It’s not what you’re used to seeing in a Marvel Studios release: bright neon light casting Simu Liu and his on screen opponent in neon silhouette; a dazzling array of forested trees acting as both venue and enraptured audience for a fight scene in the woods; just even an occasional emphasis on shadows, period. Yet all these things and more are visible in the new Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings trailer.
Could this be a signal that the Phase 4 era of the MCU will be a more visually dynamic one? We can hope.
The new film, which opens in September as Marvel’s first post-Black Widow release—and the first film made by Disney set after the events of 2019’s gargantuan Avengers: Endgame—is a bit of a fresh start for Marvel. In addition to not being a sequel or a prequel to an already established character, it is the first MCU film starring an actor of Asian descent (not to mention a wholly more diverse cast), as well as an attempt to right the perceived wrongs of dismissing the “Ten Rings” organization as a punchline in Iron Man 3.
However, it might also be a chance to further diversify Marvel’s visual style which, by and large, has been blandly utilitarian for about a decade. It didn’t begin this way. Jon Favreau’s first two Iron Man films were both shot on 35mm celluloid and have a playfully colorful dynamism to them. Kenneth Branagh’s first Thor, for whatever other flaws, also had a relatively stylish cinematography. Yet beginning with Marvel’s transition to digital cinematography on Captain America: The First Avenger and especially The Avengers, a rather uninspired, overly well-lit visual presentation became the unofficial Marvel house style.
Video essayist Patrick H. Willems accurately described how many of the Marvel movies of the mid-2010s, with flat lighting and the type of visual uniformity found on television, often resembled a “parking lot.”
There have been outliers, of course. The Guardians of the Galaxy films and Thor: Ragnarok have particularly been exceptions, but arguably the kind that prove the rule. Nevertheless, most of the visual awe in MCU movies tends to come from what’s designed in a computer instead of what’s captured by an actual physical camera. Shang-Chi suggests that could change.
With the aforementioned action shots glimpsed in the trailer, some imagery in the film seems inspired by a fight scene in Sam Mendes’ Skyfall, while other shots clearly evoke Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (and hello there, Michelle Yeoh!), director Destin Daniel Cretton appears to be wearing his influences on his sleeves. Formerly an indie filmmaker behind critical darlings like Short Term 12 and Just Mercy, as well as the first Asian American MCU director, Cretton is open about wanting to shake up the visual look of Marvel movies.
In 2019 he even explained to Collider why he wanted Bill Pope, the cinematographer of The Matrix, to lens Shang-Chi.
“He has a really beautiful style, that’s both naturalistic and grounded, but also heightened, in the best way,” Cretton said. “And anybody who can shoot The Matrix is probably gonna do great with this one… I think particularly for our first Asian/Asian American step into the MCU, that tone feels right.”
Indeed, Pope did lens all three of the Wachowski sisters’ original Matrix trilogy. Additionally, he has experience of overseeing the photography on some of the most stylish genre films in the last decade, including every Edgar Wright film since Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, including 2017’s Baby Driver. And in the realm of superheroes, Pope was the DP on Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 and Spider-Man 3, with the former still widely recognized as one of the best (and best looking) superhero films ever produced.
Shang-Chi will similarly be Pope’s first movie in the MCU. And if the trailer is anything to go by, he’ll be bringing some very welcome style to the proceedings. Perhaps things really will look quite different in Phase 4?