Review: Shang-Chi is a Top Tier MCU Film

Growing up as a young lad in the 70s, The Hands of Shang-Chi Master of Kung Fu, was one of my favorite comics to read, more so than Batman or Spider-Man. Yes, I knew it had some racist imagery, but there were no Chinese heroic characters in any comics at all at the time. We took what we could get. The writing by Doug Moench was a bit more mature and the art of greats like Paul Gulacy and the late Gene Day were eye popping. It helped, of course, that that era’s depiction of Shang-Chi was modeled heavily after the likeness of the late Bruce Lee. So it was with great anticipation, hope, and fear when Marvel announced they would be making a Shang-Chi movie. Would they make a cringe inducing cliché of orientalism like Mulan or would they make something that respects culture? Well, with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the MCU has expanded their roster of big screen characters and not only added more representation and diversity to their ever growing dramatis personae, but also created a top tier entry into the Marvel movie pantheon of heroes with one of the most if not the most compelling origin stories in years.

Simu Liu, who is best known for his stint on the Canadian series Kim’s Convenience, makes his leading role debut on the big screen as the title character of Shang-Chi (calling himself Shaun in America) where he plays an everyday slacker youth pretty happy at his job as a San Francisco hotel parking attendant (honestly, in San Francisco, that can be pretty decent money). He is content to do his job and hang out with best friend Katy (Akwafina).

That simple contented life is interrupted one day as a random stranger demands the pendant he wears around his neck that was given to him by his late mother. And in the tradition of Jackie Chan, he is forced to defend himself . What follows is an incredible fight scene with choreography by the late Brad Allan, a former member of Jackie Chan’s stunt team. With a judicious blend of practical stunts and effects mixed with some CG, we get the first true action scene that will probably go don as one of the most memorable in MCU history. The influences of Jackie Chan films are very clear as the stakes go higher and Simu Liu plays the reluctant badass fighter.

It is revealed after this that Shaun, came to America to get away from his criminal father and his past. His real name is Shang-Chi and his father is the true criminal mastermind behind the Ten Rings organization that made its first appearance in Iron Man and was given the false face of The Mandarin in Iron Man 3. Shang-Chi reveals that if the men who attacked him were after his pendant, then they are after his sister’s as well. He decides to travel to Macau to find his sister, Xialing, played by Meng’er Zhang. Since Katy is his best friend, she goes along for the ride, because that’s what best buds do.

It doesn’t take long (besides another excellent fight, this time on scaffolding) before we have a full family reunion with their imposing father who is played by Hong Kong cinema’s legendary Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, as Xu Wenwu. Against comic book tropes, he is not a villain of pure evil. His history is much more nuanced than that and he knows he has done many bad things in the past in a personal quest for power. He gave all that up when he met their mother, but reverted back to his ways after her death. And in that time trained Shang-Chi to be an instrument of death by training him in every form of martial art.

Revealing much more after that will give away too much plot details. In fact, there is not much wasted in this film and an odd side effect of that is that the not so great trailers were the way they were because showing more would give away too much of the plot. And there is a nice plot going on with some drama and performances that stand out more than is not usually seen in films based on comic books. The family dynamic here is believable, much more than what is portrayed in Black Widow which wavered from fake to just jokes. And much of that believability belongs to Tony Leung, who lends a majestic gravitas to his performance as man who has lived for over a thousand years because of the power granted to him by the Ten Rings. Tony Leung is a legend of an actor and if you have not had a chance to see any of his films, especially ones directed by Wong Kar Wai, I highly recommend you seek them out.

Not content to have only one regal supporting role from Asian cinema’s legends, we also graced with MIchelle Yeoh, who plays the aunt of Shang-Chi and Xialing and who wants to stop Wenwu. As in everything that she has done lately, Michelle Yeoh instantly classes the place up. Whether it’s in the high profile Crazy Rich Asians or the little rom-com Last Christmas she provides an air of legitimacy to the more fantastical elements of the plot latter. Yeoh plays the protector of a village that holds a secret that Wenwu desperately wishes for. As is often the case, be careful what you wish for. Though his motivations are not unsound, his reasonings definitely are relatable.

At one point, the movie has to acknowledge that it’s a Marvel film and, for better or worse, we have the inevitable effects laden last battle that has become not only a mainstay of Marvel movies, but comic book movies on the whole. I would understand those that check out at this point because the movie goes full on fantastical. We are treated to mystical creatures straight out of Chinese mythology and a CGI filled battle between multiple forces that humans and non-humans. But bare with me, what still keeps this interesting is the family conflict between father and son. Shang-Chi must inevitably battle his father and yet there is an emotional honesty between their conflict. Neither wants this but they have to do what they have to do. And it is a testament to Tony Leung power as an actor, who has never been featured in a Hollywood movie, to provide us with a character that is human and sympathetic instead of a two-dimensional villain who merely wants power.

It is both a good and bad thing that this is a Marvel film. It does fit well into the Marvel universe. But unfortunately it also has to be part of that larger narrative and as such the Ten Rings will indeed be very important. We don’t know where they truly come from, only that they are very old and they are very powerful. Don’t bother checking up wiki or YouTube because any explanation of them you’ll find are from the comics and the actual powers are fully explored yet. And of course there is the heavy CG battle that was mentioned previously. For some this may come as a heavy break from the relatively grounded fights from earlier. This, for me, nails the multiple genres of Chinese martial arts films and manages to balance the two of fantasy kung fu with grounded fights. This is a genuine martial arts fantasy that does not render itself into absurdity.

Simu Liu is a true breakout star in this vehicle. His character is not the usual arrogant flippant quip filled protagonist who has to be humbled like a Tony Stark or Stephen Strange. He is pretty much a guy who enjoys his working class life until he has to step up. Now, Awkwafina, who I have been a fan with her performances in Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell, is there to not only provide the comic relief but is also there as our anchor from the normal world to this fantastical world of mysticism and martial arts. And against typical trope, she does not serve as the typical love interest for the hero, they are best friends and she is not afraid to call him out for doing something stupid, such as choosing the name Shaun from Shang-Chi to hide from his father. Meng’er Zhang, who has mostly done stage work in China, is another breakout star of the film as Xialing, Shang-Chi’s sister. Fala Chan manages to hold her own against Tony Leung, playing his wife and the mother of Shang-Chi and Xialing. Needless to say, this movie does really well in its portrayal of women who are able to hold their own.

Director, Destin Daniel Cretton makes his big-budget debut with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. His previous film, Just Mercy, featured performances from MCU alums Michael B. Jordan and Brie Larson (who was also in Cretton’s Short Term 12). He made a very conscious and rather brave choice to have the actors speak much of their lines in Mandarin and it gives the film an air of authenticity. He also contributed to the screenplay with Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham. This is not only the first Marvel film with a predominantly Asian cast, it’s the first one with an Asian director. Chloe Zhao will be Marvel’s first Asian woman, and first Academy Award winning director when The Eternals comes out. Cretton very consciously breaks away from Asian stereotypes yet still manages to add the touches of Asian culture that is authentic, such as what many typical Chinese household have for breakfast.

Yes, representation matters, both in front and behind the camera. Shang-Chi feels Asian in not only it’s the performance off its actors but from the production as well. There are subtle details that add verisimilitude to not only Asians but Asian Americans as well, such as that one point that Wenwu addresses Katy as “American Girl” and asks her if she even knows her own Chinese name. This is actually a big thing about the Chinese and Chinese American experience. Katy is not just the outlet for the outsider to this world, but she is the outsider to the Chinese. Her family is inhabited by three generations, hers, her mother, and her grandmother. The grandmother speaks Mandarin, while the mother speaks slightly accented English. Katy is straight up ABC (American Born Chinese). There’s even a joke when Katy and Shang-Chi meet a character who speaks Mandarin to her, he pauses and says “Don’t worry, I speak ABC.”

I highly recommend this movie, not just because it’s part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it’s a damn good film that is enjoyable on its own as a martial arts film that genuinely entertains. Forget what you know from the 70s comics and even the modern ones for a bit. You may be feeling a bit of Marvel fatigue, you may be feeling superhero fatigue, but if you pass up seeing this, preferably in a theater, you are missing out on something that is genuinely fun to watch. Yes, see this in the theater if you feel safe to do so. And need I say that you have to stay through the very end as there is a mid credits scene and a post credit scene? Yes, it’s Marvel.

Final Verdict: 9/10

Review: Spider-Man: Far From Home

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Spoiler Warning: This review will contain major spoilers for Avengers: Endgame while keeping Spider-Man: Far From Home as non-spoiler as possible.

Spider-Man Far from Home is not just a sequel to Spider-Man: Homecoming but is also considered the final film in Phase 3 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Taking place eight months after the events in Avengers: Endgame, the world is still coming to grips with a world post snap, or “blip,” as it is called in Far From Home. The memory of Iron Man haunts the movie throughout as the world still mourns Tony Stark and honors his sacrifice.

This especially looms over Peter Parker who has looked up to Tony as not just a father figure but a superhero mentor.  And as Spider-Man, others keep looking to him as either the “next” Iron Man or the next leader of the Avengers. Along with his superhero responsibilities, he is also trying to balance life as a normal teenager. This balance is strained as Peter Parker and his class go on a European science trip, which really doesn’t get much science done. Part of that is because there is a global threat from — well — monsters.

The students first see one rise out of the waters of Venice and while Peter does his best to save the city’s civilians without his costume handy, a mysterious caped character appears to fight the creature and appears to destroy it by blasting it with green energy from his hands that resemble Captain Marvel’s photon blasts while also wielding what look like Dr. Strange’s spell glyphs.

The students dub him Mysterio as a play on the Italian press describing him as a “Mysterio” or Mystery Man. It turns out that his name is Quentin Beck, a soldier from an alternate earth, and he has been working with Nick Fury to battle creatures known as Elementals, based on the elements, they had destroyed his earth.  Fury wants to recruit Peter into the team to combat these things. Peter is reluctant to do so as he doesn’t feel he is up for the task plus he wants to just be a high school kid for once. Of course if great laid out plans worked as they are dreamed of, we would not have a movie. And he’s still an awkward dork.

This may be Tom Holland’s second Spider-Man movie, but it’s the fifth time he’s played the web slinger. He’s really come to personify the role now and is as connected to the role as much as Robert Downey Jr. has Iron Man or Chris Evans as Captain America. His performance as both Peter and Spider-Man come across as a authentic teenager who has accepted his great responsibility but has doubts about his ability to step up.

It helps to have a strong supporting cast to lift up our main and they are on hand for Spidey. These current Spider-Man films have the most ethnically diverse cast in any Marvel film and it really makes the setting of a New York City High School believable.  Jacob Batalon returns as Ned, the world’s worst best friend. He is mostly around for some comic relief and a source of distraction for Peter when he needs to get away. Since they are out of their home element, their is no opportunity for him to really be the “guy in the chair.” But he owns all his scenes.

Zendaya is back as MJ. Previously, she provided sarcastic commentary every few scenes like a deadpan Greek Chorus. She still does that, but is also the object of Peter’s affections and a such a contrived plan to confess his feelings, it rivals that of anime slice of life romances. Nevertheless, romance does play an important sub-plot for Peter’s character as deals with his hormones and added superhero responsibilities. Though her character is still deadpan, and dry humored, she brings a certain charm to it which reminds me of the goth kids I grew up with in my high school.

Of course, Samuel L. Jackson returns as Nick Fury, a role he was born for. Well, technically, this role was made for him as it was based on the Ultimate Universe comics version oh Fury. And those Ultimate comics line based their Fury on Samuel L. Jackson. Funny how these things work out. Jackson’s is, as always, a welcome presence in the role and brings along Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) as the guys in the chair tag-team for Spidey this time around. He provides the contractually obligated snappy one-liners with typical Jackson panache, minus the use of motherf***er word, of course.

Jon Favreau is back as Happy Hogan with a bigger, more involved, role this time around and also serves as the closest person Peter can turn to for emotional support in the absence of Tony Stark.

If it were any other actor than Jake Gyllenhaal, the character of Mysterio would be a joke. But he manages to not just embrace the role, he manages to sell it to us. For those who know the character from the comics, it’s not too major a surprise what his story is, but it’s more about how and when it is revealed. There are of course differences between the character’s history in the comics as opposed to the MCU, but this fits the movie universe quite well. And for those that were picking apart the trailer looking for clues to support fan theories, y’all got played a little.

The locations from Venice, Prague, and London look great on film and is a welcome change from the almost stale look of generic locations that are so often used in other Marvel Studio films. It really does make the film feel large in scale. And the eye-popping action sequences utilize the locations to great effect.

The film does suffer from a few issues however, one of which is a major dumb decision from Peter Parker that will put himself and everyone he knows in danger. The plot hinges on this, of course, and I guess it was necessary for him to make that dumb move.

With the evolution of the MCU movies, the tech has gone from plausible to near magical and I’m not sure how I feel about that. From magically omnipresent A.I. to spider suits that are magically put together by nano-technology that not just stretches believability but really makes the stakes feel less high is magical tech is going to solve everything.

As humorous as Far From Home is, some of the jokes land flat and romance angle seems to drag at points with what seems to be an unneeded and contrived triangle involving fellow student Brad Davis (played by Remy Hii) for MJ’s attention.

And of course, stick around through all of the credits until the end to catch the two post credit scenes. These two scenes aren’t just little stingers, but they setup major plot points and teases for events moving forward not only for Spider-Man’s future but the MCU as well. Despite a few shortcomings, Spider-Man: Far From Home is a fun entertaining film and is not just a palate cleanser to Avengers: Endgame and close to Phase 3 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It opens the way for the next phase of movies to come. It comes with two thumbs up from me and is Highly Recommended

Final score: 8.5/10

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Spoiler Free Avengers Endgame Review

 

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It was one of the greatest gambits in movie history. What began as a tease when the first Iron Man was released has finally culminated into what may be the biggest movie franchise in film history, rivaling, maybe even surpassing Star Wars. When Samuel L. Jackson showed up in the post credit scene of Iron Man and mentioned the idea of an Avengers Initiative, there was as yet no genuine plan for actually making an Avengers movie.

Even more audacious for the Avengers plan was that every member of the team was going to have their own solo movie to introduce us to the individual members of the team. The Incredible Hulk followed Iron Man (witch is possibly the least connected of the Marvel films), then came Captain America: The First Avenger, and on and on. Every movie was connected and every movie had a post credit tease that led to another movie that was upcoming. It led to the first Avengers movie, the Avengers: Age of Ultron, and last year Avengers: Infinity Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, of comic book movies dropped and like that iconic Star Wars movie from then, left audiences guessing on what will happen next.

Now, we have come to Avengers: Endgame, the culmination of ten years and twenty-two films. Was the wait worth it? Hell yes! Clocking in at three hours, it it is the longest Marvel Studios movie, yet the movie is so tightly packed that there is very little slow parts in it. And any part that may seem slow is actually a buildup to the biggest payoff in not only comic book movie history but maybe in movie history.

The final hour of Endgame is the closest that comic panels have ever become realized on the big screen. Do yourself a favor and do not wait to see this at home, or those really bad bootlegs that have already leaked. The inevitable final battle is a jaw dropping feast of sight, sound, and fist pumping fan moments.

But less you think that this is just a bunch of fan service moments action scenes (I’m looking at you, Game of Thrones season seven!) the film gives every character their featured moment. Character’s that were B-list in the past movies are given a story arc that they had sadly been missing before. Hats off to to all the actors bringing their A-game.

Ultimately Avengers: Endgame is a reward and a love letter to the fans who have stuck around for a decade and twenty-two films. There are almost too many Easter eggs, callbacks, and cameos to count, yet non of it is gratuitous or takes you out of the story. At least I did not think so. And of course there is the appearance of Stan Lee in his final filmed cameo.

I of course highly recommend watching at least the other Avengers movies first — and pretty much almost all the Marvel studio films. This really does tie everything together and gives many of the characters closure to their story arcs.  I have no reservations on seeing this multiple times, and I give it the Highest Recommendation.