offers a pleasant twist on the Marvel formula, one that, despite some shortcomings, features some of the franchise’s best action and a terrific villain in Tony Leung.