The real start to Phase 4 of the MCU, Shang-Chi provides a new lens through which to tell a familiar superhero origin story. Like Black Panther, Shang-Chi fully embraces its ethnic roots through not just casting but the underlying mythology and martial arts as well as the costuming and visual style, with contrasting elemental powers. It is not quite so successful a package but it demonstrates that Marvel is (belatedly) fully committed to a diverse roster of characters. Perhaps the film’s greatest assets are Eastern cinema veterans Tony Leung and Michelle Yeoh. Although Wenwu is an antogonist driven by a single purpose, Leung’s performance provides nuance and pathos, even if the end of his arc is underwhelming. Awkwafina’s role will be divisive, but it provides a helpful grounding presence amidst characters already familiar with what is unfolding. A surprising attempt is also made to rehabilitate one of the MCU’s more controversial villains and I will be curious to see how it is received. With superhero action becoming increasingly formulaic, the martial arts choreography feels genuinely fresh (particularly in the beautiful opening sequence) and it does not devolve into CG monsters and blasts of power until the very end. Where Black Widow‘s attempt to tie up loose ends underwhelmed, Shang-Chi shows far greater promise for Phase 4.
“This is just a body. It’s not bad or good. That part’s up to you.”
Dr Dyson Ido
Alita is two thirds of a good origin story, spoiled by an unexpectedly truncated ending that provides no resolution. Despite the heavy CGI at play, Rodriguez’s direction keeps the majority of the film impressively grounded, and the action sequences in particular benefit greatly from characters that feel like they occupy physical space (e.g. a cyborg roller derby shot using the camera techniques used for NASCAR). Ending aside, the biggest flaw is an artistic choice that fails to pay off. Whilst virtually all of the cyborgs have human faces — even where attached to monstrous mechanical bodies — Alita’s is motion-captured CGI to mirror her manga origins and provide a slightly otherworldly appearance. The cartoonishly large eyes are expressive, but the overly smoothed skin and features fall heavily into the uncanny valley, undermining many of the films slower paced, emotional story beats. The fact that the effects work so well on the human-faced cyborgs only reinforces that this was a deliberation decision, if an unfortunate one.
“Shift your hunting ground for a few years and everyone forgets how the law works. Well, let me remind you. A man-cub becomes man, and man is forbidden!”
Although commonly labelled live-action, that is not entirely accurate since Neel Sethi is the only actor who appears onscreen, with CGI filling the space around him. A wobbly opening scene concerned me but generally the CGI is excellent, with breathtaking vibrant jungle vistas when the camera pulls back to capture characters in silhouette. The A-list voice talent can be a little distracting, although Bill Murray is an inspired choice for Baloo. Similarly, retaining just a few of the Disney songs is a stranger choice than excising them entirely. Sethi’s Mowgli is believably curious, isolated and angry, Favreau drawing out an impressive performance against empty green screens. It is not a classic, but the original was not Disney at its height either and this stands comfortably alongside it.