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Shang Chi and the legend of the Marvel solo movies

With the latest releases on Disney+, Marvel has become an incredibly confusing cinematic universe with lots of intertwined plotlines, new characters that might impact the franchise’s future significantly and the introduction of the multiverse concept. Looking ahead, it doesn’t look like it will get any better, as the studio is preparing to release movies like “Doctor Strange: Multiverse of Madness” and “Spiderman: Far From Home,” which will complicate things even more. In this status quo, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” was a breath of fresh air for those who had a hard time following the aftermath of “Endgame.”

Before starting the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Marvel had to sell the film rights of its popular characters such as Spiderman, X-Men and the Fantastic Four to other studios due to financial troubles. So, MCU’s build-up before the first Avengers movie was all about introducing their remaining characters properly and hoping they were as appealing as the characters they lost the film rights for. Thus, we got movies like “Iron Man,” “Captain America: The First Avenger,” “The Incredible Hulk” and “Thor.” Admittedly not all of them were successful at the box office—“Incredible Hulk” still remains the biggest flop of the studio—but they all had one thing in common: originality. Even though they were part of a shared universe, all these solo movies had a distinctive texture of their own. Once the MCU became all about the “comic book events” like “Civil War” or “Infinity War,” the solo movies lacked a distinctive style of their own. Movies like “Black Panther” or “Ant-Man” were almost like B-movies from the Classic Hollywood era which only existed because the events of the movie would be mildly important for the plot of the future “big” movies. Think about “Captain Marvel”: the only reason people saw Captain Marvel was that the character’s logo appeared at the end of an Avengers movie. From a marketing perspective, making people watch a two-hour movie which is essentially a trailer for the future movies is a great success. From a film buff’s perspective, not so much.  

“Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” on the other hand, reminded me of the early Marvel solo movies. It was definitely not disconnected from the cinematic universe, as it features several witty call backs to the old movies of the franchise, but at the same time I felt like the studio has given enough creative space to the director to build a separate world that would fulfill the needs of the source material. As the comic itself is heavily influenced by Chinese culture, it was a good choice to base the aesthetic style of the film on martial arts movies from the 70s and 80s. The fight sequences, especially the opening and the bus sequence, are quite impressive and the artistic use of color adds to the inventive world of the film. Also, the acting performances are exceptional with top tier names like Awkwafina, who has demonstrated her wide range in the last years with movies like “The Farewell” and “Ocean’s 8,” and Tony Leung, who frequently paired up with the legendary Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar Wai in the past. The lead actor Simu Liu had no trouble keeping up with his counterparts as well. But the star of the show for me was, in fact, Ben Kingsley, who makes a surprise cameo by reprising his comedic role as Trevor Slattery from “Iron Man 3.” 

What often becomes an issue for Marvel’s solo movies is the quality of visual effects due to financial restrictions. None of the solo movies in the past could live up to the nuanced visual work in the Avengers franchise, but Shang Chi comes pretty close. It seems like Marvel increased the budget for this entry relying on the movie’s appeal to the Asian market. The movie featured well-designed visuals and memorable fight scenes with high quality CGI. The climactic battle scene at the end reminded me of the iconic battle sequences from earlier movies like the Battle of Wakanda and the Battle of Earth, but on a smaller scale. 

However, the narrative doesn’t match the visuals. The story is not bad necessarily, it is just the most a Marvel movie can do. When there are multiple movies intertwined with the story, the writers don’t have many places to go. Thus, the story becomes formulaic and at no point manages to surprise the audience. Writers are trying to compensate for this by using humor throughout the movie, but it doesn’t change the fact that the story feels mechanical. There are some well-written and memorable scenes but they are only prescribed moments for superhero origin stories. 

Overall, I felt really pleased leaving the theater after seeing Shang Chi. The movie was more engaging than I thought, and the humor was not distracting, which is often my issue with Marvel movies. Of course, it is not a refreshing take on the genre that the audiences will remember, but I believe its efforts to stand on its own in a convoluted Marvel Cinematic Universe should be appreciated. 

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