Shang-Chi: Why Simu Liu Is the MCU's First Action Star - VRGyani News and Media

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Monday, September 6, 2021

Shang-Chi: Why Simu Liu Is the MCU's First Action Star

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is made up of action movies that don't create action stars. They create MCU stars. A top-billed Marvel role launches you into another stratosphere, where the MCU of it all is so powerful it consumes the other parts of your stardom, and any future indie projects or out-of-the-box experiments will, on some level, garner the reaction "oh neat, Captain America is playing a lawyer." The set-pieces of any given Marvel movie are a second thought compared to its personality; the action is just lights and noise in between iconic character moments. The franchise's biggest, most memorable set-piece, the final battle of Avengers: Endgame, is weightless, digitally-rendered dishwater when watched in a vacuum, but a decade of audience investment in these performances, Alan Silvestri's rousing score, and several dozen pitch-perfect individual character beats turned it into an action scene for the ages. But we're living in a post-Endgame world, and while Black Widow offered the first tiny hint of MCU action that packs an actual punch, it's Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings that just roundhouse-kicked the stereotype into oblivion. Director Destin Daniel Cretton's film is the first of the franchise to be an action movie before an MCU movie, and as a result its leading man, Simu Liu, is the franchise's first bonafide action star.

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There are about a thousand reasons why this is true, but you have to start with one that sounds so simple: Simu Liu actually has a background as a stuntman and physical performer. It's not what he was known for before getting cast in the MCU—that'd be the devastatingly charming sitcom Kim's Convenience—but it's the most essential part of the package, one that includes experience on the stunt teams of Heroes Reborn, the 2017 action flick Kill Order, and CBS' Designated Survivor. Not having to cut a fight scene around Liu is a small thing that solves the biggest obstacle hamstringing MCU action: How do you make your hero look as superhumanly cool as possible without exposing the process? Liu's experience radiates outward into every step of the creative process. His casting allows you to comfortably bring in Bill Pope, the cinematographer who cemented Hong Kong-inspired action's place in American genre films with The Matrix, and actually let him have some fun. You can hire Andy Cheng as fight coordinator and the late Brad Allen as supervising stunt coordinator—two members of the legendary Jackie Chan Stunt Team—and actually see their work on screen, fluid, clean, in-camera, and mercifully not shaky-cammed to death.

The result is the first MCU movie that's built around the action and not the other way around. The film is still filled to the brim with MCU hallmarks, including the required incomprehensible third-act CGI soup. (Shang-Chi's version at least briefly includes Tony Leung looking tragic and forlorn, one of the most powerful weapons in cinema history.) But take, for example, the runaway bus sequence early in the film. It's probably only (being wildly generous) about 60% practical, but every single digital touch is in service to the choreography. The veritable army of CGI artists and stunt performers involved, the cheeky ways Pope's camera is floating through and around the bus, the wonderful comic relief commentary from Zach Cherry, it's all big-budget technical wizardry being used to enhance the fight at the center, which is impressive for very basic reasons. A clear sense of space and blocking. A thrilling fluidity; a chaotic elegance. Minimal cuts. Lord, bless the minimal cuts. It's a scene that understands cinema's best fights, even at their most violent, feel more like a dance than a car crash, and this scene literally takes place inside a car crash.

To put it blunter: It feels like a unique MCU fight scene because it actually feels like a fight scene.

And that distinction is going to work wonders for Shang-Chi's future in the MCU. Liu's introduction instantly offers something unique to the franchise in a similar way to, say, Chadwick Boseman's T'Challa or Tom Holland's Peter Parker. In Boseman's case, it was this jaw-dropping regalness so potent you genuinely could not understand why the Avengers weren't bowing. For Holland, it was an undeniable aw-shucks earnestness so pure it felt like he single-handedly made Sony and Marvel come to terms. Shang-Chi offers the same sense of newness to the MCU; audiences are going to want more of this character, even if it's a subconscious thing, because this film broke up eleven years of indistinguishable action.

I'll admit my first reaction was to roll my eyes at Cretton's comparison to Jackie Chan films—Captain America: Winter Soldier is a great movie that is also, in no way, a political thriller—but it really is quite remarkable how much Chan's DNA runs through every aspect of Shang-Chi's live-action debut. Liu isn't being asked to pull off your typical introductory MCU origin performance. He hands off most quips to Awkwafina, because like the Jackie Chan who also hung off the side of a bus 36 years ago in Police Story, Liu's charms shine through in motion; in the way his extremely un-superhero-esque everyman persona is at odds with the extraordinary things he is, somehow—occasionally to his own surprise—doing with his hands and feet. (The moment that makes the entire performance is Liu's sheepish shrug at his own finely-sculpted six-pack abs, a great bit of "yeah, I don't know what to tell you.") For years, I've wanted MCU entries to feel more like actual action movies. Now, that just means I want more Shang-Chi.

KEEP READING: Why That 'Shang-Chi' Ending Feels Like a Fresh Start for the MCU



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