Marvel's Shang-Chi is so fun, I hate that COVID complicates calling it a must-see
As COVID-19's delta variant continues to threaten, how do you celebrate a movie worth seeing when a trip to the theater could be a mortal risk?
Joan E. SolsmanFormer Senior Reporter
Joan E. Solsman was CNET's senior media reporter, covering the intersection of entertainment and technology. She's reported from locations spanning from Disneyland to Serbian refugee camps, and she previously wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. She bikes to get almost everywhere and has been doored only once.
ExpertiseStreaming video, film, television and music; virtual, augmented and mixed reality; deep fakes and synthetic media; content moderation and misinformation onlineCredentials
Three Folio Eddie award wins: 2018 science & technology writing (Cartoon bunnies are hacking your brain), 2021 analysis (Deepfakes' election threat isn't what you'd think) and 2022 culture article (Apple's CODA Takes You Into an Inner World of Sign)
Marvel's Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, in theaters now, is a globe-trotting martial arts romp. Like Black Panther before it, Shang-Chi lays its groundwork in the best elements of a Marvel movie and then amplifies them with specificity all its own. Built on a framework telling the story of one family's reckoning with grief, it layers on action and humor while playfully blending genres, for the best kind of summer popcorn flick.
But I definitely didn't eat any popcorn during this one. I kept a mask lashed tight to my face. Waiting for the theater to darken, I wondered whether any invisible coronavirus droplets from the scattered unmasked moviegoers would finally sneak past my precautions and infect me. Would this be the calculated risk that I miscalculate? Would seeing Shang-Chi be the slipup that makes me a COVID-19 spreader to my unvaccinated kids?
Going to see a superhero movie shouldn't be so steeped in inner conflict, but that's where we are. Shang-Chi has hit theaters, and only theaters, from Sept. 3, when navigating COVID-19 risk is ludicrously different for everyone. The delta variant is dangerously rampant in some places; but in others, not so bad. COVID-19's resurgence has intensified the perils of returning to normal life for many; but for others, not so much. All of us -- including movie studios like Marvel owner Disney -- enjoyed a few blissful months optimistic that by now we'd be able to pack into theaters like old times, but we still can't (except for all the people who are).
It's hard to recommend Shang-Chi as a must-see when seeing it may, preposterously, be a life-or-death decision.
Shang-Chi is also an important mainstream megafranchise movie for Asian representation at a time when anti-Asian violence has risen, partly because of racist rhetoric related to COVID-19. It's frustrating that delta's rise may prevent many people from celebrating Shang-Chi's release the way they want to.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings offers a lot to celebrate. Comparisons between Shang-Chi and Black Panther will abound, and it's a compliment to both films. Both are Marvel origin stories, both mark Hollywood milestones of representation: the first Black and first Asian Marvel cinematic superheroes, in films directed by and packed with stars drawn from those communities.
And as with Black Panther, the superpower of Shang-Chi is the authenticity of its point of view.
Black Panther director Ryan Coogler tackled the political gravity of racism and colonialism through the prism of its African utopia, Wakanda. In Shang-Chi, the hero's double life -- a mild-mannered car valet escaping his past as a master martial arts assassin -- is fertile ground for plot twists and euphoric fight scenes, but it also echoes a refrain from the lived experience of Asian (or any) diaspora.
It's "the struggle between just constantly feeling like you're between two worlds and like you don't truly belong in either," star Simu Liu said at the film's premiere.
And Shang-Chi's director Destin Daniel Cretton fastens the emotional core of the film on another question bitterly appropriate for our time: How does grief fracture us and our families?
The movie also holds plenty to delight Marvel superfans. From the audible reactions of viewers at my screening, Ben Kingsley's return to the Marvel Cinematic Universe seemed an unqualified triumph. True to form, Shang-Chi includes FX-heavy action set pieces, Easter eggs and revigorations of classic Marvel characters.
Shang-Chi also excels in a Marvel weak spot: The hand-to-hand fight scenes are kinetic. Shang-Chi emulates at least two classic types of motion picture martial arts -- hyperkinetic Jackie Chan-style kung fu and balletic wuxia choreography, a style perhaps best known to US audiences from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In Shang-Chi, all these combat sequences deliver.
But even as the delta variant heightens film fans' anxiety about going to the movies, Disney said it isn't going to change its plan for Shang-Chi to be available exclusively in theaters. That means it won't be available to stream the same day through Disney Plus' Premier Access for $30 at home, as Black Widow and other big Disney movies have been during the pandemic.
"Certainly when we planned our schedule ... we did not anticipate, nor did anybody, the resurgence of COVID with the delta variant," Disney CEO Bob Chapek said earlier this month, referring to the company's commitment to give Shang-Chi an exclusive period in theaters. "At some point you've got to put a stake in the ground and say 'This is what we're going to do,' and that's where we ended up on Shang-Chi."
Chapek indicated Shang-Chi would head to Disney Plus right after its 45-day window in theaters, setting it up to be available to stream there in mid-October. That's a lot shorter than anyone would have had to wait for a theatrical exclusive to start streaming before the pandemic.
But it also sets up a scenario that may blur markers of Shang-Chi's success.
Black Panther's box office proved the mainstream appeal of a Black superhero surrounded by Black supporting characters, generating more than $1 billion worldwide. Outside the Marvel universe, Crazy Rich Asians' creators turned down a "gigantic payday" at Netflix to ensure the film had a traditional theatrical release, knowing box-office grosses would be the strongest signal to Hollywood that it shouldn't wait another 30 years before making another movie with an all-Asian cast.
But streaming popularity is opaque, and divining what counts as a "hit" on streaming is a controversial art. Plus, Disney Plus doesn't specify how many people watch its titles. Black Widow, for example, was a rare instance in which Disney shared a streaming stat, saying its first weekend generated more than $60 million in online purchases, roughly equating to 2 million Disney Plus accounts. That was on top of its $158 million haul at the box office worldwide.
Black Widow marked the best week at the US box office since the pandemic began. It also marked the moment that COVID-19 numbers began creeping higher after hitting record lows.
Maybe Shang-Chi will prove that big-screen exclusives can once again return flocks of people to theaters, even as we come to grips with the notion that COVID-19 will be a part of our lives for a much longer time to come. That's another big expectation to mount on a movie already carrying many.
But, if you can do it safely, Shang-Chi is a movie worth going back to a theater to see.