The first Asian American centred Marvel story is dominating the box office, but will it win any awards? Probably not.
Director Destin Daniel Cretton had the canny expertise to realise that the key to success with a special effects-driven, thrilling martial arts extravaganza is not the overwhelming CGI; it’s the basic, humanised nitty-gritty stuff. Textured characters. Gleeful nights and karaoke fuelled friendships. And most importantly, electrifying Oldboy-esque fight choreography.
In a series of Americanised cringeworthy exchanges between Simu Liu’s Shaun and his best friend, first mate, drinking companion and fellow valet car-parker Katy (Awkwafina), the film is already one of the freshest Marvel pictures in recent times. This is of course, established before an opening fight scene on a runaway bus featuring a mountainous eastern European man with a laser-armed sword prosthesis.
While the film fits in as a refined outlier within the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), its elegant presentation masterfully slots into the wuxia fantasy infused Chinese martial arts tradition. Both in casting, with Michelle Yeoh and Tony Leung, and in set pieces, the film takes its cinematic cues from the distinctive martial arts epics of the early 2000s. Utilising the film as a mechanism of deference without becoming overly derivative is a difficult balance to strike, yet the film undeniably succeeds. Despite this effective element, Shang-Chi is still a generically familiar Marvel film with inoffensive, quipping side-characters and ironic quirks littered throughout. MCU films often use these undistinguished tropes to provide a certain approachability and relatability to leaven the sincerity of predominantly action-oriented narratives.
“…its elegant presentation masterfully slots into the wuxia fantasy infused Chinese martial arts tradition…”
Cretton does his very best to negotiate several potential cliches, à la eerie flashback sequences and unavoidably trite training montages, which he handles with a distinct delicacy of touch. The third act changes focus and presents a thrillingly executed fight scene. But with special effects overkill, this masterfully implemented fusion of genres loses a little of its shine.
Inevitably, there is a duo of mid-credit scenes that folds Shang-Chi intricately into the MCU and asserts an essentially amiable and well-founded comic strand which maintains an important part of the film. As a film that naturally strays away from the standard MCU conduct and characters, the film does lack a theatrical seriousness like that of Black Panther or Dr Strange. Then again, the mythical aspect of Shang-Chi has a closer tonality to Thor. As entertaining as Marvel films may be, there is a continually mundane and formulaic quality that coarsely ties each film loosely into the MCU one by one. The potential authenticity and organic entertainment Shang-Chi initially seemed to offer would have completely altered the MCU and the viewer’s perception of the studio. But, once again, the tone remains the same at Marvel. Entertaining, but flattened by a predictable finale. The film is far from an experiment, as some critics have argued, but it is not the mastered, full-realised product either. The template cut out by Marvel is right, but the execution and fine-tuning has far to come.