Warning: Spoilers for Shang-Chi and the MCU to follow. Read at your own risk.
I genuinely liked Shang-Chi, which is remarkable given Disney's best efforts to tell me and people like me to fuck all the way off and not see this film. As people who follow me on Twitter know, I have not been subtle about my displeasure that Disney not only stopped offering same day streaming options after the release of Black Widow but that the original promise of a streaming release approximately 45 days later - which anyone with half a head would recognize meant tweaking the exact 45 to make it the day of the week movies got released - by pushing Shang-Chi an extra month to make it part of Disney+ Day. "At least 45 days later" does not mean "Sometime after 45 days but prior to the eventual heat death of the universe," Disney, and you damn well know it.
Yes, my disabled ass is still extremely bitter.
Point being this poisoned the well for me on my ability to enjoy or reasonably comment on any Disney film. As those who get the inside scoop over on Ko-Fi can attest, it was a long and deep debate for me if I was going to cover this movie at all. Basically if they didn't want me seeing the film, fine, I wouldn't talk about it either.
The flip side of course is that Shang-Chi, specifically, has kind of been fucked over by Disney as much as those of us who can't go to theaters have. Forcing a theater-only release in the middle of a pandemic was a huge gamble which could've easily tanked the film's numbers in the name of offering a sacrifice to the theaters who have been whining about, again, people not wanting to go out in public during a pandemic.
On top of that Shang-Chi did not get the publicity love that other Marvel movies do. Yes, there was a PR push but it was a middling effort compared to other films up to and including Black Widow which also had the challenge of being released in a pandemic.
Now not that my white self is anywhere remotely near a voice that needs to be heard when analyzing a movie about a Chinese hero. But at the same time I didn't like that me not commenting on the movie was adding to the atmosphere of treating this film as something that both could and should be dismissed as not worthy of attention.
Ultimately what swayed me is realizing that I was also adding to an atmosphere of silence for people like me. Namely those who were unable to see the film until its streaming release and would love to have a conversation about it except most of the world has already not only moved on from Shang-Chi but has gotten to be over and done with Eternals as well.
So yeah, here's me talking about it.
As per my usual self I have many thoughts about both the story in and of itself and in how it was made, so I'll tackle those individually. But again for the theme of getting the review out in the intro I will say I think it's one of the stronger MCU movies. I don't think it's as good as Black Panther (more on that in a bit) but I would rank it as equally good as Black Widow, albeit for different reasons.
Let's get into it.
Shang-Chi and What Worked: The Story of Family
Something I particularly liked about Shang-Chi the movie is that while it was a film with tons of fight scenes and even the required third act CGI battle of all superhero films, the story itself was grounded in something very simple. Yes, by the end there was the "Omg soul eaters and we have to save the world!" of it all but even that was tied into what the story really was about, which was family.
It was an incredibly smart move to make Wenwu's goals not about world domination but about trying to recover what he lost. Take away all the trappings and Shang-Chi is a story about a family dealing with the impact of heartache and abuse. You don't need super powers to relate to that.
I'll get into the way the movie handled this story - and why it handled it well in a bit. To keep the focus on the story for now I liked how it was basic motivations for everyone such as love and wanting validation. I liked how the "villain as dark mirror of the hero" aspect of the story was that Shang-Chi wanted to deny his past while Wenwu refused to let go of it.
There was a thoughtfulness in the handling of Wenwu and the family as well. On the one hand Wenwu abused his children. Shang-Chi emotionally and physically, Xialing with neglect. You also had a recognizable dynamic with Shang-Chi and Xialing where abused siblings have tension among themselves which only gets worse if one of them manages to escape while the other is left behind.
Likewise it was good that even though we see the scenes of Wenwu abusing his children we also see how he had his moments of tenderness. He's not a mustache twirling monster, he's a man with layers. There's a reason why his children still crave his love and approval in spite of what he's done: they know what it's like in those rare times he offers it.
I also appreciated how many of the aspects of the continued abuse were both there and not made screamingly obvious. For instance when the family returns to the Ten Rings compound there's a tossed off line about sending Xialing and Katy to "their" room. A giant compound and a supposed joyous reunion and Xialing is not only being treated as an afterthought but on the same level as some random American who her father just met. It was a casual cruelty which spoke volumes.
Though this does bring me to a flaw of the film, if you could put it that way, which is that by the end of the movie I felt that the story should've been about Xialing and not Shang-Chi. This is no shade on Simu Liu who did a wonderful job and made Shang-Chi a fun and interesting hero. But ultimately his story was the same as any other hero's story about a hero being uncertain if they are worthy of stepping into their great powers and great responsibilities but by the end they do. Tying it into the conflict with his father made his story more grounded but ultimately not significantly different. We - and he - knew from the start that he was the golden child. The question was if he would accept his destiny and, well, there's no movie if he doesn't so there we are.
Conversely you had the story of Xialing who had to forge her way since childhood. She is made to believe she is an afterthought of everyone, including her beloved brother. She forges her own place in the world based on the assumption that the only way she has a place in the world is if she makes her own.
But then she returns to the ancestral home of her mother and finds the love and belonging she's missed all this time. And these moments are beautifully done. When Nan hugged Xialing before hugging Shang-Chi it was just as understated as the "their room" moment but you could feel how much it meant to Xialing (credit to Meng'er Zhang for how well she conveyed Xialing's thoughts and emotions even without dialogue).
Likewise when Xialing has dragon armor made just for her as Shang-Chi did. And when the dragon stops and acknowledges Xialing and she is able to ride it the same as Shang-Chi did I honestly teared up because I knew how much that must have meant to her.
Frankly all of this made Xialing's story far more interesting to me. It also made me wonder if someone in production secretly wanted the story to be about her as well because there was a lot of thought and time given to her arc. Normally in a story like this a supporting character - particularly female - would maybe just have the one story beat of fighting with Shang-Chi, then forgiving him, then being there to be ass kicking plot convenience. You wouldn't see this repeated going to the well of the development of her thoughts and feelings and making sure she comes out with a place of her own at the end, same as Shang-Chi.
On a related side note, having (finally) watched the film, it fascinates me that some people came out of it thinking that the final credits scene implied that Xialing was following her father's evil path. Like did they watch the movie? Yes, Xialing was a character who could have gone evil but that was clearly not her story arc. Even if you somehow missed all the moments leading up to it in the final scene she's even looking at a picture of her mother! She's added Ta Lo symbols to the Ten Rings Compound! She's wearing red which I realize is me skipping ahead a little bit to talking about sets and costumes and color stories like I always do but for the love of Trevor Slattery it's not subtle.
Let's talk about what didn't quite work.
Shang-Chi and What Didn't Work: Sorry, Katy
Look I'm not trying to pick on Awkwafina here though there's plenty of things to talk about on that end. I think she's a fine enough actor for what she does, which is to play herself in any movie you put her in. Sometimes this works fairly well, like Ocean's 8. Other times it's oh, here's Awkwafina in a scene again. Katy sadly falls into the latter category.
I get why they had a Katy character. They wanted an audience surrogate to use to explain things. Likewise she provided an example of someone whose family was from China but she herself identifies with having grown up in America. She's the opposite side of the scale from Wenwu where Shang-Chi, torn between who he was raised to be and who he wants to be - is in the middle. I get it.
But for every bit of thoughtfulness that went into Xialing's story it felt like nothing was put into Katy's. I watched the whole movie and couldn't tell you a single thing about her inner life beyond that she, like Shang-Chi, was stuck not knowing who she wanted to be. Except with Shang-Chi we actually knew what his options were. With Katy we get a thrown away line about having an "honors degree from Berkley" but we're not even told what subject it was. That's just straight up laziness, especially when there's any number of degrees you could pick out of a hat to turn the line into an easy punchline ("You're a valet with an English degree from Berkley" for example, and I say this as someone with an English Minor from Barnard.)
Once we get out of the US Katy becomes even more superfluous and frankly it's not helped by how she's wearing neon green pants which make her visually stick out like a sore thumb as well. I'm fine for her being Shang-Chi's friend, I'm even fine for her being there in the Macau fight club. But once they get to the Ten Rings compound there is no reason for her to still be there. Why would Wenwu not send her packing?
Even if you want to argue that maybe Wenwu didn't care enough about Katy to put the effort in to send her home, or that maybe he was letting her hang around as a favor to Shang-Chi, you still have to deal with the fact that, other than her driving the car out of the compound, she has nothing to do and no reason to be there. Frankly even as a driver her role is to answer the question "Why are Shang-Chi and Xialing free to fight during this escape scene?" which just as easily could've been handled by Trevor Slattery. The only skills a driver needed during both the escape and the maze in the forest was to drive quickly. It's not like Katy was busting out Fast & Furious style tricks.
This is only - ahem - driven home when they get to Ta Lo and Katy's one known skill of driving doesn't matter at all and instead she's given arrows. Because as we all know the easiest thing to pick up as an unskilled fighter is something which requires strength, dexterity, hand/eye coordination, and understanding of how things like a slight breeze can totally fuck up your shot.
I mean I'm all for the shade implied by Katy spending a good half hour in a field and coming out as skilled at arrows as MCU Clint Barton but that wasn't what the movie was trying to do. And the problem is that nothing we'd seen of Katy before then foreshadowed arrow skills. We saw her and Shang-Chi in bars! Show her winning a dart game or something!
All of which leads to the very end where Wong for some reason includes Katy when he's asking Shang-Chi about the ten rings and... why? I mean I fully buy that Wong would say fuck it, Shang-Chi can bring a plus one if he wants to because it's Wong. But the movie implied that Katy was as much a future Avenger and part of the team as Shang-Chi was and just... I mean we've already got an archer! We're getting two now! She brings nothing to the table!
Honestly when you look at the lack of thoughtfulness put into the Katy character you get left with the impression that either she and/or Awkwafina were a required part of this movie that everyone resented having to have. Which would frankly explain why she had to wear those god awful pants.
Alternatively she was meant to have a different role in the film but things got rewritten which took the depth of out her and so they made do with what they had. Like you have an entire movie hammering home that Katy is the person with driving skills and then in the big battle she doesn't do anything even remotely involved with getting something from point A to point B?
So yeah, if you told me that there had been bigger plans for Katy in the final fight but unfortunately budget or covid got in the way I would not be surprised. Sadly as it was she was a character who did not need to be there and it was painfully obvious.
Which is as good a segue as any to start talking about the crafting of the movie and not just the story
Making of the Movie: Is Shang-Chi As Good As Black Panther?
Regular readers of the site know I love Black Panther. To date it is the epitome of how freaking good any movie - not just superhero - can be when you have people on it who are doing the fucking work.
Not that Black Panther is perfect of course. But it's still blue represents colonization levels of thoughtful which is a high bar to set.
So when Shang-Chi came out and there were tons of reviews going "It's just as good as Black Panther!" yours truly was excited. Because of course reviewers meant that to say that Shang-Chi showed the same level of thoughtfulness about sets, costumes, music, and color stories that Black Panther did, right? They weren't simply saying that the only way to review a movie with a non-white protagonist is by comparing it to another film without a white protagonist, right?
That being said, there is still a lot of thought put into Shang-Chi. This is not a lazy film by any means (Katy's entire existence notwithstanding). And full caveat that yours truly isn't as versed in Chinese history, fashion, or martial arts to be the final arbiter of how well the movie included these elements to tell a thoughtful story. Frankly I hope it's the case that they did! One of my many frustrations with the earlier mentioned lackluster PR push for the movie is that we didn't get in depth interviews about the costumes, music, and set design to tell us about the work put in. Believe me, I looked! Repeatedly! Over the course of months! If they're out there please tell me because I hunger for this information!
Mind you, all that being said, if a movie does its job well you don't have to be an expert to understand how all the elements come together. I'm not an expert in African history, religion, or textiles either but I could still tell that Black Panther's people did the fucking work. It's possible for these things to be like the mahjong scene in Crazy Rich Asians: you don't have to know how to play mahjong to understand why the scene works the way it does, but if you do know how to play there's even more layers of meaning.
So as someone who only knows one thing about Chinese fashion (namely, it's important to put the correct side of clothing over the other to make sure you're not saying the person is dead) but constantly forgets the specifics (which side that is) I can't fully speak to why things did or didn't work, but I can at least talk a little about if they did at all.
First up of course we have to talk about the fight scenes. Which frankly goes right back to my frustration with reviews of Shang-Chi because not only did many reviewers treat the fight scenes as the only reason to watch this movie they tended to talk about the scenes as "good" and not why.
Sure, there are a shit ton of fight scenes in this film. I'm sure somebody has already done the math to talk about the ratio of fight scenes to non-fighting scenes compared to any other MCU film. Also yes, the fight scenes have multiple set pieces - bus, fight club, bamboo scaffolding, and so on - which are the flashy aspects that make for good movie trailer moments.
And to that end I 100% want to give credit to the many, MANY people who worked on the fights and stunt work for this film. Normally this is when I'd point to the head stunt coordinator as a place to start giving credit but if you check out the list of stunt people for this movie you can see why I feel that'd be woefully inadequate to the task.
The fights as fights were wonderfully done. They were clever, creative, and managed to give fight scene after fight scene without getting boring.
But on top of that what the fights did was develop the characters. This was something I kept a close eye on as I was watching the film. There isn't a single fight scene which doesn't somehow tell us something new about the people in it. In other words, they made sure the fight scenes weren't there simply to show off stunts. They were part of telling the story.
The most obvious of which, of course, is watching Shang-Chi's style of fighting. Now my uneducated self couldn't tell you which specific martial arts styles he's using but what even I can see is that he starts out on that bus fighting with very sharp, staccato movements with tension being held in his muscles before each strike and by the end of the film he's looser, relaxed, and fluid. It's a clear visual connection between how Wenwu fights vs how Li fought. This alone is showing us Shang-Chi's journey. Then you add to it by including things like who is he fighting at any given time, how is he fighting them, how are they fighting back, and so on.
The understanding that action scenes shouldn't simply be action carries through even to the big required CGI battle. Yes, the whole soul eater big monster behind a gate thing was so tacked on it felt like it shared a card on the writer's board with Katy. But at the same time it did still tie into the main story. Ultimately Wenwu was destroyed by valuing his obsessions. I mean dude lost his soul to it, the symbolism wasn't subtle. But at the same time at least it was symbolism and not simply a giant monster because it's an MCU movie and blowing the CGI budget in the final battle is a requirement of the contract.
To that end, again I am not the expert here, but I liked how there was a reoccurring leitmotif about the idea of one's relationship to the past and those who have died. At the start of the present day story we see Shang-Chi indulging Waipo in her ideas about giving Waigong his favorite things for the Day of the Dead: he doesn't mock her, but at the same time you can tell he doesn't really buy into it either. By the end of the film he and the rest of his family are actually in the ancestral home of Li. The connection through the generations is made real with the actual gifts that Li left for her children, and how her and her family's way of dealing with the world is different from Wenwu's.
Likewise Wenwu's long life represented the darkness that can be in a family for many years, and how it's something which has to be acknowledged and somehow dealt with so that newer generations can't continue it.
As far as costumes go, I can't say if Kym Barrett put the same level of detail in like Ruth Carter does. But there was clearly good work being done. Shang-Chi and Xialing both had clothes which were distinct from one another but shared enough things in common to draw connections both between them and each of their parents, for example.
There were also clearly a lot of small details put into the pieces. Just on my first viewing I spotted a shit ton of embroidery and tiny design details on armor and outfits which said a lot of hours went into making these things.
Now was the work thoughtful? Again I can't fully rate that. To be clear: the fact that there's any thought into these things puts it leagues ahead of so many other movies and shows. Recall that a point of comparison is our old buddy Loki where "Did you notice he's not wearing the coat anymore?" is considered advanced costume design. Even to my uneducated eye Shang-Chi is doing some honors level effort here. If my eye was more educated possibly I could make this ruling in its favor. But I'm not and I'm nothing if not really picky about everything including myself, hence why I try to be honest with the caveats.
The thing that particularly stands out as a question mark to me is the color stories. Sue Chan, the movie's production designer, spoke about some of what went into the sets and the colors and I will say some of these things were a slam dunk. For example I loved how the themes of blue and gold carried through the movie so that in the moment when Shang-Chi stepped out in Ta Lo wearing his blue and gold jacket the visual immediately sold the idea that he was home. (Likewise that Xialing was in black with gold piping stressed that while she had a connection to the place, she didn't yet feel that connection.)
Likewise, as I mentioned before, Xialing's entire story arc is told through the visuals as much as the acting and dialogue. When she sits on the throne at the end she's wearing red (the battle color of the Ta Lo fighters) and has brought symbols from Ta Lo into the compound. She's embraced being part of and loved by her mother's family. This is not a woman who is following in her father's evil footsteps.
That being said, as Sue talks about in that article sometimes colors were used because, well, those colors are used. And while I get that colors can be common in certain cultures at the same time movies are a visual medium. If something is on the screen it's part of the story whether you like it or not. And red of all colors should've had a more consistent meaning. The fact that our first full visuals of "Shaun" are him in a red valet vest and then later in a grey coat with red sleeves should be significant. The grey/red of the coat does tie to the colors of the dragon later and clearly that was understood given that Shang-Chi's armor is red and Xialing's is grey (or perhaps silver) but can we make consistent connections between being a valet, being in a bus fight, and then the final battle?
Like you could do it for the coat no problem: Shang-Chi's past reappears and he's wearing colors that directly connect him to the culmination of where this plot takes him. Done and done. But the valet vest is him being adrift and lost. Yeah it's a visual wink to his costume but it muddles things to have it tied to him being on the wrong path when later red is symbolic of him and Xialing finding their true way.
Likewise while I adore that the coat seems to be reversible with the gold and blue on the inside the themes of those colors aren't fully clear. Wenwu's army wears blue. The rings are blue when Wenwu uses them. Yes, Shang-Chi looks perfectly at home in the blue and gold in Ta Lo as I mentioned but that doesn't mean blue and gold are used coherently in every scene, if you get the distinction.
Again, cannot stress enough that this is still way more advanced work than most movies ever do. I'm still very much on the page that Shang-Chi the movie comes out in the top 3 of MCU movies that did the work. I just wouldn't be me if I didn't point out the places where it didn't quite hit its mark in the hopes that it helps provide a better understanding of why these things do work when they're done 100% right.
As for things which didn't work... well the less said about the CGI animals in Ta Lo the better. But we do the same for the CGI of the final Black Panther vs Killmonger fight so it truly does happen to the best of us. Plus I suppose you could argue that magical animals are more likely to not look realistic than two men in cat costumes fighting on an advanced train system so points to Shang-Chi in this particular comparison.
And that covers the big stuff.
As always, things that didn't fit anywhere else.
- It's nearly ten full minutes into the film before we hear a word in English. I liked that.
- Shout-out to the foley artists who made sure to include a sound of the rings clinking together whenever Wenwu moved his arms.
- Also shout-out to the CGI artists who figured out how to keep Shang-Chi's pendant realistically in view during the bus fight.
- Li is kind of a weird character. On the one hand I get that she's meant to be the "good" one of the parents but on the other hand it's not like Wenwu was a nice guy when she met him. When Shang-Chi asked Wenwu "What makes you think she'd want anything to do with you?" my immediate reaction was to want to point out that clearly his evil nature hadn't been a problem the first time so, yanno. Mom's not as squeaky clean as all that.
- That being said, you can also point out that Li's story is that of an abused partner same as Shang-Chi and Xialing are abused children. She's forced to leave her family and friends behind to be with a man who swears he can change his ways. That symbolism is also not exactly subtle, particularly when this is what kills her.
- The snapture and the blip continue to be incredibly clunky elements in MCU storytelling. I'm 100% fine for future MCU films not mentioning them at all but when you do mention them it then stands out when Shang-Chi acts like his mother possibly returning from the dead is impossible. Like literally half the population of the planet did that exact thing. I get that Li died earlier but still. At least Xialing pointed out stranger things had happened.
- I'm one of the apparently few people who liked that The Mandarin was reinvented in Iron Man 3 to be an exact representation of the American racism and xenophobia that went into creating the caricature of a comics character in the first place. The idea that we were going to get the "real" Mandarin in this movie made me sigh. So I was relieved when Wenwu brought it up only to yet again point out it was a racist as fuck idea.
- I did like the moment in the helicopter on the way to the compound where we see Shang-Chi going through the emotions of returning home and then the camera changes focus to Katy watching him. That being said, I feel like this movie would easily be a half hour shorter if you removed every shot of "Character looks at other character, other character looks back" because dear fucking god did they go to that well a lot. Don't make it part of your Shang-Chi drinking game if you want to live, trust me.
- Though it still makes no sense that she was there, it's a shame we didn't see what I can only assume was a Sam Wilson meeting T'Challa-esque conversation in the helicopter between Katy and Razor Fist. ("So... you like sharp objects?")
- There was a repeated use of reflections (ex. the mirror in bus, Katy reflected in the building on the bamboo fight, reflection of the fight in the restaurant as Wenwu takes his revenge on Li's killers, etc.) but unlike with Black Widow this didn't seem to have a theme or purpose other than maybe the director likes shots with reflections. Which I mean you can do but as I say Black Widow showed how well that conceit can help tell your story when you do it for a reason.
- When they shouted that Wenwu had breached the gate my first thought is gosh it's a shame they didn't put some fucking fighters there just in case that happened.
- The end battles had some nice symbolism but at the same time not insignificant messiness. Or a distinct lack of messiness since at one point we cut to a reaction shot of Katy where she's not breathing hard, sweaty, or dirty. Her hair isn't even mussed. I'm fine for a style choice of everyone looking pretty at all times but at the very least Awkafina should've been showing some "I just paused from a fucking world ending battle" emotions here.
- To balance this out with a compliment, I loved how in the moment when Shang-Chi was hanging on to Xialing it wasn't just that he was using the rings for the strength boost but he put half of the rings on her arm. Again and again that symbolism of how Xialing isn't being left out or forgotten anymore.
- Frankly I'm a tiny bit disappointed that the ending of the movie wasn't that Shang-Chi and Xialing were taking five rings each. It would've made sense and carried through the symbolism of how both of them not only could but needed to ride the dragon in order to win the battle.
- Speaking of ring symbolism, here's the VFX supervisor talking about the work that went into picking the colors and visual representation of the rings when Wenwu uses them vs Shang-Chi.
- Director Destin Daniel Cretton breaks down the bus fight scene.
- And in "Bless you, Internet" news here's a bus operator talking about the realism of the bus fight scene.
And that's all I've got. Shout-out to all of you who had to wait to see the film like I did. In movie news, see you in a few more months when we're allowed to watch Eternals I suppose.
(Or sooner than that when Hawkeye comes out since I'll be reviewing that too. Catch you then!)
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