source: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Coming only two months after Black Widow and two months before Eternals, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings puts us right back in the Marvel grind. That is, you’re back if you haven’t been watching their supplemental TV shows, which would’ve satiated your thirst for the MCU’s constantly spinning story if you chose to tune in.

Personally, the MCU isn’t my cup of tea, so I took advantage of the unexpected break from their barrage of theatrical releases. Refreshed and renewed, I’ve been trying to approach the group of oddities that is Phase 4 as a chance to rediscover the passing joy I experienced watching Marvel movies in the days before they became whiplash-inducing mixtures of end of the world gloom and chipper buddy comedies.

Shang-Chi, thankfully, is a bit of a return to those enjoyable days. Smaller in scale than recent outings and less afraid of its characters’ emotions, it introduces the wayward but destined for greatness Shang-Chi with plenty of the tricks the MCU used to create its box office supremacy while finally pushing the series in a mildly different direction.

And no, I don’t mean that it’s merely about a bunch of people who aren’t white and don’t speak English all the time. That’s important, too, especially in how it expects mainstream American audiences to read subtitles (the worlds that open up once you get comfortable with them!), but more indicative for the future of the MCU (hopefully) is its pulling back from complicated, narratively entwined stories that crowd out true depth of character and theme.

Whereas recent outings required you to track the flailing original Avengers (or sit through lackluster outings desperately tying themselves to the building catastrophic events à la Captain Marvel and Doctor Strange), Shang-Chi allows for a character introduction that actually lets the character shine. The opening of the movie gives Simu Liu’s titular Shang-Chi time to goof around the most outrageously affordable version of San Francisco I’ve seen in a while, establishing a lovable slacker friendship between him and Awkwafina’s Katy that pops with such great chemistry that it’s disappointing when the superhero stuff takes over and Awkwafina is pushed to the background.

The salve for this wound is that their duo becomes a trio with the introduction of Shang-Chi’s sister, Xialing (a fantastic debut for Meng’er Zhang), who gives the movie the great/unfortunate narrative problem of being much more capable and confident than her brother. It’s hard not to tap your feet while the movie slows for Shang-Chi’s struggles with his family history, because Xialing could almost certainly step in and take care of things without all the hemming and hawing.

But the struggles of fathers and sons are comfortable story outlines, I guess, and Marvel will only go so far in deviating from its formula. Returning to the days where they largely introduced characters in their own insular worlds is one thing; letting a movie be about a female superhero without it being about a FEMALE superhero is another.

So Shang-Chi is the one destined to take on their troubled father’s grief-induced endangerment of the world, which makes for a movie that seems on the surface like a big swing for the MCU but is really sticking to a tried-and-true plot that can play anywhere in the world.

Still, those surface changes do a lot to break the monotony the MCU had fallen into. No aliens are invading and they finally (finally!) get out of the trap of uninspired PG-13 level gunplay. Instead, much of this movie’s action is good old hand-to-hand combat, and while its fights have clear influences, they’re much easier to make exciting while retaining a family-friendly rating.

It’s the early action scenes that truly impress, before the movie falls into the requisite CGI-laden, messy MCU climax. As Shang-Chi and Xialing show off their training as non-superpowered martial arts masters, the crispness and dare I say joy in the action is almost shocking in comparison to the thudding sequences Marvel has been throwing at us. Instead of cramming danger cues and quips down your throat (think that terrible prison breakout in Black Widow), co-writer and director Destin Daniel Cretton, of all people, finds a way to show you every punch, kick, and swing while integrating jokes these characters would actually say, a skill his preceding movies like Short Term 12 and Just Mercy never even hinted at.

What’s unsurprising, if you know Cretton’s work at all, is that he’s able to mine the rudimentary character beats an MCU movie gives you for all their worth. Does Shang-Chi and Xialing’s father really have a complicated character history? No. Does Cretton know that the great Tony Leung will make that character impactful with minimal screen time? Yes. That frees Cretton up to indulge in a relatively long buildup with the winning trio of Liu, Zhang, and Awkwafina, and it’s this part of the movie, before the superhero stuff really takes off, where the movie shines.

Eventually the MCU mechanisms kick in, and the usual pacing issues rear their head. But before that is a glimpse of what I was hoping to see from the tantalizing lineup of filmmakers in Phase 4: movies that let recognizable human beings move through a fantastic world, ones that I finally had reason to care about again.

Release: available in theaters on September 3rd, 2021
Director:  Destin Daniel Cretton
Writers: Dave Callaham, Destin Daniel Cretton, and Andrew Lanham
Cast: Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Meng’er Zhang, Tony Leung, Michelle Yeoh

Author: Emily Wheeler

Member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. Rotten Tomatoes certified critic. Movie omnivore.

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