How can something fit an established pattern and nonetheless feel remarkably fresh? I guess we have to ask the wizards (or is that sorcerers?) at Marvel how they managed, because it’s impossible to watch Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and not think of one or two dozen other MCU films in every second scene – yet this is the first Marvel movie I fully enjoyed since Avengers: Endgame, even if it’s unlikely to convert many people to the franchise who aren’t already on board.
It’s not that I hated Spider-Man: Far from Home or Black Widow: both of these were pleasant enough diversions. Nonetheless, to me they felt like the franchise was continuing out of a sense of obligation rather than because it had stories it wanted to tell. It is difficult to follow the grandiose two-shot of Infinity War and Endgame with its universe-ending stakes and high-profile exits from the MCU, certainly, but the films that followed rarely felt like anything other than stragglers. Meanwhile, there’s a lot to like about the Disney+ TV series, but at the same time they – especially Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Loki – felt like early drafts to me, stories that needed more work before putting them on the screen. They all made choices that arguably weakened the material, that came across as the writers not really thinking through the implications of the stories they were telling. They had potential, but they also failed to live up to that potential in key ways, sitcom pastiches and Alligator Loki notwithstanding.
Which brings us to now. I wasn’t particularly excited for Shang-Chi. I didn’t know the character, I only knew a handful of the actors, and I’ve never really been into martial arts movies (which, admittedly, goes hand in hand with my ignorance of the genre). We decided to go and see the film on the so-called Day of Cinema, an local initiative where on the first Sunday in September cinemas around here offer tickets at a third of the regular price. If we didn’t like it, well, we would’ve paid less than a bottle of Coke costs at the cinema’s snack kiosk.
Turns out, a lot of people had similar thoughts. We’ve been back at the cinema for months now, but usually the audiences were pretty thin. For Shang-Chi, though? Lots and lots of people, most of them considerably younger than us. I was a bit apprehensive, since I tend to be a total snob when it comes to cinema audiences – always checking their smartphones, talking loudly and laughing at the wrong time (the old man yells at a cloud).
I was wrong on two counts. One, the audience was cool and made the film more fun. These were people who knew the world of the MCU, and their enjoyment and excitement were palpable. They worked the way a cinema audience does at its best: their reactions amplified what was happening on the screen. They gasped, they laughed, they yelped and aww!-ed. Perhaps for some of them this was the first time back at the cinema in months. It was definitely the first time in a while that I experienced the cinema as a truly communal thing.
Two, and as importantly, I enjoyed watching a film that was recognisably Marvel but that still felt fresh and new in key ways. Sure, the characters and plot weren’t wildly original, but just having more diversity in terms of the cultural influences and the actors on screen made a difference. I’ve never been a huge fan of MCU action sequences – which may sound weird when it comes to superhero movies, but hear me out: I always enjoyed these films more for the characters and their relationships, for the banter, quips and camaraderie. Avengers: Age of Ultron may be one of the least-liked films of the franchise, but I will always defend its post-party scene early in the film before anyone starts throwing punches. I like hanging out with the Marvel cast of characters more than I like watching them BIFF! and BAM! and POW! their way through CGI hordes.
Speaking of the characters: especially in its first dozen films or so, the MCU often wasted good, charismatic actors in its villain parts, from Iron Man‘s Jeff Bridges to Thor 2‘s space-elf Christopher Eccleston. On paper, Shang-Chi‘s Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung), leader of the Ten Rings and father of the titular hero Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), might seem like one of those underwritten, underdeveloped bad guys, but Leung infuses the part with a soulfulness that makes him more memorable and effective than the material would suggest. And somehow the sense of pathos that Leung brings to the film carries over to its main character. Liu is effective enough in the fight scenes, but Shang-Chi is less immediately engaging than the people around him – but the movie makes this work, defining the hero by the way others relate to him. Awkwafina is funny and enjoyable as his best friend Katy, Meng’er Zhang works well as his estranged sister, and while Michelle Yeoh’s character is relatively thin she is watchable as always, but Leung adds a layer to the title character that makes the audience care about a character that, apart from his obvious skills at hand-to-hand combat, could have felt sketchy and uninteresting. On the character front, Shang-Chi also scores in how it links to the rest of the MCU in unexpected and often hilarious ways, making the cameos feel less like fan service than like the expansion of a fantastical yet living, breathing world, as the MCU manages to do in its best moments.
I don’t think that Shang-Chi will change anyone’s mind on the MCU, except perhaps those most focused on questions of representation in mainstream cinema. The film is limited in the way that most MCU films are limited. It is a summer popcorn flick that does not break the mold – but it does so better than the franchise has done in a while. I won’t run out and get the Blu-ray of the film the moment it comes out, but, truth to tell, I probably enjoyed watching Shang-Chi at the cinema better than I enjoyed watching some of the films where I did get the Blu-ray out of a sense of obligation to my completist urge. I still have certain concerns that Disney and Marvel are running the risk of over-saturation, with four films a year and at least as many TV series in addition. But I’m in a place where I’m curious to see where they’ll take this cultural behemoth next, and how these new characters fit into it. And, considering how I felt after Endgame? That’s already a lot.