22 September 2021

First Impressions: Shang-Chi and the Ten Rings

Here we go again - another Marvel movie! But this one's different...it's Asian! Shang-Chi was a pretty solid entry that is somehow both safe and extraordinary, which is all typical Marvel stuff by now. But I've always rejected that idea, I think these movies are really just movies. But let's get into how great this flick was, with assorted weird moments. SPOILERS abound, ye mateys, ye be warned.

Any way you go about it, Shang-Chi was an odd character for Marvel to pick as the next hero to get the big screen treatment. He's not very popular or well known, and his adventures peaked in the 1970s mostly as Kung Fu exploitation with stock Asian characters and stereotypes. The villain was literally Fu Manchu. Obviously it's a tall order to upgrade this stuff, especially since he's an obvious character to thrust into 2021. Disney, as is everyone, is looking to expand into the burgeoning Chinese market, and wants a Chinese hero to center its next phase on. I suppose that Shang-Chi is the only Asian hero Marvel has? Besides Amadeus Cho or like...Jubilee? So from that angle it makes a lot of sense.

But in-universe it's also a natural play. After Infinity War (2019) blew the wad on just about every hero ever, it's tough to dig up anyone else reluctantly hiding wherever. I guess Shang-Chi didn't feel the urge to join anyone in the final conflict or maybe he just didn't get the memo. He wasn't on HYDRA's secret person list. But the film puts a bow on the Ten Rings organization first presented back in Iron Man (2008), then teased more in Iron Man 3 (2013). I don't think anyone was really looking for answers for these burning questions, that were more a fun reference to the classic Iron Man villain the Mandarin, who is cool but just so damn racist. This is why we can't have nice things. His fun ring powers and magic that ran counter to the logic of Tony Stark's science would have been a great conflict, but c'mon you can't have this dude on the big screen. That's nuts. So instead we got like villain after villain of jealous corporate assholes trying to copy his technology. Great.

Shang-Chi shines a like on Wenwu, who is an immortal conqueror who found ten alien rings that granted him all sorts of fun powers. There is a little bit of Mandarin reference, like they can do things like create shields, fly through the air, shoot energy stuff. Not really any Mento-Intensifiers, though. What's even the point? He falls in love with a secret forest woman, they have a baby, she dies because of his old crimes, he blames his 8-year old son for being a weak baby, trains him to be an assassin, he doesn't like it and they become estranged. There is all sorts of great character work here, especially between the principal father, son, and sister. It's full of regret, delusion, blaming, attempts at redemption, sliding back into evil, oh it's so fun.

This movie does its character work well, but it still falters. Shang-Chi becomes less interesting the more he embraces his destiny, but it was nice to see a hero not so obsessed with quips. It exists in contrast to the What If... series going on right now which seems to have gotten stuck on the quip setting. Just let them be actual characters! It's like when something works once it's driven into the ground and sucked dry for all eternity. But Simu Liu is charismatic, fun, and will be a great addition to this universe. It's another great example of Marvel's fantastic job with casting, the foundation for everything else that works afterwards.

But we already get into problematic territory. It's a weird zone when it comes to Awkwafina's Katy. It's as if they didn't want every female co-lead to exist only as a love interest to give their main heterosexual male hero motivation, and this film works by solidly announcing them as only friends. However, this was maybe not the right time to pull this off, because it tends to feed the stereotype of the sexless male Asian, who is never allowed to have a romantic interest. It feels like addressing surface level stuff, like romance is okay if the characters have agency and desires. We obviously want to avoid Rachel McAdams in Doctor Strange (2016) which is probably the worst of these, but we can have someone be interested in somebody. Maybe I'm just horny.

As for Awkwafina, she's good, but I felt the same way in Raya and the Last Dragon (2021), where her Awkwafina-ness keeps bubbling to the surface above any character she's doing. It was hard to see her as a character and not just Awkwafina. And I don't know if Awkwafina worked in a magical setting shooting arrows at giant Cthulu monsters. This isn't really a new thing, we can argue that the same thing happened with Gilbert Gottfried's Gilbert Gottfried-ness with Iago. And please don't get me wrong, I think it was great that Katy's character arc ended with her decisive action against the Cthulu monster. But she still hasn't found the right vehicle for her Awkwafina-ness.

So, is this thing racist or not? I don't know. Not every Asian American is enthused. It is a nice celebration of another culture, but I get how it's not actually distinctive, just generic Asian, and full of magical Asian whimsy. I also get how I am a heterosexual white dude who shouldn't be planting my opinion in other people's voices. So, maybe see what other people's opinions are? It is assuredly a great step towards representation, but there are still some hang-ups here. So with the understanding of all that, let's just talk about the screenplay, plot, and structural bones stuff (and lore!) and stay in that realm.

As I mentioned, the character works is all very good. There is an ebb and flow to the relationship between Wenwu and Shang-Chi that is all articulated and motivated. And by ebb and flow of course we mean sometimes trying to kill each other, sometimes begrudgingly loving each other. Okay, most of the time fighting. Everyone in the MCU has daddy issues, but this is one of the only movies where the father is actually the main villain. Okay, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017). And yeah, I guess Thanos. Okay, this trope has actually been done to death, but the characters are really nuanced here!

The films starts off great as MCU's kung fu epic. The best scene is probably the bus fight, which is clever, surprising, and oddly comical. We avoid a big laser battle, mostly, but the left turn into the Dweller in Darkness is a bit jarring, but fun. It may have worked better if that was set up in some more coherent fashion instead of throwing it at us as a huge existential threat so late in the film. There are again easy parallels with Dormammu here. Except they do get to fight this one.

Lastly, there are all kinds of weird implications for the universe. These Rings may end up being a pretty big deal. Why on earth was Wong training the Abomination? I am happy someone finally acknowledged that the Abomination is one of the few villains still alive and kicking in this universe. Just more 2008 throwbacks. It's all fine, although I still find myself a little exhausted and struggling to care about new people in this universe. My hype for The Eternals (2021) is at an all-time low. When does Moon Knight come out?

I have to compare a little bit to Black Panther (2017), because obviously, minority MCU heroes are such a rare thing (and Shang Chi definitely got dusted. Only white people and Rhodey remained). But really it felt very similar in establishing a whole secret world in another country, where the hero was this prince of destiny, in some fashion. I'm wondering when they will feel comfortable giving a minority hero an American story, or is America reserved for white people?

Shang-Chi was an enjoyable romp full of competent movie-making, great action scenes (yes, it beats Black Widow [2021], which may have been the previous high bar). It doesn't quite match the lofty heights of the best MCU films, but it's far, far from the bottom of the barrel. It works well as an origin story that evolves organically and sets up some interesting points to keep spinning in the future.

13 September 2021

Summer Jam 2021 CHAMPION COUNTDOWN!!

Another summer is officially over, people. And so we have yet again come to the time to crown our Final Eternal Champion. This artist's name will echo across the heavens, joining the immensely illustrious crew of the greatest Summer Jam Kings and Queens of this or any other lifetime:

2007: "Umbrella" by Rihanna
2008: "Bleeding in Love" by Leona Lewis
2009: "I Gotta Feeling" by Black Eyed Peas
2010: "California Gurls" by Katy Perry ft. Snoop Dogg
2011: "Park Rock Anthem" by LMFAO ft. Lauren Bennett & GoonRock
2012: "Call Me Maybe" by Carly Rae Jepsen
2013: "Blurred Lines" by Robin Thicke ft. T.I. & Pharrell
2014: "Fancy" by Iggy Azalea ft. Charle XCX
2015: "Shut Up and Dance" by Walk the Moon
2016: "Can't Stop the Feeling" by Justin Timberlake
2017: "Despacito" by Daddy Yankee, Luis Fonsi ft. Justin Bieber
2018: "Never Be the Same" by Camila Cabello
2019: "Old Town Road" by Lil Nas X ft. Billy Ray Cyrus
2020: "Blinding Lights" by the Weeknd

Now for my critical time, I still think "Blurred Lines", "Shut Up and Dance", "Can't Stop the Feeling", "Never Be the Same", and "Blinding Lights" are weak entries that haven't held up. I especially don't think "Shut Up and Dance" is synonymous with Summer 2015 like it is supposed to be. But we are not ones to pick, merely ones to report the rock solid mathematical formulas that go into creating these lists. Who is the 2021 Champion?! Read on to find out:

#8: "Build a Bitch" by Bella Poarch


Weeks on List: 5
Peak Position: #2 on 8/12 and 8/19

"Build a Bitch" never made it to the top of the countdown, but it was a little too niche of a song to make it there. It operates in an odd zone, where the melody is so sweet, but the lyrical content is honestly dark and sardonic. Its first appearance was all the way back in May, but it held on for a few weeks in June before peaking in August. Decent legs, bigger boobs, it's all there. It worked because it was a really novel and distinctive song in just about every way. A great debut for Bella Poarch, who I hope may continue to stand out amongst a sudden influx of female artists exactly like her this summer.

#7: "Butter" by BTS


Weeks on List: 5
Peak Position: #2 on 6/10

Listen, I never really liked "Butter" although I will be the first to admit that it's catchy as hell. It also held the #1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for most of summer, but I never heard it on the radio, Spotify, or in general conversation that much. I don't know if BTS is actually popular or people just think they're popular. Anyway, it did well in June, and then had some sporadic appearances in August. Definitely not their biggest song, but significant enough to warrant mention here!

#6: "Deja Vu" by Olivia Rodrigo


Weeks on List: 5
Peak Position: #1 on 7/08 and 7/15

Olivia Rodrigo tapped into something big this summer, and her whole album ruled Spotify for pretty much three straight months until Kanye and Drake crowded all the spots at the very end. This is one of two (spoiler alert) big hits she had, which is a rare feat for anyone. This list is competitive as hell, and there are many many artists who try and fail to get even one song into Summer Jam relevance. This is definitely the slower, chiller jam of the two, but it's still pretty fun. In that break-up sort of way. It debuted in our first week back in May, then hit three straight in July. To be honest, though, I'm still hearing it and I'd probably throw it on a September 13th list if we had one...

#5: "Astronaut in the Ocean" by Masked Wolf


Weeks on List: 6
Peak Position: #1 on 6/24

You know, I didn't realize until today that this song came out like two years ago. Good on Masked Wolf for being patient and finding his niche in Summer 2021. Last summer was so hip-hop heavy, this was really one of the only true crossover hits, and I loved jamming on this beat when it came on. It debuted in May and appeared every month, peaking in June, but hanging around all the way to the final week of summer. I also hope he finds a good career, he has a distinctive cadence, although it's not revolutionarily distinct from contemporary Migos-style artists. It's some hard-hitting stuff, though, and I hope he sticks around.

#4: "Kiss Me More" by Doja Cat ft. SZA


Weeks on List: 7
Peak Position: #1 on 7/29

"Kiss Me More" was one of those staples of summer this season. It was one of only two songs to feature in both Week 1 and Week 16. Lyrically it's decently generic, but becomes an earworm from Doja Cat's effortless flow through singing, rapping, and rap-singing. This was a great summer for her after she's been present in the last couple years, notably "Say So." Her album was another great Spotify presence, and she had her share of other songs that would crawl up and down, but this is still a song I enjoy listening to.

#3: "Peaches" by Bieber ft. Daniel Caesar, Giveon


Weeks on List: 8
Peak Position: #1 on 5/27, 6/03, 7/22

Now we're into the really heavy hitters. I thought this was for sure the Summer of Peaches early on. No one could touch Bieber during those first few months. It spent the first six weeks in an unbroken streak, including back to back wins when no other song seemed like a real threat. It hit the #1 spot more than any other track this season. Then it dropped off, though and couldn't really sustain through July. Of course, it won a week in July, and came back once in August, but although it proved to have a great showing, it wasn't enough. No one has EVER repeated as Summer Jam champion, but Bieber came really really close. It's still a fun song and one that I think will be appropriately associated with Summer 2021.

#2: "Leave the Door Open" by Bruno Mars, Anderson .Paak, Silk Sonic


Weeks on List: 11
Peak Position: #1 on 5/20 and 6/17

I struggle to get sick of this song. It didn't totally light up the charts, but I kept hearing it and it still makes me crack up as it finds that perfect zone between sexy and wacky. It was also a very strong song early out the gate, winning Week 1, and then appearing once in every other month. It was the only other song to also appear in Week 16. It "only" had a five-week streak in June and July, though, but it was in the Top 3 during eight of its eleven weeks. This was so close to claiming it all, if it had had just one or two more weeks it would have gotten it. Still, a great showing of Bruno Mars, who continues to be one of the more unique creative voices in the industry. But the undisputed #1 QUEEN OF SUMMER is...

#1: "good 4 u" by Olivia Rodrigo


Weeks on List: 13
Peak Position: #1 on 8/12 and 8/26

Yep. In the end this wasn't really a debate. This song was huge, and a bit cultural force on the Internet and in the greater real world. I was actually surprised looking back that it hit #1 crazy late in the season, and only twice. It made its butter by only taking three weeks off, Week 1, 10, and16. So basically it owned the heart of summer. We should note that "Deja Vu" was present in Week 1 and 10, so she actually only missed the final week of the season. It was in the Top Three during eight of its thirteen weeks and put together nice meaty streaks of eight and five week campaigns. It dominated Spotify for most of summer and is ultimately the kind of no brainer song that makes me proud to solidify for Eternity as THE One True Summer Jam.

Honorable Mentions:

You know I hate these but I do them anyway. We actually only tracked 39 songs this year, but we had basically cut out a lot of the riff-raff in our new system. "Levitating" deserves mention for having ridiculous legs and we had pretty much ignored it for not being a Hot Jam anymore. Same with "Girl from Rio." Lil Nas X had two pretty big songs that didn't get any radio play, insert whatever homophobia or racism you want there.

I really liked Camila Cabello's "Don't Go Yet" but it debuted too late and ran out of time. "Heat Waves" was perfect, but actually missed some of its June lyrics. Then we had a ton of great new female-led rap tracks, from "Thot Shit" to "Best Friend" to "Twerkulator" and "Whole Lotta Money." It was pretty fun that studios are actually signing and promoting these women trying to find the next Cardi B. Maybe they can just realize that there is room for all these great artists?

Alright, I know what you are thinking. Is this it? We have been cranking this out for 11 years, now, which is one more than I had planned. It is definitely taking a bit of a toll, and we're at the point where we're realizing there is no endgame. There is no exit strategy for this blog. It exists as artificial stress to complete every week. Ugh, I hate that I can't fully say no. Maybe in the way that we did it this year, without worry to hit the magic 8 number each week or talk about nothing for a while. Or maybe we just recount it in September off of feel.

I don't know if I would be able to resist the temptation to do this again next year, but these have never been popular. I like the idea of this canon of Summer Jams. Never say never, I suppose, but if so, this was a fun summer that I'd like to leave on. Better than the summer where "Blurred Lines" beat "Get Lucky."

Until May of 2022, stay honest, true believers!

12 September 2021

First Impressions: The Suicide Squad

I may have missed my window on this. But I watched Shang-Chi (2021) last night and am bound to crank that one out. But The Suicide Squad (2021) is in my queue! Maybe these don't have to be 3000+ words each? But I liked these movies. Okay, I'll try to blow through context, because it's pretty wide known at this point. SPOILERS from here on out, though.

What I do want to espouse on quite a bit is how ridiculous it is that Warner Bros notably micromanaged the hell out of all their mid-2010s DC properties, including David Ayer's Suicide Squad (2016), and this feels like the most auteur Superhero movie of all time. Did anyone say no to James Gunn on anything in this? I can't imagine what Ayer was thinking when he watched this. Now, to be fair, Ayer himself isn't the kind of wacky creative brain to really run with this concept, and Suicide Squad's generic formula, for all our whining, probably isn't wholly the fault of the studio. But we also know that WB took it out of his hands, gave it to a trailer making studio to edit, and somehow tried playing it safe and edge the whole time.

I continually get a crack at the fact that they're just allowed to redo all these movies that totally bombed. But it's somehow even more irritating that their second chances have been so good. Although it wasn't wholly without problems, the Snyder Cut demolished Justice League (2017). And I gotta say that the studio's attempt at doing this exact same concept again, except right, resulted in one of the greatest superhero movies of all time. I said it.

It works by simultaneously poking fun of its concept but also taking itself seriously. It's a weird line to walk, but one that comic book themselves do earnestly all the time. There needs to be a tacit acknowledgment that everything going on is ridiculous and far-fetched, but there are still real consequences and characters. It's not ashamed of any of its pulpy origins, but it still finds ways to imbue genuine emotion into the insanity on screen. It's a lot similar to what Gunn did with racoons and talking trees in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), except with rats and talking sharks, but it still finds its own throughline towards originality.

We ought to talk a bit about how much this is a sorta half-sequel. It's basically not, although it brings back about half of the primary cast. There's no real reference to any previous adventures, and the barest references to the greater DC universe. They use this to their advantage, though. People like Captain Boomerang who you'd think would be an "unkillable" character (even in a Suicide Squad movie) are offed in the first scene. The marketing wisely avoided that whole spoiler, by the way, which is truly commendable.

Looking back, we should have probably figured it out that the dumbest characters would all die first (well, I dunno, Polka Dot Man...), but it's a truly amazing bait and switch, especially how much it focuses on Michael Rooker as our main character in the first five minutes. For a second I was sitting there thinking, "Is this really going to be a Michael Rooker movie?" and then when they all get offed it really leaves us in the lurch. But that's also what the title promises! It's so fun to have some genuine cannon fodder, and no one is safe for this whole movie. Well, except Harley Quinn. It's pretty guaranteed that she's safe. There isn't a ton of reference to her solo movie, but that's also totally Harley. Who knows where this takes place in her life or in relation to anyone else. She's certainly broken up with the Joker, though.

This kind of story fits the Squad so well, though. It's a dirty black ops mission that the US government can legit deny. And they also completely screw it up. There's this easy going-with-the flow nature to the story where you may expect anything to happen at any time, and there's so many set-ups to left-turn payoffs. Like when Harley is captured, of course she is able to escape on her own and doesn't need saving. That was a gratifying moment - Harley should never be a damsel in distress.

The movie is also genuinely dark and funny with a surprising amount of legit gore. It again serves its premise of taking the ramifications of giant sharks seriously, but also stretching reality just enough to add some comedy to the gorefest. It also doesn't do what the original Suicide Squad did, which is constantly acknowledge that they are all horrible people and criminals. They think nothing of killing their enemies, and sometimes accidentally their friends. Still, there are surprisingly touching deaths, like Colonel Rick Flagg, and Polka Dot Man, which pairs with Yondu as touching moments. Nothing to it, but how do we feel more for Polka Dot Man than we do for Superman? Maybe because we knew Superman was going to come back? Or because his arc isn't nearly as satisfying as the man who conquers his obsession with his abusive mother and finally gets a chance to use his horrific powers to do some good in the world?

Idris Elba has pretty much the same motivation as Will Smith in Suicide Squad, so take that with whatever racial overtones you'd like. There is some nice parody there when they talk about how they all have the same origin story. But all the acting is all reasonably solid, especially John Cena who does better the more he relishes his insanity.

Finally, Starro. I can't believe they put fucking Starro in this movie. I like to think that it was a little nod to him being the villain in the first Justice League comic, which is a nice sardonic commentary on this group of idiots now being the ones to fight him. But he's also a tragic figure in the best of Gunn ways, really only wanting to journey back to the stars after years on his earthly prison. They also genuinely use tactics and powers to beat it, which is so unlike every other superhero movie these days where they have to go back in time, or flick a switch, or grab a gem or something. No, use your actual powers, this is what we came here to see!

This film is just refreshing. It's violent, carefree, funny, dark without being edge, and just very genuine with itself. I've said that a lot because it bears repeating. It's everything the first Suicide Squad wasn't, which was a hot topic try hard. That makes such a critical difference. It also finds a way to have real heart, inside all the starfish facehuggers and shark bites. I really enjoyed it and highly recommend it (although it's certainly not a four corner tentpole like a normal superhero movie). Two fins up.
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