I know last time I said this would be out in a week but, instead, it’s been…five months?!?!?!
There’re reasons for that, outside of writer’s block: I’ve been dealing with a health issue, which I won’t go into detail about as it’s too personal, but that alone messed with my head and – no thanks to the usual bullshit that comes with changing doctors and medical insurance – I went without anti-depressants for too long and that, obviously, made things worse.
Thankfully, I’m somewhat better now – I still haven’t found a much-needed therapist – and finally got past my creative blockage.
So, yeah, hope you enjoy this piece, and – even if you don’t – thanks for giving it a look!
SHANG-CHI & THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS
There’s nothing surprising, in the least, that Shang-Chi manages to have some of the better action scenes of any MCU installment.
When it comes to martial arts in cinema – the choreography is as important as the staging. You can’t just half-ass it and cover it up with a lot of CGI either, because you need incredibly physical performers that can make their engagement in combat seem as natural and effortless to them as breathing or blinking. Each movement must feel fluid, as if purely instinctual, and anything else comes off as stiff and mechanical. It’s all essential.
It’s not perfect, for nothing is truly capable of such, but – as far as the MCU goes – it’s gotten closer to it than most. There are those niggles with plot contrivances and occasional holes, the hat-on-a-hat comic relief (I really wish Ben Kingsley was just a cameo), and a third act that’s a bit of a convoluted CGI clusterfuck – but they’re far more tolerable here than other MCU films. There’re conventions common across the MCU, such as the obligatory love interests, that get on my nerves because they rarely serve any other purpose within the movie they appear in and even rarer they’ll make a return. While I wouldn’t call Shang-Chi “subversive”, they do something unexpectedly creative enough with the tropes of a staid formula that’s oddly refreshing.
Katy/Ruiwen (Awkwafina), for example, is initially framed as a seemingly useless comic-relief sidekick but…she’s not.
Outside her integral role in the final battle with a CGI Cthulhu monster (who’s introduced a little too late), she’s actually the one who pushes an otherwise avoidant titular protagonist (Simu Liu) to directly deal with their situation and really the only person he can confide in about his unusual and utterly fucked-up backstory. She is, in fact, the love interest – but that’s not established until the story’s epilogue. It’s not stated in dialogue but with a small gesture where her and Shang-Chi’s hands clasp around each other. Though it is foreshadowed when one of Katy’s relatives suggests dating Shang-Chi, it is quickly dismissed because, at this point, neither of them see each other as romantic partners but very good friends. Like, of all the romances in the MCU, this is easily the most verisimilitudinous. They started as friends, went through turmoil, and it brought them closer together like many couples in reality. I’d like to see more of that in the MCU instead of all that other tepid shit.
It would be remiss, of course, to not bring up the stand-out performance by a fantastic actor: Tony Leung as Zu Wenwu. I’d go as far as to argue that he’s easily the best villain within the MCU, next to Wilson Fisk and Thanos – they’re layered and empathetic at times but we’re kept aware what they’re doing is still wrong. Like Fisk, he is partly motivated by love. Like Thanos, he’s an abusive father who rationalizes his mistreatment as a form of “building character” or protecting his children.
Wenwu is a particularly interesting case because his comicbook counterpart – The Mandarin – is a product of orientalism and cultural appropriation. Asking Katy for her Chinese name, in a weird way, is about how many notable personalities from China and associated territories use an English first name professionally. I mean, Tony Leung was not named “Tony” – it was Chiu-wai. Much like how Chan Kong-sang became “Jackie Chan” or Li Lianjie became “Jet Li.” It’s a practice that, more or less, is done for the sake of insensitive, overly-entitled Anglophones. English-speakers who, from my experience as such, are often so linguistically lazy that they’ll not bother learning how to pronounce non-English words and names or become childishly petulant when suggested they perhaps should. As Leung said, names are important – and it’s insulting to refer to a man as just being “Oriental”. Well, that or common Chinese cuisine…
With all that said, does that mean Shang-Chi is a good martial arts film than simply a superhero movie with elements of martial arts? Well, like so much of the MCU, it’s the latter. It never reaches the heights of (say) Hero, Tom-Yum-Goong, City of Violence, or even Master of the Flying Guillotine but there’s nothing wrong with that either. Not every martial arts film needs to be a masterpiece, but I wish Disney/Marvel leaned into it mainly being a martial arts film, rather than being another “superhero movie” that lifts tropes and aesthetics from other genres. What made Logan one of the best comicbook adaptations, at least in my opinion, is that it wasn’t a “superhero movie” – it was a neo-western akin to a film like No Country for Old Men or televised series like Breaking Bad. Why not do the same for, perhaps, the sequel to Shang-Chi? We can only hope!
Our next entry, however, comes much closer to achieving such…
Apologies, but I need to get this off my chest: I don’t like Clint Barton, both in the comics and MCU. At all. He’s just so…boring, to me.
If you noticed, I said “Clint Barton” and not “Hawkeye”, and there’s a reason for that: I adore Kate Bishop. It’s even better that, when compared to a dull Jeremy Renner, she’s played by an energetic Hailee Steinfeld who manages to make clumsiness ridiculously adorable. Although to be fair, I actually like Clint/Renner in his role here and there’re plenty of reasons for that.
It’s not really a superhero story when considering that the two main leads don’t really partake in the usual costumed crime-fighting antics, nor does the situation involve typical villainous machinations – its scale, much to my delight, is more grounded and personal than the rest of the MCU. It’s more like a Shane Black action-comedy that takes plenty of notes from Die Hard, including being set during Christmas while having nothing to do with the holiday – but, hey, at least New York has snow!
There’s obviously that element of Clint passing the torch to Kate, who is as rich as she is an utter fuck-up, but the inciting incident is almost farcical. Clint is in town to see a terrible (and hilarious) Broadway musical about Steve “Captain America” Rogers and the Battle of New York from The Avengers. Which, like a soldier coming back from Afghanistan and watching Black Hawk Down, gives him post-traumatic flashbacks (more on that, in a bit!). Kate, expelled from her university for an ill-conceived experiment/prank, crashes a secret auction involving the Ronin costume – only to steal it, then wear it, and finally get caught on camera. Given Clint’s worldwide mass murder tour, many disgruntled criminals come out of the woodwork to seek vengeance, including the enigmatic and eclectic Echo (Alaqua Cox) as well as Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh, i.e. the best part of Black Widow).
Of the many (and I do mean many) issues I had with Endgame as a film, the plot point involving Clint going on an indiscriminate rampage under the alias of “Ronin” is among the worst. You’d think, with the five-year time gap and what had happened over those years, he’d have a noticeable change in personality but he just…doesn’t. In fact, his old teammates are disturbingly willing to forgive and involve him in a time-traveling heist, though he could easily become a liability and sabotage their whole endeavor. Hell, they don’t even consider locking him up for the psychotic rampage alone. The point is that there’s no sense of consequence for those actions and, akin to WandaVision, feels aggravatingly counter-productive. In fact, it felt downright pointless. Though I’d have preferred to have it happen in the film, the showrunners of Hawkeye actually address this (to a degree).
For whatever reason, I seem to be one of the only people who liked the series and, admittedly, I’m confused by that. In terms of quality, it’s far more consistent than the other MCU series like WandaVision or Loki – it’s not bifurcated by a useless B-plot nor do the episodes feel as if they last longer than necessary. It has a nice sense of momentum where every episode is eventful, rather than having an entire episode based around an info dump or contrived battle, though it starts to spin too many plates by the end and rush significant character arcs. As much as I love Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk, he was introduced too late in the story – a similar issue Book of Boba Fett had with Cad Bane – and not particularly necessary to make the narrative work. At least, unlike Cad Bane and Book of Boba Fett, he has a neat fight with Kate.
Along with Kate’s clumsiness being an endearing trait, the showrunners manage to make Clint interesting as a person by dealing with his various mental and physical traumas caused by superheroics. Which, given how it was completely absent with Natasha Romanova in Black Widow, is refreshing to see in an MCU installment. We all know these stories take place in a heightened reality but it can help when reality (especially in live-action entertainment) is acknowledged, from time to time, and we’re reminded that no normal person could possibly live through such events and, if they did, couldn’t ever recover from it. His hearing loss nicely parallels Echo’s own condition along with the revenge subplot and, even better, the reason for his hearing loss is shown and not simply told. We’re given but a brief montage of moments from the previous films, being knocked around by so many goddamn explosions – it makes perfect sense without any utterance of an explanation. He might be a highly trained government assassin but he’s still a normal human being, and there’s nothing you can do against inevitable physical entropy.
There are a lot of other things I like, especially the Central Park LARPers as well as Clint and Kate just hanging out celebrating Christmas in a safe house, but it ultimately comes down to how it scales back and treats the characters like people. None of the spectacle ever overrides the very human qualities of the cast the way so many MCU films have and, unfortunately, that’s the opposite case with the next entry.
I’ll never comprehend how anyone could’ve possibly enjoyed the film as its very existence is baffling…
It’s better to ask “why is Eternals?” than “what is Eternals?” Because what Eternals is, as a cinematic narrative, is practically impossible to describe and it’s not worth such consideration unless you already had a personal connection with the source material. If I sound bitter, it’s because I am, for having sat through the entire film and rarely finding a moment of joy.
Admittedly, I’m biased as I’ve always been fond of Jack Kirby’s New Gods, and Eternals felt like a cheap knock-off with the stench of Erich von Däniken attached. Y’see, Däniken is a racist piece of shit and it’s why so many of his “ancient astronaut (totally dubious and unfalsifiable) theories” had aliens who were somehow responsible for the pyramids of Egypt, the Moai statues of Easter Island, or literally any place that both isn’t in Europe and is not Stonehenge. It’s why we have cultural detritus like Ancient Aliens around with a bunch of arrogant, ignorant honky motherfuckers being reductive about and wildly misinterpreting cultures none of them actually understand.
I know I’m being digressive, but I’ve never come across a script as unengaging, over-bloated, and confused as the one for Eternals. It wants to be too many things at once, with too many bland characters, and too much dull exposition for the half-baked mythos. Thinking and writing about it can be painful, at times.
I don’t mind expounding on what the Celestials do, a bit, given their background presence in the MCU but the filmmakers don’t have their priorities in proper order as the monolithic pseudo-deities are treated with more importance than anything else in the narrative. For example; I’d like to know who Sersi (Gemma Chan), Ikaris (Richard Madden), or Sprite (Lia McHugh) are as people but you really can’t when they also have to share screentime with another eight or so characters – which could easily be remedied by cutting out some of them, as their involvement is negligible at best and pointless at worst.
So much of the film are these characters meeting up with one another, constantly bringing up how they’re “family”, which is as unbearable as it was in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and the threat they need to deal with, as though the audience must be constantly reminded like easily distracted children. They never act like a familial unit, but a bunch of random people who don’t really like each other, so these proclamations made about their relationship are completely hollow and nakedly manipulative. ‘Cause, y’see, they have to be family because they said they were family! It’s like that bit in Futurama where the Robot Devil chastised an opera because the characters were outright stating how they felt and, yes, it does make me as angry as it did him. I want characters defined by what they do and not simply what they say.
You can’t even enjoy the action sequences because every fight feels like it belongs in a videogame. Its humanoid characters are covered in special effects while battling space dinosaurs that never look organic as much as motile plastic – may as well just show a child smacking action figures together while going “BOOM!” and “POW!” and “WOOSH!” Shang-Chi’s martial arts felt naturalistic because, save for the third act, we mostly have flesh-and-blood people in combat with little use of CGI – there’s a sense of impact to all those punches and kicks.
Is there anything I could compliment? Well, yeah, surprisingly. Kingo’s (Kumail Nanjiani) reappearance in the present day, portraying him as a Bollywood actor shooting an elaborate musical scene, is easily the most lively scene and makes you want to watch that movie-within-a-movie instead of the actual movie. Nanjiani’s presence is also what makes the boring shit afterward more tolerable, until he just leaves the film right before the climax, ‘cause reasons (although, to be honest, that’s every character’s motivation: ‘cause reasons).
The filmmakers, despite the abominable script, know how to make a film look good outside of the CGI; the cinematography does a phenomenal job of capturing landscapes that lends them a level of majesty equal to their grand scale. Despite the inconsistent color-grading, you always know what is happening on-screen due to otherwise good lighting and shot composition. It is, on a purely technical level, well-made. The problem, however, is none of that really matters. It cannot improve or elevate the material, to salvage the unsalvagable.
Much like Erich von Däniken and the insufferable, intellectually lazy UFOlogists he’s inspired, I never want to hear about or speak of Eternals ever again. I want it to go the way of Inhumans, where it gets swept under the rug and only referenced offhanded (and underhandedly) in other installments without any fanfare whatsoever. It certainly doesn’t deserve a sequel because, even though there’s plenty to build off of, the characters were so devoid of personality and the mythos so poorly conceived that I just don’t give a shit. If the film bothered to make me care about the cast first and foremost, especially without their convoluted origin story, then I’d feel more charitable about seeing a follow-up that could improve upon its other issues.
But, again, that’s not going to happen – I refuse to suffer this foolishness any further under the naive presumption the sequel will fix everything…
…Okay, that did end on a very negative note.
However, I can promise that won’t be the case next time – that’s right, I’m going to do another set of MCU mini-reviews! It’s been a while since the first one and other installments came out since then, so it only made sense to make a third set of mini-reviews. If I manage to see Thor: Love & Thunder in theaters, maybe there’ll be a fourth about it and Ms. Marvel soon after.
Sooner than several months and more within a week or two, of course (hopefully)!