When I see “Eternals” at Hoyt Auditorium in a few weeks, I will force myself to give the MCU a chance. I say this because of the ironic fact that Marvel keeps on hiring “independent filmmakers” to compensate for the lack of independent thought I saw brazenly displayed in “Shang-Chi.”
The movie follows Xu Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), the son of ancient warlord Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung). Ever since the death of Shang’s mother Yi Ling (Fala Chen), Wenwu has been training Shang to be an assassin for his gang, The Ten Rings. But after being assigned his first mission, Shang escapes to San Francisco, becoming a valet driver and changing his name to Shaun (and yes, that name change is given recognition in a painful joke). He becomes a slacker with a dead-end job, wasting away in karaoke bars with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina). That is, until he finds out that Wenwu is trying to find his wife, believing that Yi Ling is calling for him to save her.
“Shang-Chi” is a waste of time. The writers thought they were making some drama regarding intergenerational conflict, accepting your past, and unhealthy obsessions. But if you really want to explore these themes, just watch Yasujiro Ozu films, because the “Shang-Chi” writers treat these topics with a severe lack of sensitivity. As soon as they received the offer for a MCU film, they seem to have turned into hyperactive children, sprinkling hints of these themes into pathetic scenes and instead choosing to focus on awfully corporate fight scenes.
Aside from Leung and Chen, no other actor seems to care about this film. I recently learned that Simu Liu got his start in stock photos, and he seems perfect for that. The film tries to have a script that turns Shang-Chi into a three-dimensional character, but Simu didn’t really get that memo (just like the screenwriters). I can’t take his performance seriously, as it always feels like he just arrived on set unprepared. His face for emotional scenes is the equivalent of thinking of a funny joke while you’re at a funeral. His casting can be attributed to his physique, but unlike other action stars who aren’t the most talented, he doesn’t seem to have a personality past his stock photo face.
Meng’er Zhang as Xu Xialing, Shang-Chi’s estranged sister, seems to have no interesting aspects of her that her flashback doesn’t introduce. That seems to be why she has the same dull performance in every scene. Michelle Phan as Yi Ling’s sister does a better job explaining the story to the audience, but is only there for derivative exposition and to be an extra for Act 3.
There are attempts at comedy, but when you have Awkwafina in the film, that means 90% of the jokes will be from her, and 100% of them won’t be good if the director thought she was a good casting choice. Despite the fact that she can’t speak Chinese, fight, or use weapons, she forces herself into Shang’s dangerous mission, spending the runtime being useless until her deus ex-machina in the finale. Even after she sees many people die in front of her, the writers keep on giving her tone-deaf jokes. Ever since “Raya and the Last Dragon,” I find her to be the most annoying “comedian” to ever exist, screaming with that terrible urban accent and smoker voice, thinking that her “humor” is the reason people laugh at her. Side Note: There’s a “Planet of the Apes” joke that got many laughs in the theater, and I realized it was stolen from “That ‘70s Show” and dragged out in a sequence that should’ve been deleted. (S1, Ep 20: A New Hope; 01:44-01:55.)
At Hoyt Auditorium, on my second viewing, I found many scenes to be funnier than I remembered. But not because of their “comedy,” but because of Simu Liu’s hilarious “dramatic performance” and the action sequences. It was clear that the MCU wanted a martial arts film to look diverse, but everything seems to go wrong with the action. The editing reminds less of “The Matrix” and more of a cheap music video, which isn’t made better by the blatant CGI and lack of convincing violence on screen. Many martial arts films try to emphasize the physical work done by the actors, with raw scenes that show stakes. What makes “Shang-Chi” terrible is that despite the amount of violent physical contact, the characters never get any scars or bruises, which could have given these soulless sequences some stakes.
But at the end of the day, it’s just another Marvel movie. Just another movie that pretends to be a serious work of art. There’s a reason why I say that every Marvel movie is only directed by the VFX Supervisor.