Marvel Studios is very much a well-oiled machine at this point, reliably churning out hit after hit with a factory-like precision. They are increasingly criticized for having a safe, mass-produced feeling however, with some complaining that the core formula is beginning to feel a little bit stale. Sure, they may bring in name filmmakers to play with their toys, but it is only very rarely that they let them have any fun with them outside of the pretty strict set of rules they’ve established. I guess I’m just a sucker for the formula though, as other than for a few complaints, I had an absolute blast watching this movie. Moreso than their other post-Endgame titles, this one really seems like the kickoff of Phase 4, perhaps because of how minimally connected it feels to everything before it, and perhaps because it is the first origin story the studio has put out since Black Panther 4 years ago, and also perhaps because it is the first of their films since that one that felt like it really brought something new to the table.
Our title hero (Simu Liu) has been living in San Francisco under the name Shaun for a decade and has a job parking cars with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina), after having run away from his upbringing as a martial arts assassin by his father, Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung). The slacker lifestyle he has been enjoying is upended when some of his father’s henchmen attack him on a bus to steal the pendant he received from his mother (Fala Chen) before she was murdered. This inspires him to set off for Macau to locate his sister (Meng’er Zhang) before they can come to steal the matching pendant from her, and leads to the discovery of Xu’s plans.
If this feels like a fairly rote superhero story, that’s because it basically is, and by the end it feels even more like a stereotypical “chosen one” origin. This isn’t helped by the fairly minimal character development that virtually everyone receives, aside from “sidekick” Katy, oddly enough. Sure, we get to see flashbacks to Shang-Chi’s upbringing at his father’s compound both before and after his mother’s death, but they all feel more like plot beats than any actual motivation. Nevertheless, there is more than enough spectacle on display throughout the movie that it’s pretty easy to overlook those issues, so much so that you probably won’t even know you’re doing it unless you specifically think about it afterwards. The fight choreography by stunt coordinator Brad Allan and fight coordinator Andy Cheng (both students of Jackie Chan) is consistently exciting, and gives us the best such sequences that the MCU has produced to date, with one early scene on a bus being a particular standout. This is further helped by a slightly lower reliance on the sort of jarring, quick-cut editing that plagues many modern action movies, though it’s still not without its examples, in particular during the climax where there were a few moments in which I found myself unable to determine exactly what had just happened.
But what perhaps makes the movie stand out most of all is the full-bore inclusion of figures from Chinese mythology. I don’t want to say too much about it, as it gives away some of the story, but the imagination that the filmmakers get to display here in bringing their world to life is what people will likely remember the most about the movie, and I am glad to see the MCU moving more in this direction since the success of Guardians of the Galaxy 1 & 2, Thor: Love and Thunder, and Black Panther. Note that those are the franchise entries where it felt like the directors were actually allowed to exert a pretty high degree of control. It doesn’t feel like Destin Daniel Cretton was given nearly as much leeway here, but it’s still one of the series’ stronger entries, and possibly its best origin story. ★★★★
Available in theaters.
Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and language.
★★★★★ = Excellent | ★★★★ = Very Good | ★★★ = Good | ★★ = Fair | ★ = Poor