'Shang-Chi' Review

Plus: Does Paramount's release date shuffle presage yet another round of blockbuster delays?

Review: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (Theaters)

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a perfectly solid, remarkably competent action-adventure movie with a handful of great set pieces, a decent villain, a compelling hero, and just enough humor to let us know no one’s taking anything too seriously. It’s just a comic book movie, folks.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is back, baby!

Simu Liu is Shang-Chi, though when the movie begins he goes by Shaun. The son of Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung)—whom we learn in an opening exposition dump is a thousand-year-old gangster warlord whose reign derives from ten magical rings that have, like, powers and stuff—Shang-Chi is hiding out in San Francisco. He’s working as a valet and hanging out with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina); they’re both underachievers looking for little more than a good time and a decent karaoke bar.

Until, that is, Shang and Katy are attacked on a municipal bus while on their way to work one day by a team of assassins led by a guy who can attach and detach a laser-sword to a stump on his arm. The fight on the bus that follows is one of several quite good kung fu-inflected set pieces (though, for my money, Nobody still has the best bus-fight of the year). No one’s reinventing the wheel here, but director Destin Daniel Cretton does a good job of maintaining fight logic within a relatively contained space, even if the action on the road the bus is speeding down is faintly absurd.

Shang-Chi is effective because the stakes remain relatively small. It is, essentially, a family melodrama: Xu Wenwu hopes to recover his lost wife, Li (Fala Chen), and is willing to risk destroying the universe to do so. But he doesn’t know those are the stakes; he simply thinks he’s rescuing his beloved from captivity at the hands of the mythical village whence she came. Shang-Chi has to reconcile with his estranged sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) in order to stop their grief-stricken father from doing something terrible.

Again: small stakes. Everyone can understand a conflict of this sort, and when you’re able to understand the conflict you’re able to accept some of the absurdities, like a fight off the side of a skyscraper in Macau or the idea that dragon scales make perfectly good armor or that there’s a hidden Wakanda-style city of advanced technology and peaceful tranquility, though Chinese, that we hear of but never see. And, thankfully, this mysterious feudal Chinese village in which martial valor is the greatest good has transcended petty things like the patriarchy: no sexism here!

There’s action, there’re laughs, and we get some callbacks to previous Marvel movies. All in all, about what you might expect from the universe’s most successful movie franchise. Whether or not Simu Liu or Shang-Chi and his rings are enough to entice audiences back to theaters … well that’s another battle entirely. And one no magical ring can help superproducer Kevin Feige and his boss at Disney, Bob Chapek, win.

Lots of good cultural stuff up at the site this week. We’ve got Bill Ryan on Donald Westlake, the greatest of all crime novelists. Armin Rosen tackled Kanye West’s Donda and its crazy release strategy. Meanwhile, I looked at Annette and mused about its status as the sort of anti-algorithmic art that keeps films vital. If you like what you read there, want to unlock access to the comments here, and want to get member-only episodes of Across the Movie Aisle like this week’s on Candyman, make sure to subscribe to Bulwark Plus today.

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Paramount Delays Its Slate Again: Will Other Studios Follow Suit?

Bad news for lovers of theaters dropped this week as Paramount announced it was delaying the release of Top Gun: Maverick yet again, this time to the weekend of Memorial Day 2022. This in turn means the studio’s other upcoming Tom Cruise project, Mission: Impossible 7, will be bumped from Memorial Day to the fall of 2022. And Paramount also pushed Jackass Forever to February of next year.

In other words: Paramount is spooked.

The big question is whether or not any other studio will follow suit. What does Sony do with Venom: Let There Be Carnage (which was recently pushed back a couple of weekends following a lengthier COVID-related delay that saw the movie lose its initial October 2020 release date) or December’s Spider-Man: No Way Home (which will be even trickier to muck about with, given its place in the broader Marvel Cinematic Universe)? What happens with the new Ghostbusters? Will MGM and Eon get cold feet and push No Time to Die back yet again? Will Warner Bros. delay The Matrix: Resurrections, a film for which the general public has seen exactly zero official images or seconds of footage anyway?

I think we’ll have a better sense of the field of play after Shang Chi’s numbers roll in. If it does markedly worse than Black Widow’s (relatively) anemic $80 million opening weekend despite not being available on Disney Plus as a “Premier Access” purchase, you might see some of these bigger titles get spooked and bail. People are too afraid, we’ll be told. COVID continues to spook audiences; who can blame Paramount et al for being spooked themselves.

Here’s the thing, though: There’s really no reason to believe that the portion of the audience prone to being spooked is going to be any less spooked in 2022 than they are now. All of the same excuses to avoid theaters will be there in some form or another: Anti-vaxxers will still exist and they’ll still be dying at higher numbers than the people who, wisely, choose to get vaccinated; children under the age of 5 probably won’t have access to vaccines yet; cases will increase and we’ll be told to consider the immunocompromised, what about them?

Eventually, though, the studios are going to have to realize that they’re killing the movies they’re trying to save by implicitly conceding that movie theaters aren’t safe (despite the fact that they very much are) rather than forcefully arguing for their use. Moviegoing is a habit, a habit that has come to be dominated by people checking out the biggest releases on opening weekends, and folks are already falling out of the habit. How can you hope to get them back into the habit if you spend two full years telling them the habit doesn’t matter much anyway?

One last thing that I think no marketing department has yet to fully grapple with: You can’t advertise a blockbuster for literally years and expect people to show up when they finally debut in theaters. It confuses the audience: I’ve had people tell me they thought the new Bond movie came out already and were wondering why it wasn’t on Redbox yet. I’ve seen Daniel Craig jump off that bridge approximately 50 times in theaters over the last two years; if I have to watch that trailer in front of movies for another six months I’m going to lose it.

Assigned Viewing: Do the Right Thing (The Criterion Channel)

I was kind of hard on Spike Lee last week in the Washington Post and this week on Across the Movie Aisle for flirting with 9/11 trutherism. So I’d like to remind folks of why he’s one of the great modern filmmakers by assigning Do the Right Thing, one of the centerpiece films in the Criterion Channel’s “New York Stories: 61 Films” series.

Lee’s ear for language—the way it can both bring people together and viciously rip them apart, almost in the same instance—remains his greatest asset. Armond White summed it up neatly nearly 30 years ago: “No filmmaker since Robert Altman has shown such a profound knack for the American vernacular. The modulations between harsh, seductive and just plain social talk seems effortless. One sequence shows off this gift in a montage of Black, Italian, Latin, and Jewish epithets. Lee uses language—the sound of urban unease—to intensify his story’s social dynamics.”

The sequence highlighted here is one of the most famous in recent film history for good reason, just a powerful juxtaposition of ugliness and anger mouthed by people living on top of one another on the hottest day of the year in America’s most explosive neighborhood. No wonder things get a little nuts at the end.