Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the 25th film of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), opened to a historic $90 million over Labor Day weekend. It is the third-highest September opening of all time, behind It and It: Chapter Two. Many have praised the feature for its action cinematography, cast, visuals, and representation of Chinese and Asian American culture (with our review here). After much pressure over whether this would be released simultaneously on Disney+ due to the COVID-19 pandemic or the recent comments on it being an “experiment,” this feature proved it was another slam dunk for Marvel, Disney, and the world.
Here are five takeaways from the MCU’s latest prospect:
#1 Even within the pandemic, the Marvel Cinematic Universe still stands at the top.
Even when considering Marvel’s current fight with Scarlett Johansson over the decision to release Black Widow into theaters and Disney+ simultaneously, the studio has released two of its four features this year to admirable success. Black Widow was a solid (albeit unspectacular and overdue) solo tale that gives Johansson one last ride as the titular character while highlighting Florence Pugh as the next star to lead for years to come. The feature grossed 80.4 million domestically in its opening weekend at the theaters, the highest during the pandemic (while grossing 67 million in its opening weekend on Disney+). Many had finally gotten their wish of Johansson to get her solo film after years, and even though it didn’t attain perfection, it still put folks in seats to watch.
The Shang-Chi film’s monstrous opening four days proved how resilient Marvel is during the pandemic. The pre-release details gave insight as to how refreshing it stands in the evolving superhero genre. Upon witnessing, it stays delivered with a straightforward story and intentions. With Eternals coming in November and the hotly anticipated Spider-Man: No Way Home in December, the MCU will stand firm for 2021 (even if it’s not reaching the record heights it made in 2019).
#2 Bringing in lesser-known directors to reinvent the storytelling wheels for the MCU is a win-win-win.
The reason why the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to dominate isn’t that it constantly uses the same characters in every film. It works because the production team understands that a story can become enlightened and freshened up through the perspective of a different, ambitious film director. Joss Whedon probably would’ve collapsed if he had stuck around to do Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame, and the movies might have too.
The MCU has brought directors of different backgrounds to tell new, absorbing stories. James Gunn wowed us when taking on the Guardians of the Galaxy. Peyton Reed finally struck gold with Ant-Man. Scott Derrickson gave us magical moments in Doctor Strange. Taika Waititi reinvigorated the entire Thor franchise in one feature. Ryan Coogler transcended superhero entertainment with superb themes and cultural involvement by directing Black Panther. And the Russo Brothers gave us momentous outings with The Winter Soldier, Civil War, Infinity War, and Endgame.
Speaking of those last two mega films, it didn’t work solely because of the Russo Brothers. It worked because all the directors and cast came together to continue the tones and characterization of the onscreen characters. If everyone played an Iron Man, we would all be sick of Iron Man. Different themes, styles, personalities, and stories all usher in vibrance. And the audience gobbles it up-no wonder why the franchise has grossed over 23 billion dollars+ at the box office.
So, Destin Daniel Cretton joins this fray with his work, and hopefully, it continues to bring him unwavering accomplishments moving forward.
#3 The Marvel Formula still works (for the most part).
The MCU always loves to have their usual tactics: incredible action sequences, some family drama is at stake, and funny moments to keep the audience alive. It works, and sometimes one trait is valued over the others in respective films. And in almost every MCU work, usually one or two characters will steal the show. We know Tom Hiddleston, your presence as Loki saved most of Thor: The Dark World.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings has some memorable moments. The whole family drama weaves throughout over the death of a mother/wife. The action is phenomenal, from the opening to the bus sequence to the skyscraper fight. Awkwafina’s Katy gets to stand out with her charmful humor. Tony Leung stood out astonishingly as the main villain, something Marvel swings and misses at multiple times.
However, the exposition in most spots leaves a lot to be desired. And the one glaring issue with the Marvel films still stands: the final act wallowed in an overkill of special effects. There is a cornucopia of problems that come along with this addiction Marvel has. And in Shang-Chi’s case, it nearly robs the character arcs and story progression with the chaotic CGI at the finish line. No spoilers, but the ending felt less like a solo story and more devoted to keeping the MCU’s timeline in mind.
Marvel needs to work on this because it becomes repetitive, leaving some to groan once the third act rolls around. They have a lot of tools that work, but some that particularly need refinement. And it became more evident as Shang-Chi took us on a journey back to his past.
#4 Broadening the spectrum of representation empowers other cultures, as Black Panther showcased.
Before the film was released theatrically, some folks online had mentioned that Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is like an Asian-American version of Black Panther. Despite an odd implication, it still demonstrates that representing a nonwhite culture on the American screens is essential. The production team at Marvel decided to eradicate the yellow peril origins of its protagonist and offered a story of revenge, trauma, and redemption.
The film touches on some great traditions and themes like the importance of family names to Chinese immigration and how the culture still favors males over females in the spectrum of a Chinese family. It also is a homage to Hong Kong kung fu cinema, which remains eye-dropping to this day. And it takes it up another level by giving audiences vital female empowerment (Awkwafina’s Katy is more than a humorous sidekick and Meng’er Zhang’s Xialing is a badass fighter) and a mature, conflicted attitude in Simu Liu’s Shang-Chi protagonist. It all gives a powerful message to younger generations (with the irony that China most likely will not distribute it on their screens).
So, no, it’s not an “Asian-American” version of Black Panther. It stands as its own, bringing about relevant themes integrated in the past (and present) Asian-American history. The story told is hugely different compared to Ryan Coogler’s exploration of black culture. It’s a huge win for representation and something that studios should continue. Having Black Panther and Shang-Chi’s solo movies be a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is indubitably significant.
#5 The “MCU Streak” strengthens and lives (or will it one day be broken?)
After 25 films and over 23 billion dollars, the MCU continues to stamp its dominance worldwide. Every film has been a box-office success, and each has received good to masterful receptions. At this point, the MCU could have a flop, and it will recover nicely.
But the question is when. Will the MCU’s streak stay intact? It stands at 25-0.
Phase Four continues to be vibrant but is also riskier compared to the past slate of movies.
Eternals will be a game-changer with Oscar-winning Chloe Zhao at the helm. Spider-Man: No Way Home has many potentials, but it could be overbearing for Spider-Man and friends. Sam Raimi directing Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness could be too ambitious. And Fantastic Four, which will become rebooted a second time, is coming to the MCU (with the first two versions not being good).
Let’s pray Kevin Feige and Co. can keep the momentum. For now, let’s enjoy Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings in theaters.