The 2021 blockbuster season was barren, to say the least. Kicking off the summer: “F9,” also known as “Fast and the Furious 9,” or “F9: The Fast Saga,” horribly underperformed at just half the expected opening gross, bringing in $30 million that weekend. “Black Widow,” the latest entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, overcame the fact that it was available online the same day as its theatrical release. It earned $80.4 million on opening weekend, while still earning an estimated $60 million through Disney+ rental charges.
After Marvel could not release any of their movies in 2020, the company is coming back swinging this year as the second of four films to be released in 2021 debuted this month.
Simu Liu stars as the titular Shang-Chi, who is assimilating into modern-day San Francisco under a name with just a few different letters. “Shaun” is trying to leave his dangerous father in the past. Xu Wenwu, played by Tony Leung, is the leader of the Ten Rings army and trained Shang-Chi from birth to become a perfect assassin. “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” tells the story of a man who can’t hide from his past anymore as he returns to China to confront his controlling father.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been running since 2008, “Shang-Chi” is their 25th film, and it seems that there are no plans of stopping anytime soon. It has been two years since the MCU peaked with the grandiose “Avengers: Endgame.” After the dust settled, it seemed odd to pretend any other villain of the week could be as intimidating as the space tyrant Thanos. Why should audiences get invested in Marvel films going forward? To paraphrase Samuel L. Jackson in “Pulp Fiction,” personality goes a long way.
The action itself is distinct from previous superhero movies as it embraces the Chinese character’s identity. Fight choreographer Andy Cheng clearly has fun in the first action set piece with hand-to-hand combat that embraces the work of Jackie Chan. In a flashback sequence with Xu Wenwu and Ying Le, played by Fala Chen, their weightless aerial fight evokes Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.”
These moments that evoke other films are done lovingly. It is clear that director Destin Daniel Cretton has a reverence for the eastern Asian action films that came before his work. He cultivates a strong sense of culture for the film while also ensuring that each character is fully fleshed out and given moments of humanity.
“Shang Chi” is also one of the first Marvel movies to get color grading correct. The picture does not look like a greyed-out puddle; the go-to examples of boring MCU coloring are the airport fight in “Captain America: Civil War” and more recently, the reveal of Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock in the trailer for “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” A good majority of the film is set in a mystical forest, the greens are beautiful and are then complemented nicely with the hero’s royal red costume.
In a revelation for box office returns, “Shang-Chi” fully surpassed expectations. The film earned an unprecedented $94 million in domestic gross. Even when compared to pre-pandemic years, this is the highest-grossing opening on Labor Day weekend.
“Shang Chi” might not reinvent the wheel, but its moments of earnest characterization can overpower the CGI mess that all superhero films seem to need in a third act.