It’s fair to say, though, that I find their movies good, just not all that memorable. Clearly, there’s a mountain of effort put into each one of them; and long-time producer Kevin Feige has gone the extra mile in cultivating an environment that – even lightly – strings this growing universe together in ways that maintain the core audience with some access points for new viewers to jump aboard. It’s their workmanship that I respect, even though the franchise might endure a bit of creative backlash from other directors from time-to-time. (Haters gonna hate.)
But because I’m not a Marvel enthusiast, I typically don’t see their features in theaters. I wait for them to either come out on home video or the inevitable cable release. Again, as their universe just doesn’t tickle me personally, I’ve no investment in seeing them right away.
Still, there was enough positive word-of-mouth about Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings (2021) that the wifey and I decided to take it in over the weekend. We were hungry to see something on the big screen anyway, so this was an easy choice. While I’ve no desire to pen a full review, I thought I’d offer up a few words on the picture as I do think it’s deserving of some perspective.
First, what was this hubbub from Feige about Shang-Chi being a bit of “an experiment?”
Meh. I think all the producer was trying to articulate (and probably could’ve done so more astutely) is that the film’s subject matter is a bit of a stretch from what Marvel’s done before. The Iron Man series of flicks was just as much about Tony Stark’s journey to understanding and accepting his role in this wide, wide universe as it was its gadgetry. The Guardians Of The Galaxy took viewers on more of a wild ride, showing them that heroes can come in all shapes, sizes, and … erm … mental capacities. And The Avengers reinforced that even those of us with the most unique perspectives can ‘assemble’ and work together – to rise above our differences – when the mission’s success unites us across purposes.
In contrast, the world of Shang-Chi is largely about Eastern mysticism, how the forces of Good and Evil might be tied to elements unseen. It postulates there’s another world out there in the ether, one that defies our attempts to control much less understand it. Dealing with it can turn us against our fellow man. Even the strongest of us can make a mistake when we’re misled, and the sacrifice to put things right in the end might cost us our very place in existence. Such subject matter is a big meatier than, say, Ant-Man’s quest to save the world and get the girl or even Captain America’s desire to stake out the moral high ground no matter the consequence … and perhaps that’s all Feige was trying to say. Again, he could’ve said it better, but at this point it is what it is.
Second, I didn’t see Shang-Chi as much of a superhero, certainly not in comparison to some of what’s come down the pike from the Mouse House.
This point is a bit harder to distinguish, so you’ll pardon me if I have to largely stick with my impressions here. The other major players in the Marvel Movie Universe have costumes which help represent who they are; yet Shang-Chi’s ‘uniform’ – if that’s even an accurate term – is fairly non-descript. He dresses fairly plainly. Yes, there are the rings he inevitably wears on his arms; but up until that point he’s mostly a man in (somewhat) spandex, and it’s pretty passe. His appearance lacks the cinematic and patriotic flourish of Captain America; it definitely sacrifices the high-tech wizardry that is so much of Iron Man’s personae; and it’s nothing as nuanced nor intricate as Doctor Strange’s living fabrics.
Shang-Chi could be anyone you pass on the street, with the exception of the rings. He’s more of a street fighter throughout most of the feature anyway, and – as a consequence—there’s no need for anything flashy, showy, or dynamic. He just needs his smarts and his fists, and he puts them both to good use.
Lastly, the Fantasy’s success relies heavily on comedy; and that’s definitely a bit of a departure for the Marvel series.
Okay, yes, yes, and yes: there have been funny moments in every Marvel feature. Comic relief has peppered their features not so much because screenwriters craft them so well but more likely because comedy is needed to balance out the moments of tension. These films are efficient, if nothing else, so sticking in a good joke here and there is just part of the formula. What makes Shang-Chi different is that the humor is vastly more organic and part-and-parcel of Shaun (played by Simu Liu) and Katy’s (a breakout job by comedienne and actress Awkwafina) relationship: she’s constantly throwing barbs his way, and he’s always trying to maintain that ‘aw shucks’ partnership. It’s this chemistry that is definitely a stronger part of Ten Rings’ foundation than arguably any other Marvel flick, though I would agree that Guardians Of The Galaxy is a close second.
But there’s a thematic difference between Guardians and Ten Rings that bears mention. Guardians is a cast of wise-cracking irregulars. They’re constantly trying to one-up each other, making their team dynamic always revolve around just who is superior in the context of the moment. Each member is always trying to establish the dominant position. In Ten Rings, there’s no contest between Shaun and Katy; he’s the affable sidekick to her merriment, and she agreeable takes the backseat when he’s called into fighting the forces of evil. They understand their roles, and they’re never trying to surpass the other. That’s the yin/yang of their relationship, and it’s played to perfection by these two gifted talents.
And I think this is why I enjoyed Ten Rings more than I have many of the Marvel films: it felt less and less like a superhero film in a superhero universe. Yes, it had obvious tie-ins to the entire franchise; but it functioned much more independently as a greater Fantasy than the others. While I could quibble with a creative choice here and even a director’s focus there, the feature’s independence helped me to stay in the moment and have fun with these characters and their particular circumstances. That’s rare for a franchise that keeps adding three to four installments a year, and I thought it deserving of notice.