It’s remarkable whenever a film franchise reaches its 25th movie. Very few ever have. But in 2021, both the MCU and the James Bond franchise released their 25th official movie. Regardless of how well either movie performed at the box office, and regardless of their quality level, they’re both noteworthy for that alone.
Plans for a Shang-Chi movie go as far back as the 1980’s, with Stan Lee directly involved. At the time, he was hoping for either a film or a television series, with Brandon Lee as a potential star. Brandon happened to be the son of martial arts legend Bruce Lee, who also happened to be the main inspiration for the Shang-Chi character in the first place. That would have been the perfect fit. His mother, and Bruce’s widow Linda Lee Cadwell, would have also written this movie/show. Sadly, Brandon died while filming The Crow. A defective blank injured him on set, and he passed during emergency surgery later that day. The Crow had almost concluded filming by that point, so that Brandon’s stunt doubles finished his remaining scenes. I haven’t seen it, but The Crow is supposed to be very good.
Anyway, in the early 2000’s, Stephen Norrington signed on to direct a Shang-Chi film, titled The Hands of Shang-Chi. Dreamworks agreed to fund the film in 2003, although by that point, Yuen Woo-Ping replaced Norrington as the director. Ang Lee (director of 2003’s Hulk, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Life of Pi) was also attached to the movie. Eventually that project fell through, and the rights reverted to the newly formed Marvel Studios.
Meanwhile, The Ten Rings criminal organization appeared in the first MCU movie, Iron Man, in 2008. The group was referenced again in both Iron Man 2 and Iron Man 3. In 3 specifically, Killian of AIM hires an actor, played by Ben Kingsley, to portray a terrorist. He called himself “The Mandarin”. In the Marvel One-Shot “All Hail the King”, the actor is confronted in prison with someone who worked for the real “Mandarin”. A representative of the criminal organization also appeared in Ant-Man as a potential buyer of the Yellowjacket suit. So throughout the entire MCU, there were scattered references to what would eventually become the Shang-Chi movie.
As much as The Mandarin is Iron Man’s arch nemesis in the comics, Kevin Feige felt that introducing the actual ten rings, or The Mandarin, in an Iron Man movie wouldn’t work. Those movies mainly focused on sci-fi elements. The Mandarin and The Ten Rings aim more towards fantasy. Around the release of The Avengers, the Chinese based film production company, DMG Entertainment, opened up talks with Marvel Studios to co-produce a Shang-Chi film. DMG backed out of the offer when they felt that The Mandarin’s racial stereotypes would hurt the movie’s chances of releasing in China and risk having the company being shut down. DMG would later co-produce Iron Man 3 however.
In December 2018, Marvel started fast-tracking the Shang-Chi film, intending it to be their first MCU film with an Asian lead. They hired Dave Callaham to write the screenplay while they began searching for Asian American filmmakers to direct. Some of Callaham’s other writing works include uncredited rewrites for Ant-Man, 2005’s Doom movie, 2014’s Godzilla, the first Expendables movie, and co-writing Wonder Woman 1984. Quite the mix of quality levels there. He commented that he became emotionally involved with the writing process, feeling it was the first project where he was asked to write “from my own experience, from my own perspective.”
In early 2019, Marvel hired Japanese-American director Destin Daniel Cretton. Cretton admitted he previously had no interest in a superhero movie, but felt drawn to the project to help create a world and character that Asian children could look up to. Some of his visual ideas drew inspiration from Chinese, South Korean, Japanese and other Asian cinema, including anime. He wanted a tone that showed “the drama and the pain of life, but also showed the humour of life.”
In the summer of 2019, Marvel began their search for a lead actor. Awkwafina ended up being the first to sign onto the cast, and she helped cast Shang-Chi with “chemistry tests”, especially when the search for a lead grew difficult. Shortly after these chemistry tests began, they selected Chinese-Canadian actor and stuntman Simu Liu. They also announced Tony Leung as the actor for the main villain, which they referred to as The Mandarin at the time.
Filming began in February 2020 in Australia, split between Fox Studios is Sydney and on location in New South Wales. Unfortunately, due to a major event that needs no introduction, production halted on March 12 and didn’t continue until October. Afterwards, most of the remaining filming took place around San Francisco.
The visual effects were split into 16 different vendors, sometimes three different vendors working on a single shot. The Visual Effects supervisor, Joe Farrell, described the process like “moving chess pieces around.” With the bus fight scene specifically, nearly 50 of the 168 shots involved heavy CGI work, with the entire environment using digital elements, including the bus itself. Meanwhile, Joel P. West composed the soundtrack, having composed Cretton’s four previous films.
The first teaser for the movie released on April 19, 2021 – Liu’s 32nd birthday.
Unlike Black Widow, which released simultaneously in theaters and digitally, Shang-Chi released exclusively in theaters for the first 45 days, before its eventual Disney+ Premier release. Disney CEO Bob Chapek described the move as “an interesting experiment”, to gauge how consumers wished to view their films. While the movie released in a number of territories in September, China announced as early as May that neither Shang-Chi, nor Eternals, would release in China at all. Deadline Hollywood reported in September that a China release could be unlikely, due to Liu’s 2017 interview with CBC, referencing his parents’ complaints about living in China. Regardless of the reason, there went a large portion of the audience Disney was hoping for.
The movie ended up earning $432 million worldwide, on a budget that’s somewhere between $150 and $200 million. While its opening weekend of $75 million fell behind Black Widow’s $80 million, it went on to be the 9th highest earning movie of 2021. It also reached $100 million in 5 days, the fastest film to reach that milestone since The Rise of Skywalker. It also became the third MCU movie to remain #1 for its first four consecutive weeks, the others being Guardians of the Galaxy and Black Panther. I’ve heard mixed reports on whether this movie made a profit or not, but either way, it did not earn enough to make up for Black Widow’s financial loss.
The critical response was largely positive, with a 91% score on Rotten Tomatoes and an average score of 7.1/10/ The Hollywood Reporter review felt that the movie didn’t meld together all of its various elements “as smoothly as it should”, but felt that the movie was “fresh and fun enough to feel worth a spin.” Empire Magazine’s review called the film “a winning blend of Chinese culture mixed with the successful Marvel formula that avoids the typical Asian clichés and stereotypes of accents and bad drivers.” However, the review also complained about the film’s pacing issues and a convoluted story with a rushed ending. Slant Magazine’s negative review gave the film 1.5 out of 4, saying Shang-Chi is defined by “the same ‘gifted kid’ imposter syndrome as so many other self-doubring heroes in the MCU.”
The movie has already won a handful of awards, including the Best Action Film of 2021 by the People’s Choice Awards, while Simu Liu won the Action Movie star from the same program. He won several other awards for his performance, including the “Game Changer Award” at the Hollywood Critics Association Film Awards.
As for my own thoughts on this movie, I need to explain a couple of things first. In my 8 years of regularly reading comics, I knew of Shang-Chi’s existence. He’s the guy who helped Spider-Man develop his own fighting style, based on his spider abilities, and appeared in a number of other Spider-Man comics I read. He’s also been a member of the Secret Avengers, among other teams from time to time. That said, I’m not all that familiar with the character, nor did I ever feel like going out of my way to learn more about him. I think he’s fine, but I’m not familiar enough with him to be a fan.
I went into this movie hoping to enjoy myself, but with virtually no expectations. Overall, I felt that this movie is … ok. I had fun watching it overall, but it’s also a mess.
First, the cast. Liu is very good in the lead role. He plays the role of a relatively calm, centered man fairly well, but he’s not without emotions. It’s also worth noting that he performed most of his own stunts, and put on 10 pounds of muscle in preparation for his role. It helped that he’s knowledgeable in taekwondo, gymnastics, and Wing Chun Kung-Fu. He also trained in tai chi, wushu, Muay Thai, silat, Krav Maga, jiu-jitsu, boxing and street fighting to help prepare for the film, and it shows. The best action scenes in this movie are the ones where he’s fighting a clearly skilled opponent one on one. I wouldn’t be surprised if this ends up being a breakout role for him, where he starts doing a bunch of martial arts films.
Tony Leung as Xu Wenwu, Shang-Chi’s father and the main villain, is also very good. Out of everyone in the cast, he shows the most emotional range. He’s clearly regretful of the way he treated his children after their mother died, and you believe it when he wants to bring the family back together. The filmmakers intentionally developed him as a more complex, layered character than his comic counterpart by bringing humanity to the role. Although Leung acknowledges the character’s dark motivations and his sociopathic, narcissistic nature, he did not want to approach the character as a villain.
There’s also Meng’er Zhang as Xu, Shang’s estranged sister. This is actually Zhang’s first film role, and on that note, Xu is an amalgamation of several characters in the comics. She trained in MMA, tai chi, and rope dart to prepare for the film. Although her character shows a hardened exterior, its balanced out with a venerable side, which Zhang portrays quite well.
From a dramatic standpoint, this movie is at its best when it focuses on the family drama.
And then there’s Awkwafina. This character is the weakest aspect of the movie, and the whole time I watched the film, I couldn’t help but wonder why she’s even in the movie. She portrays Katy, Shang’s best friend of 10 years, who before the events of the movie, is entirely unaware of his past. She’s in way over her head more often than not, ducking or running whenever Shang is fighting groups of assassins, and spends most of the movie acting as a comedic sidekick who is mildly funny at best. Also, apparently all this character needs is one afternoon to become a master archer, able to hit moving targets at a distance. Yeah, I’m not buying that.
There’s a scene on the airplane where Chang explains that he changed his name from Chang to Sean when he moved stateside. Katy seems confused about this for some reason. Here’s the thing – it’s actually very common for Chinese people to change their name to a similar sounding English name when they move to Europe or North America. Considering Awkwafina is of Chinese descent, it’s very surprising that Katy’s character doesn’t know this. This minor scene would have made a lot more sense if Katy wasn’t Asian, but that’s enough complaining for this relatively minor point.
Kingsley also returns as the same character that he played in Iron Man 3. This time round, his character fully realizes how ridiculous his Mandarin persona was. He was at first supposed to get executed by Wenwu’s men, but he kept himself alive by giving them regular entertainment performances. He’s an amusing addition to the movie, and definitely the better comedic character of the two, which further makes me wonder why Katy is in the movie.
Moving onto the story, the best part of the movie is the family drama aspect, where Wenwu wants to bring his family back together. Unfortunately, this is brought on by hallucinations of his deceased wife’s voice. Following this voice to “release” her would unleash a mythical beast that could be an extinction level threat. He also sent all these assassins after Shang just to encourage him to return home. As part of returning home, Shang rediscovers who he is, deals with issues of family legacy, and realizes that by leaving his old life behind, he left his sister feeling abandoned. If the movie focused purely on these story elements and their correlating drama, it could have been amazing.
The problem is, there are many more aspects of the story. There’s the comedic road trip aspect with Katy. There’s one of Wenwu’s assassins with a sword for his hand, which is impractical in so many ways – even in the context of a fight. There’s a mystical dragon that helped protect people from the extinction level threat. There’s a magically hidden realm called Ta Lo, and a significant sub-plot focusing not only on how to get there, but about Shang and Xu’s mother’s involvement with the realm. There’s Xu’s fight club, which she built to test her own fighting skills … which are formidable despite never receiving any kind of direct training. She learned everything she knows by watching people. I’m not buying that either.
All of these extra story elements overcrowd the film, while siphoning away precious screen time that could have been devoted to the best parts of the movie. It even takes away the time needed to explore the mythology behind the Ten Rings themselves. Considering The Ten Rings is in the title, it would be nice to learn more about these mysterious, mystical rings than we did. And I get that some of the mystery is clearly being saved for a later movie, as the post credits scene proves, but still.
But for me, the most disappointing aspect of the movie is the action itself. I said earlier that the actual martial arts in the movie is brilliant, and I stand by that. The downside is that this movie relies way too much on CGI for its own good, and a lot of the CGI looks and feels cheap. The bus fight starts off well, with some fantastic fight choreography. Once the sword hand guy comes in though, it goes into CGI overload. None of it is the least bit convincing. It doesn’t help that the background music feels like a generic video game track for a mediocre action platformer. The second the CGI kicked in, it took me completely out of the fight. It felt like I was watching somebody play a video game, not watching a movie.
The annoying guy streaming the fight with his phone and commenting on it didn’t help either.
It gets worse in the climactic battle. A lot of the martial arts in the final sequence is fantastic. Although brief, the battle between Shang and his father is intense, both physically and emotionally. Throwing in the rings in a duel also allows for a more creative fight. The problem is, their duel is way too short. Once the monster is unleashed, everyone teams up against hundreds of flying beasts, and the entire battle becomes a CGI splooge fest. Some of the CGI here is alright, but it’s very uneven. It takes all of the tension away when nothing looks or feels real. Sure, all of the main Avengers movies feature a lot of CGI monsters, but at least with those movies, most of the monsters were ground based, motion captured, and felt like they had some weight behind their movements. The overall quality of the CGI was much better too.
It gives the movie the feeling that they knew the world’s situation with the virus was going to eat into this movie’s profits, so they made serious cuts to the post-production to compensate. Considering the movie’s $200 million budget there’s reason to doubt they made these cuts, but it still feels like it. Again, the soundtrack also hurts in the final battle, as its tone never matches the intensity of the fight. I like that it includes what feels like Chinese fantasy elements, but it still feels cheap and not intense enough.
As with Black Widow, I do like this movie overall. I acknowledge that there are a lot of people who love this movie. I went in, hoping to enjoy Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings more than I did. I wanted to give this movie a chance to get me excited about Shang-Chi as a character, so that maybe it would help me get back into comics after what is now a 2-year break. But while I did enjoy watching this movie, it didn’t do it for me. The combination of the convoluted story with too many subplots, several great martial arts fights ruined by unconvincing CGI, and a major character who drags this movie down significantly, hurt this movie for me. By the end of the final battle, I just stopped caring.
I hope that Shang-Chi gets a sequel, and that it’s much more focused than this one. The title character deserves a second chance, and Simu Liu is brilliant in the role both physically and dramatically. But as of right now, I wouldn’t recommend this, nor do I see myself re-watching it any time soon.
Next up is the Eternals, which is estimated to have lost Marvel Studios around $100 million. After that, we’ll wrap this month up with Spider-Man: No Way Home. Don’t know about you, but even though I haven’t watched Spider-Man yet, the biggest spoilers have been unavoidable. Either way, there is no part of me that’s excited to watch Eternals, but I’m very much looking forward to No Way Home.