Marvel’s formula is a wash that cleanses its movies of all flavour. The directors’ names change, so too the composers, but you’ll be damned if you can get to the end of these flicks and taste anything – it’s like chewing buffet tofu. Until now that sensory flatlining has been a regret but with Shang-Chi, the studio’s foray into Eastern mysticism and Wuxia flicks, it’s a betrayal of the movie’s poster promise. What’s the point of experimenting with fusion food if you don’t add the spices? A film designed to sell orientalism to the Chinese looks like its iconography has been ripped from those free calendars you get at your local takeaway. The equivalent would be a portrait of Britain sourced from a branch of Churchill Gifts.
The shift toward calibrating Hollywood movies for the Chinese market (thereby ruining them) has been going on for two decades now. Chinese box office is big business. But what American movies used to offer were personalities, both in front of and behind the camera, who unapologetically celebrated the parent culture’s irreverence and decadence. Shang-Chi, from its flat composition and mechanical editing, to its low-key score, is a curiously muted offering. It begins with a thin slice of Americana – just enough to orientate its core audience, then leaves it behind for a quiet, unshowy tale of dynastic power and hereditary angst. Ben Kingsley’s served up as a buffoon – an apology for Iron Man 3’s cultural appropriation in a movie built on cultural appropriation.
The film’s lack of guile or invention aside, the big question posed by Shang-Chi is can a cinematic universe rely on an expanding mythology alone? The MCU’s always been a magpie – its characters dropped into films that liberally borrow from better movies, sprinkled with pop cultural ephemera – but those initial phases were personality driven. Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Thor, the Hulk – these were big characters. That cut through even if the stories that introduced them were underwhelming. But if you wouldn’t launch a universe with heroes whose connection to the mythos is arguably more interesting than they are, why would you rely on that tactic now?
Simu Lu’s chop-socky nice guy is affable but forgettable. The filmmakers have acknowledged this in-movie by pairing him with Awkwafina’s wide-eyed, jokey tagalong. If he’s not strong enough to carry his own movie, how can he power a franchise? Similar questions can be asked of Doctor Strange, Black Panther’s supporting cast (as Chadwick Boseman is no longer available), Peter Parker, Captain Marvel, and the forthcoming self-serious, implicitly insipid Eternals.
Shang-Chi for all its Asian iconography and sub-Kill Bill action, is a prisoner of the aforementioned Marvel formula. It’s too light to be involving, undercutting big moments with glib humour. It’s too generic in its staging to be memorable. But most fatally, it’s too plugged in to that wider scheme – the films it must feed and co-exist with, to have its own identity. In a movie where much has been made of its identarian credentials, that would be pretty funny, but we’re increasingly too bored to laugh.