Marvel’s ‘Shang-Chi’ a hybrid of action and fantasy

Let’s get straight down to business: “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.” It was great – I loved it. It was almost (I said almost!) as good as “Black Panther.” Even though they are very different, it’s hard not to compare the two – they both are origin stories that star minority leads: “Black Panther” was the first MCU film with a Black lead, and “Shang-Chi” is the first Asian superhero. Both films also feature never-before-seen magical places. (I won’t get into that because I’m trying to make this review relatively spoiler-free.)

Simu Liu is great as the title character Shang-Chi, the son of Wenwu (Tony Leung) who is the wielder of the 10 rings, ancient relics which give power to those who possess them. Shang’s BFF Katy, played by the always-funny Awkwafina, provides moral support and comic relief, and Meng’er Zhang is great as Shang’s sister, Xialing.

Michelle Yeoh, as Shang and Xialings’s aunt, is fantastic as usual. I loved her in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Star Trek: Discovery,” and oh yes, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”! You know you’re good when you land not one, but two roles in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Besides being visually stunning, there is never a dull moment in this movie. It sucks you in from the start, and takes you on a crazy ride. It’s sort of a hybrid between an action flick and a fantasy. It’s fun, it’s funny, and it’s not terribly deep but the cast, the story, the costumes, and the CGI are all amazing and come together to make this a worthy addition to the MCU, especially when you factor in the cameos from other Marvel characters. (And if you’ve seen the Marvel One-Shots short film “All Hail the King,” you will not be surprised to see Ben Kingsley, reprising his role as Trevor Slattery, who first appeared in “Iron Man 3.”)

Free Guy

I know “Free Guy” looks like a silly movie – a combination between “Wreck-It Ralph” and “The Lego Movie,” and well, it is. But it’s funny and it has heart and it was better than I thought it was going to be. I probably would not have gone to see this in the theater except for the fact that it was our anniversary and there was not much else to do. But we were pleasantly surprised.

I’ve loved Ryan Reynolds since I saw him in “Deadpool,” so already the movie had that going for it. It reminded me of the Amazon series “Upload,” except instead of a virtual afterlife, “Free Guy” takes place in a video game. Reynolds is Guy, an NPC (non-playable character). Guy’s run-in with a player named Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer, “Killing Eve”) sort of “awakens” him and he begins to stray from his program. Craziness ensues.

You don’t really need to be a gamer to enjoy the movie (but it will help you recognize certain YouTubers who make cameos). The movie also stars Taika Waititi as a narcissistic game developer, and “Stranger Things” fans will be happy to see Joe Keery as his employee.

It’s not going to blow your mind, but if you’re on the fence about this one, just go see it. It’s fun.

What If … ?

I know I talked about how much I loved “Loki,” and also “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.” I even liked “WandaVision” (but not as much as the other two). Now we have “What If …?”, an animated Marvel series which explores alternate outcomes. What if Agent Carter had taken the super serum instead of Steve Rogers? That’s the question posed in the first episode, and although it was a little campy, I actually liked that episode. Unfortuantely, it went downhill from there, and so far, this is my least favorite Marvel series on Disney+.

(Warning: Spoilers follow!)

What if … your favorite Marvel characters were cursed with bad writing?

In the episodes that followed the Captain Carter episode (at least the ones that I’ve seen so far), the superhoeroes we’ve come to know and love act completely against character. In episode 2, the series explores what would have happened if T’Challa had become Star-Lord, and we see Nebula, who is normally a total bad-ass, reduced to a blonde bombshell who calls T’Challa Cha-Cha.

I also found certain plot points to be somewhat nonsensical: T’Challa forgives Yondu for lying to him about his real father for no reason. In “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” Quill forgives Yondu for lying to him about his real father but there’s a very good reason (his father was a bad guy). I get that T’Challa is a good person and that it’s this goodness that made his Star-Lord a savior, rather than the screw-up that Peter Quill is, but come on.

Also acting against character is Hank Pym who (in the third episode) becomes a murderous villain after his daughter Hope is killed. And Doctor Strange, in episode 4, loses his love, Dr. Christine Palmer, and becomes obsessed with bringing her back. Our favorite sorcerer’s willingness to absorb creepy entities is out of character but even worse is the assertion that Dr. Palmer’s death is an “absolute point” in the timeline – an unchangeable event that leads to Strange’s defeat of Dormammu. There is no timeline in which she doesn’t die. Um? Except for the one (in the film) in which Christine is alive and well, right?

Episode 5 gives us … zombies. If it isn’t disturbing enough to see our Avengers devolve into brain-eating monsters, the insult added to injury is Vision sacrificing humans to feed his zombie love Wanda. This seems completely out of character, but by this point I guess it was par for the course. (I admit I’m not a fan of gore; horror fans probably loved it.)

Another thing I did not like was the fridging of two women – in two consecutive episodes. In case you haven’t heard me gripe about this before, fridging is a plot device in which a character, often the hero’s love interest, is killed off or incapacitated for the purpose of motivating the hero. The most obvious example of this is in the Doctor Strange epsiode (Christine’s death is the motivating factor for his trip to Kamar-Taj). But I would argue that Hope’s death also qualifies, since it’s the catalyst for Pym’s unexpected villainy.

Actually, Doctor Strange sort of becomes a villain as well – because of his unwillingness to accept that he can’t change the past (in which she dies) – but only after her death leads to him saving the world first. So I’m not really sure if the writers are making a commentary on fridging leading to villainy or if this is just textbook fridging. Considering these are the same writers who turned Nebula into a femme fatale, my guess is the latter.

I get that the whole point is to switch up the stories but I expected the alternative timelines to at least make sense. The Captain Carter one did; it was plausible that Peggy would take the serum instead of Steve, and the ensuing events made sense. The following four episodes didn’t seem to follow logic.

There are four more episodes left in the series, and I haven’t given up. The possibilities in a multiverse are endless; there is potential for some great stories. Maybe “What If …?” will yet fulfill it.

Photos: “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures; “Free Guy,” 20th Century Studios; “What If …?”, Disney+.

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‘Wonder Woman 1984’ kicks butt – but is not without flaws

At long last, “Wonder Woman 1984” hit theaters and streaming. I watched it on HBO Max and I loved it. Was this sequel as good as the original? It was not. But it still kicked butt. If you haven’t seen it yet, be warned there are major spoilers in this review!

For starters, the film was a bit long at two and a half hours, and there are a few scenes that could have been cut shorter, in my opinion. I have watched the original film multiple times, and I’d probably be more willing to rewatch this one over and over if it wasn’t so long.

Secondly, the film is set in the ’80s! Where is all the cool ’80s music? Why have New Order’s “Blue Monday” in the trailer and then not have any cool ’80s songs in the film? Music in movies is a big deal to me; maybe not everyone cares about this. One more minor complaint: I was slightly disappointed with the CGI appearance of Kristen Wiig’s alter ego, Cheetah. She looks cooler in the DC Rebirth comics.

Having said all that, the good outweighed the bad. Wiig is a great actress and it was fun to watch her clumsy, kind Barbara Minerva transform into someone who is powerful and vengeful. Pedro Pascal is great as oil tycoon Maxwell Lord. The fashion and the story itself are very ’80s-ish, even if the music isn’t. Pascal’s money- and power-hungry character is in keeping with the materialism the decade is known for.

One complaint I’ve heard is that Diana (Gal Gadot) didn’t care what happened to the man whose body Steve (Chris Pine) is occupying, and it’s a legitimate complaint but this was (sort of) addressed in the film – my view is that the opening sequence is a set-up for this moral issue. Young Diana is willing to cheat to get something she really wants (winning the race) which I believe is meant to foreshadow her desire to hang onto Steve, regardless of the consequences.

In her defense, it wasn’t her idea to have Steve take over someone else’s life – she just wished to have him back. I guess it would have been less problematic if we’d somehow found out that guy was about to get hit by a bus the next day or something. Then it wouldn’t have mattered as much.

Gadot and Pine have great chemistry. The love story between Diana and Steve is one of my favorite aspects of both films, and I cried when she had to give him up. The fireworks scene was a nice moment between the two of them.

The photo of Diana and Etta was a nice touch. The eagle armor was awesome. I loved Lynda Carter’s cameo at the end of the film, and seeing the Amazons in Themyscira again. I can’t wait for more Wonder Woman movies!

Moving on. That Mando finale was pretty crazy! If you are not caught up on “The Mandalorian,” be warned this review contains spoilers!

How freaking cool was it to see Luke and R2-D2 save the day? Yes it was bittersweet – Mando had to say goodbye to little Grogu! Will they ever reunite? What’s going to happen between Mando and Bo-Katan now that we know that whoever wields the Darksaber can lay claim to the Mandalorian throne? And not only that, but he can’t just hand it to her – she needs to win it in battle. Awkward! So many questions and we have to wait till Season 3 comes out next Christmas.

Disney+ has also announced multiple Star Wars series and films, so many I can barely keep track. In fact there are no less than 10 new Star Wars series coming. There’s the Boba Fett spin-off, an Obi-Wan series, an Ahsoka series, “Rangers of the New Republic,” “The Acolyte,” “Visions,” “A Droid Story,” a Lando series, “The Bad Batch,” and “Andor.”

My daughter and I have been playing this guessing game: “I’m thinking of an MCU character. …” And then the other person asks yes or no questions about them until they figure it out. When you can guess in only a few questions a minor character who has only been in one or two films, you know you’ve seen these movies way too many times, and you’re ready for a new installment.

If not for this pandemic, we’d already have seen “Black Widow.” Many more planned Marvel films and series have also been delayed, but we will be getting a few new series on Disney+ in 2021: “WandaVision” will arrive Jan. 15, and “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” is set for March 19. They each are scheduled to have only six episodes, but the work put into them looks impressive, based on the trailers I’ve seen and the interviews I’ve read so far. “WandaVision” is an homage to classic TV sitcoms like Betwitched and The Brady Bunch. It’s not clear yet how Vision is alive – we did see him die at the end of Infinity War – twice.

Loki is apparently dead as well, but the new series based on Thor’s brother spins off from that moment in Endgame when Loki steals the Tesseract. In the new show he uses it to travel through time and alters history. Tom Hiddleston reprises the role.

“The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” is a bit more straightforward – it’s set after the events of Endgame. Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan reprise their roles as Sam and Bucky.

Are you ready? There’s also “Ms. Marvel,” “What If …?” “Moon Knight,” “Hawkeye,” She-Hulk,” “Ironheart,” “Armor Wars,” “Secret Invasion,” “Legends,” “I Am Groot,” and “The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special.” And no I’m not making that up.

I wish you all better days in the new year.

Photo credits: “Wonder Woman 1984,” Warner Bros. Pictures; “The Mandalorian” and “WandaVision,” Disney Platform Distribution.

2020-04-22 00.25.02

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