Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

I don’t know all the comic book characters in the Marvel comics, because I stopped reading comics in 1969. I have nothing against them, I just developed other interests. Fans of the comics however will be burdened by their expectations with the introduction of each new character in a big screen adaptation of the comic. I both benefit and suffer because of my detachment. I benefit by not having preconceived notions about how a character should be played, what stories to be told and I don’t have the artwork from the comics haunting my brain and forcing unfavorable comparisons. I suffer because I miss out on the anticipation of a new character. I don’t have a ready data base of knowledge to draw upon when trying to figure out who is who in a new film. So which of these two sides do I prefer? It’s simple, I like my ignorance because it fuels my joy of discovery. This week, I got to discover a Comic Book hero that I suspect I will enjoy for a long time. This movie surprised me in all the good ways a movie should.

Moving into Phase Four of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe was going to be a challenge for me. Most of the characters I was long familiar with were being retired from active film service. I knew that new storylines and characters were coming, I just was not sure how I would respond to them. When Doctor Strange showed up in the MCU, I did not think I would care much for that type of story. It did not take long for me to take to it with enthusiasm. I felt the same way going into this film. I thought it might be OK, and I would live with being a little underwhelmed. It is so great to say I went the other way. This was a blast, the character has great potential, and the world building in this was not so convoluted that I rejected it out of hand. When taken on it’s own out of context, it is pretty darn great. 

There are comic fans who grow weary of origin stories, but I am not one of those. I enjoy discovering the background of a superhero, learning about their human weaknesses as well as their strengths. If you create a rich environment and colorful characters to go with the hero, so much the better. Shang Chi starts in the past, travels to different dimensions, operates in familiar contemporary environments and then takes us back to those magical dimensions that we started off with. This film also manages to accomplish something a lot of comic book movies fail at, creating an interesting climax for the final battle of the movie. We were given enough information to know that we should dread something that is coming, but it was not belabored and when it arrives, there are still surprises for us and some tension as a result. 

I’m not sure I would love a whole comedy show by Awkwafina, but I have been given enough of her in movies the last few years that I appreciate the dose level she is providing at the moment. Whenever she is on screen, expect a little injection of fun. When she gets some opportunity to act she has been solid (The Farewell), and in this movie, she gets to be more than the comic relief. There are a bunch of wonderful actors that I am not familiar with because they appear primarily in television shows or in Asian language films. Tony Chiu-Wai Leung as the powerful and evil Xu Wenwu was appropriately conflicted, he is more tunnel visioned than bad in this story. Simu Liu was great as the lead, he is not simply an iron fisted warrior, but presented as a complete character with a sense of humor and a young man’s foolishness. Michelle Yeoh, provides an elegant touch with aging beauty and wisdom to go with her character’s stern demeanor and family traditions. 

Because there are some connections to earlier MCU films, it would be a spoiler to reveal too many appearances by other actors. I will say that the presence of one character in particular helps redeem his storyline in an earlier film, and makes this one the sort of fun movie we have expected from Marvel since the first “Iron Man”. So even though the earlier MCU films have played out their plots, there are still strings to be tugged on, and doing so has lead not to the unraveling of an intricate piece of knitting, but rather it reveals some hidden gems that we will get to explore more. It’s great when a movie is so much more than you expected, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is one of those. 

Black Widow

Here is my take on this long delayed film, I will try to explain why but I am not sure I can articulate it as clearly as I would want. Black Widow is an entertaining, mid-level MCU film. It left me unmoved by the events but I can live the action scenes and over all story. There is very little connecting it to the Avengers, except the presence of Natasha, Scarlett Johansson, and the fact that she is an Avenger. All of the other characters are new to us and although there is an attempt to develop character for all of them, some of it is a bit rushed.

For those of you dying to know, this takes place between “Civil War” and “Infinity War”. While hiding out after thwarting Secretary Ross’s attempt to arrest her, the Black Widow is lead by to her origins by a mysterious package that shows up in her effects. Several chase scenes and hand to hand combat sequences later, we get a clearer explanation of what is going on. The totality of the Budapest story that she and Clint made reference to back in “The Avengers”, is not revealed, but there is enough detail to understand why she has regrets and feels that there is so much “red” on her ledger. 

Maybe the reason I had difficulty connecting to this emotionally is that the secondary characters are all new. There is one, a fixer that Agent Romanoff has used before, who is treated as a longtime ally and associate. This is the first time in any of the films he has been referred to. He is not really given a backstory but the character is represented to us as one we should appreciate without knowing anything more, and that does not quite work for me. The movie starts with a flashback story to 1995 and we see a family coming together for dinner and suddenly taking flight from pursuing dark forces. Maybe the fact that we are being asked to sympathize with a Soviet Sleeper Cell, operating in Ohio, which is killing pursuing FBI agents, just does not sit well with me. This is a Post Cold War world, but those of us who lived through that war may have a hard time deleting the suspicions that we have. The character of the Red Guardian is slipped into this segment only vaguely, and when he returns to the story, we have to build another relationship.

The one new relationship that works well is that of Natasha to her supposed sister Yelena, played by Florence Pugh. The combat ready reunion was a bit much but it does establish the creds for this character as well as the other Black Widow zombies that the villain is creating. Pugh does great with her action sequences and is a believable female badass who can get the job done and stand toe to toe with Natasha. I enjoyed their banter a great deal, and they need more time together to make this the key relationship of the story. Unfortunately, there is a Mother Figure, Father Figure and villain who also need time with the main hero and that makes the plot points feel a little repetitive and it sucks up a lot of time. 

Look, I know this is a comic book movie, and maybe I’m overthinking it a bit, but it needs some explanation. How did this Soviet Era Program continue, go private, and remain hidden? How was it funded? There is technology here that the Avengers would be envious of, but there is no Tony Stark or Russian version of S.H.I.E.L.D. visible. It feels like a 1970s Bond film with a secret lair that would be impossible to keep a secret. Maybe that’s why the movie that gets interrupted on Natasha’s TV is “Moonraker”. It’s a subtle attempt to nudge us more toward the fantasy world that exists outside of the MCU and use that to justify some shortcuts.

Hawkeye and Black Widow are master assassins, and they took on a job twenty years prior to this story. How is it that they could botch up their mission so much as to leave their actual target alive, much less the collateral damage that goes along with it. There is no explanation of why that happened, even after we have witnessed an explosion that is immense and would have killed any other character in this universe, except for those from space. It feels like lazy writing. There are three screenwriters credited, one was at least partially responsible for Thor Ragnarok, but also episodes of WandaVision and Agent Carter. Maybe the styles just don’t mesh well or the fertilizer is showing and too much of what we are getting is set up for future projects. 

David Harbour and Rachel Weisz are able to play both young and older versions of themselves with only slight assistance from CGI. Harbour is doing comic riffs with a Russian accent and that is funny. The Prison escape is fun to look at but it does little to advance the plot, it was merely an obstacle that gives the two women a chance to run an elaborate action sequence and have some comic relief along the way. I like Ray Winstone as an actor but his part in this is underwritten and it consists almost entirely of monologuing with the heroine. 

I was happy to see the film finally open. I was thrilled to see that the theater was sold out and that people are going out to the movies. I was surprised by the number of people who have already forgotten that MCU films tend to have stingers at the end of the credits and lot of folks left before the last scene. I was just not blown away by the film. I will certainly see it again, but if you are looking for a ranking in the MCU, put this at the top of the bottom quarter of the films. I liked them all but let’s keep some perspective, they can’t all be the greatest thing since Ironman. 

Avengers: Endgame

The culmination of eleven years of intricate story building, expanded universe and a plethora of characters, “Avengers: Endgame” has arrived. With a film like this, we have to be careful about avoiding spoilers. This is probably the most anticipated film of the year and the one that has had the most written about it. Everyone has a theory and everyone is afraid for characters they have invested in. It takes over three hours to spill out onto the screen, and there is still too much to be taken in all at once. My general take on the film is that it is a slow burn that tries to build on the emotional remnants of “Infinity War” and falls a little flat there. By the end however, the action is furious and the spectacle is visually overwhelming.

One of the things that was so amazing about “Infinity War” was that it actually told a story that made the villain into someone we can understand, even if we don’t agree with him. Thanos is the biggest of Big bads in the comic world. Once he has the Infinity Stones, there is no stopping him. So the inevitable conclusion of the previous film is a somber kick in the teeth for our heroes and us. With one little credit sequence, a ray of hope got dropped on us and it has had to sustain us for a year, now it is payoff time. Captain Marvel was introduced in a film that is still playing in cinemas at the moment. She is an inspiring character, but she is equally somber as the start of this movie. Admittedly there is little to smile about, with half the population gone and the other half mourning them. Out of the blue we get a rescue of our stranded hero and a reunion with the remaining Avengers. That moment of sunshine disappears in a big plate of resentment by one of the Avengers against the others. For some reason, the drama in this segment is so sour as to be off putting. Because it takes another forty minutes or so to get resolved, the first hour feels padded.

One of the Avengers appears to have been changed for the better by the experience of failure. The image of this character in their present form is another element that shakes the foundations we have with the series. It was a strange choice and I don’t think it works very well. Some of it is played for laughs, which also seems out of place in this section of the movie. There were two other paths that fit more effectively with the characters we know. Two Avengers take journeys, one into conventional bliss and the other into criminal darkness. Captain America appears to be trying to cope with what has happened by being a mentor in a survivors group while Thor has mostly abandoned his place in the group. Again, this will all seem very abstract because I want you to be able to discover the pleasures and pitfalls for yourselves.

After this lengthy opening hour, the plot begins to drive the film more. This becomes a time traveling heist film. Now both of those genres of stories have appeal to them, but the conundrums created by time travel make things incredibly complicated, despite the attempt to dismiss all of that change as irrelevant. We are going to revisit several earlier moments from the other 21 MCU films and retcon them to make a solution to the Thanos problem possible. There are so many balls in the air at once that it will be easy to get lost or confused. Don’t worry, you won’t have to keep track too long because things start to gel and rush forward once the objects of the heist are gathered. Of course the pleasure of a heist film is that nothing ever goes as planned and the operatives have to improvise. This results in some unnecessary side journeys which do little to move us forward but do provide the kind of fan service that followers of these movies want. So you want it, you got it. Cap makes Hydra look stupid, Starlord ends up being a bigger dolt, and Tony will get an opportunity that he missed out on in an earlier story.

Again, I don’t want things to be too directly revealed, but if you suspected that Dr. Strange and Scott Lang were going to be important to the mechanics of how this will all work out, give yourself a gold star. If you understand quantum physics, you know, just to keep up with conversations, then maybe it will all make sense. I’m willing to let it be a comic book solution to  comic book problem and move on with my life. However it all got done, let me assure you that you get a final battle that will stand alongside any of the great epics of our time. So many characters are involved and there are so many reverses, short lived successes and premature victories and defeats that your head will be swimming.  I suspect the Game of Thrones battle coming up in the last season will have similar effects. My personal favorite moment in the movie was foreshadowed by a brief shot in “Age of Ultron”, and it comes to full life in the segment.

Again, trying to avoid spoilery material, let’s just say that the resolution of a couple of stories are indeed quite sad. I won’t tell you that I cried but there was a little mist in a couple of moments. I probably would have enjoyed one final reveal a little more if the asshat behind me had not guessed it out loud two seconds before it showed up. That gas bag is the reason I am being extra circumspect with my comments here. On the podcast this weekend, we will do the best we can to keep the spoilers in a distinct section that you can skip, but I do look forward to talking with everyone about the plotlines, character twists and action moments of the film. “Endgame ” is satisfying for the story lines that were developed but I don’t think it works as well as a movie as many of the other MCU films have. I don’t do ratings on my site but at the Lamb there will be ratings. It is maybe a top ten MCU film for me but not a top five.

 

Captain Marvel

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is shifting gears to the next phase, and that means new heroes and another universe. I know nothing about the comic books of the new Marvel character who carries the brand as her moniker, but I can say the movie has been worked pretty effectively into the current MCU sequences and it looks like things will run smoothly after our Avengers are decimated with the departures of some of the long time characters and actors.

It does however take a while for the new central figure to grip our interest. The opening half hour of this movie is a collection of flashback, flash forwards and partially revealed narrative that is confusing at times. The screenwriters are deliberately creating a sucker punch that is not that difficult to see coming, given the rest of the history of Marvel. The science fiction elements will draw heavily on the same kinds of imagery and story lines we got in the “Guardians of the Galaxy” films, but without the initial charm of a clearly sympathetic figure. From the beginning of the story, Carol Danvers who is also Vers on the Kree homeworld of Hala, is a bit of a cipher. If people remember their Marvel history, they will be shaking their heads because the Nova force that was portrayed in the Guardians film was the heroic Federation that stood against the Kree Empire who were apparently villains. This movie gives us a shift in perspective but not necessarily a fair one. Never the less it was a creative method to get our human air force pilot into superhero mode.

It really takes her return to Earth to start the enjoyable part of the movie. When Vers ends up on what the Kree refer to as C-55, she begins to recover some of the memories that lead her to become a member of the star force and a subject to the Supreme Intelligence. Earth in 1995 lives in most of the viewers distant memories and it seem like it would be easy to get that familiar vibe back. This was the main weak part of the production. Other than some soundtrack tunes and a couple of anachronistic computer references, Blockbuster video has to do all the heavy lifting to get us to imagine it is twenty four years ago. The two S.H.I.E.L.D. agents who encounter her are well known in the MCU. Nick Fury is the real co-star with Carol Danvers and this was where there was finally some life injected into the comic action. We need more of the kind of by-play that Samuel Jackson had with other Marvel heroes to make this feel like the same universe and to have some fun. As Danvers and Fury become allies, the story starts to make more sense and the process of revealing narrative becomes a lot simpler to follow.

Much has been made of the feminine hero angle for this movie. I will gladly let others pontificate on the patriarchy, bechdel test, and third wave feminism. I see the movie as empowering to all kids who struggle to find their place in the world. When Vers starts to break her molded persona and assert her humanity, it is how through a series of flashbacks to her as a girl and woman at different stages of her life. It will certainly play as a scene of female empowerment, and that’s great, but more importantly, it is an assertion of individuality that needs to be acknowledged, regardless of the gender of the hero. At the end of the film, there is a scene where carol matches her mentor played by Jude Law, and the line that Brie Larson spouts will certainly resonate with all the homogametic audience members.

The story does feel like it is plugging in to the Avengers Infinity War series in some pretty obvious ways, and of course the mid-credit sequence will flick on the switch for those anticipating next months concluding chapter. As a stand alone film, Captain Marvel is solid and entertaining. It may not be as impactful  as the first “Ironman”  or as exciting as “The Avengers”, but it has plenty to offer fans of the superhero genre and it is clearly going to be a big success. It is not a placeholder in the MCU, it is an important step forward so that the direction of the films can shift to new realms, quantum or otherwise.