I’ll have these weird experiences at the movie theater where, for some reason, the movie just hits me right. I think, honestly, it’s as simple as “I love the movies” and that’s about it. Merely the experience of sitting in the theater causes me to release all tension and I start getting ultra emotional. So, with Shang-Chi, I was sitting there kinda on the edge of tears for the first 20 minutes. I can’t confirm if it was that the movie worked on me or if it was, again, just being at the movies, but that’s kinda what happens when little ol’ Melvin Benson heads to the silver screen.
And this happened a few other times, too. Mostly when the films drama pulled no punches was I finding myself on the brink of emotional breakdown (in all the best kind of ways). Shang-Chi has some really strong conceptual drama (I’ll explain what I mean by that later) where I found myself wholly convinced into the emotions I was directed. And that’s cool, cause that’s why I got to the movies, yeah? I want to be moved, carried through the excitement of an emotional journey, and all that jazz is A-OK with me!
But, the drama in Shang-Chi does feel mostly conceptual. Like most action films, not least of which Marvel films, the spectacle is the real focus of the movie. Big action set-pieces are the real star that these movies want to focus on. A committees creativity to have people do bombastic things. Which, really isn’t as fun as it used to be now that it’s all CGI background, CGI violence, CGI this and CGI that. There really isn’t any risk involved in what’s taking place, not because I need actors to really be in danger, but because my brain immediately goes, “There’s really no danger because they’re on set surrounded by lots and lots of blue!”. So, when the movie wants to be emotional and carry its drama, I was really into it because those parts feel like a movie, not a thrill ride at an amusement park.
And I think the drama succeeds because our cast of actors is stellar. Tony Leung Chiu-wai takes the cake, but we all knew that. It all works because actors, unlike the blue-screen action set pieces, got the memo that they’re supposed to perform as though everything they’re doing is actually happening. You know, because that’s what movies and theater and performances are all about. They’re about being as real as possible. So, when The Mandarin is revealing his plan for the rest of the movie, and we’re learning his history as a warlord turned simple married husband, back into the warlord that he once was, I’m all for it! I’m convinced.
But, man, that CGI, that constant reliance on computer generation is… frustrating. I want real locations, or sets that a team of artists constructed, not this constant “drone shot” of a compound that clearly doesn’t exist anywhere on Earth. That’s so uninspired. So boring. Especially when a movie like Shang-Chi has the opportunity to transport us to real locations on real Earth, it’s a shame that so much of the movie is set in completely computer generated locations. It distracts me from enjoying some decent performances and reminds me I’m watching a movie, not standing in the same room as these people when they’re fighting, arguing, crying, sharing secrets, etc. I don’t want to be pulled out, I want to be submersed in a movie and completely taken away from my theater seat.
Which, speaking of submersion, perhaps the strongest scene of immersion comes in an altercation briefly shown in the trailer. Xu Wenwu enters a bar, or backroom, or some kind of sleazy secret hideout and proceeds to attack several members of a gang. It looks great because it’s a real location. It looks great because it has real actors. It works because the brief use of CGI (specifically, the use of the Ten Rings to decimate these people) accents the real focus of the scene rather than overcrowds the scene and distracts the primary focus. We’re here to watch as The Mandarin is pulled back into his world, and we’re here to watch Shang-Chi grow to become like his father.
Yet, once again, the film reminds me it’s a movie by, more or less, killing a few characters in brutal fashion without blood or viscera. That’s, arguably, completely fine. I don’t need every movie to be as realistic as possible. Especially when a movie knows its demographic is families and fans, having a scene or two where people are being shredded by the Ten Rings could be traumatic and offensive. But, in the climax of the scene, Xu Wenwu proceeds to murder a man by shooting five of the Ten Rings down into the guys skull. Throughout the movie, we’ve watched as Xu Wenwu launches himself into the air by rocketing the Rings into the ground, then slows his descent by rocketing them again into the ground. Rocks and dirt and all sorts of things fly into the sky when this happens. I think it’s not unreasonable to see, at least, some blood splatter when he shoots those same rings into someone’s face.
There’s definitely a sweet middle ground for displaying forms of violence. Again, I don’t want anything truly offensive, truly stark and vile, something that traumatizes audiences, but at least something to assert impact and interaction between physical forces in the physical world. Blood as a visual motif is very useful in storytelling. It’s something only visible when another is harmed. Use it. Don’t abuse it, but use it.
I want to be immersed. I want to stay there. And every movie has moments of which this immersion falls apart. At least, it can seem that way, and I don’t think it’s irrational of me to complain about that when a core aspect of any art medium is transportation. Film transports and communicates, and the importance of transportation is to help in communicating. So, yeah, I don’t think I’m necessarily nitpicking complaints by going, “CGI bad” or “gimme violence”. I just don’t want these issues to stick around, really. As Marvel introduces more of the bizarre, like demon creatures that eat souls, I’m gonna need something real to hold onto, something visceral to shock me, and something I can invest in with return.
You know, like everyone’s performances. Again, the drama works here because our actors are doing well on set (you know, probably often surrounded by blue, which I’m sure is somewhat depressing for actors). When the film’s drama comes together in that third act, it’s effective and worthwhile. It’d be nice if all of that sifted to the surface more than a not-fight on a the side of a skyscraper and a not-fight in the middle of a not-village in a not-forest by a not-lake. It’s nice to believe what’s on screen is real.
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Melvin Benson is the Founder, Editor-In-Chief, and Lead Host of Cinematic Doctrine. He’s written fiction and nonfiction for over a decade with short stories featured on the Creepypasta Wiki and Wattpad. His novelette Ethereal Temptation, a teen drama with a tinge of magical-realism, can be read for free here. His hope is to see King Jesus glorified as far as the east is from the west!