Who would’ve thought this year would present us with not one but two blockbuster movies centring on Asian stories with a representative cast? From Paramount Pictures comes Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins, the spin-off solo movie focussing on the titular ninja starring Henry Golding. Whilst Marvel Studios added some new colour to the MCU with the deadly martial artist Shang-Chi played by Sima Liu.
Though Hollywood makes both good and bad movies it always tries to tell stories that are entertaining and worthwhile to watch. Being half Asian, I recognise and appreciate that the industry is starting to turn a corner and is going through the effort of telling said stories through another cultural lens. It’s a step in the direction even if just for the reason that we get more content, but did they do any of it justice? Well you read the article title, but after watching them both here’s my reasoning.
Another Cog in the Machine VS Bringing Something New to the Table
Evidently Snake Eyes is a part of G.I. Joe, a big well known American toy brand that has also in recent years expanded into movies. As the ‘Origins’ part implies, the movie is technically a prequel that attempts to act like a big franchise akin to Marvel, DC and even Godzilla’s MonsterVerse. Sadly it only loosely bridges the gap between the existing blockbuster movies. And it is this lack of finesse by which it bluntly comes across as just another action movie that wants a piece of the connected universe pie.
Overall, there is nothing much to make the movie about G.I Joe’s fan favourite ninja distinctive other than the fact that the setting is solely in Japan and does the relevant job of appropriately casting Asian actors. It's a necessary aforementioned element, except in an action movie it doesn’t go beyond providing a simple backdrop. Of course that's a welcome change, but because they don't think to do anything interesting with this it ultimately doesn’t bring anything that new to the table.
Snake Eyes does its own thing with little effort to be more than that. This could be considered acceptable by most when you compare it to other successful franchises like Transformers and Fast & Furious which approach the genre in similar ways. Walking in the footsteps of giants could even pave the way for more multicultural stories starring diverse cast to become prevalent. Of course this would all depend on its potential financial success and critical reception which I’m not sure it can quite follow through on. To the studio's surprise, a lack of care and effort in producing a movie won’t magically turn it into a riveting smash hit people would want to watch or care enough about.
Likewise to Paramount Marvel is a kindred corporate entity. Actually it's even bigger under the thumb of conglomerate Disney, and yet Shang-Chi does not come across as a soulless cash grab.
Sure every MCU title has a specific tone and style about it. This movie fits into a refined template with obligatory references, cameo characters, and after a decade you know what you’re getting, comfortable even. But if you go with my analogy for a second, imagine that Shang-Chi is a dish. You’ve heard about the type of cuisine but were always cautious of trying it, some misplaced urban myth about MSG and headaches. But if you were remotely interested in seeing this addition to the MCU and metaphorically trying out said foreign flavour, then realise that you are only now open to trying it through the courtesy of a familiar standardised palette, Marvel. And as always it goes down well.
Shang-Chi feels like it’s created with a sense of real purpose consisting of a well thought out plot, defined characters and many more aspects that breathe life into it. I’m biased but it could also relate to how Shang-Chi acknowledges Chinese traditions and reclaims Asian culture. From the immigrant story to the soulful music, it’s a compelling journey to go along that still feels and maintains the essence of a fun Marvel ride.
To give a specific comparison, Snake Eyes’ object of power, the Jewel of the Sun is a source of destruction and fiery combustion that is sought after, but it only has a few lines of backstory. The Ten Rings on the other hand have a history that's developed on, and more significantly have a role to play in the actual story other than to purely be used as a weapon that must be fired. Truly it's both the big and little things that make a tangible difference.
Snake Eyes has an Off-putting Character Arc and Shang-Chi is a Solid Character
Snake Eyes initially starts as a bad person believe it or not. He works for criminals, continually lying and deceiving to get closer to his ultimate goal (which I’ll talk about in a bit). Naturally, as the focal character he eventually decides to do the right thing and become a good guy, but for his counterpart Storm Shadow the same arc is applied except it's reversed. This yin yang parallel seemed interesting and I assume it was done to acknowledge the pre-existing two sides of the same coin relationship audiences know the characters to share. On paper I could see where the writers wanted to go with it, and maybe it could have worked, but sadly as I saw this approach didn't make for an interesting or engaging protagonist to follow. To put it bluntly our ‘hero’ of the movie is kind of a dick with not many redeeming qualities. There is only some sympathy gained from the fact that Snake Eyes’ father was murdered, but since this event and their relationship aren't satisfactorily expanded upon or explored, his defining vengeance centred arc is weak. By the end I was actually rooting for Storm Shadow because he didn’t do anything wrong and was screwed over.
Meanwhile, Shang-Chi was trained to be a killer since he was a child, destined to inherit the powerful Ten Rings that helped his warlord father build a terrorist organisation. In theory he should also be just as unsympathetic and just as unlikely to have a good redemption arc. And yet...
Whilst Snake Eyes made the active choice to kill or betray anyone in the single-minded pursuit of avenging his father, Shang never chose this life. In fact he tried to escape it by immigrating to America. He abandoned his sister in doing so and having already lost his mother the only positive influence in his life the former assassin had no problem starting anew. Clearly Shang made mistakes and had lost, but we can ultimately sympathise with him because on his hero’s journey there are a few things to note:
We dive deep into his history which inevitably curbs our judgements as there is more to learn about how complicated life was in his circumstance.
After ignoring his past he actively tries to make amends such as with his sister. Empathetic qualities which anyone can get behind.
He also acknowledges his actions, where he came from, and made the courageous decision a long time ago when he deserted The Ten Rings to actively stand against the antagonist’s tyrannical and fanatical goals.
Snake Eyes barely bothers to scratch the surface of any of this or even consider if any of these qualities are worthwhile pursuing. Well that's a shame generic ninja, now move out of the way for Shang-Chi, the well rounded and likeable kick-ass martial artist.
G.I Joe Ignores Expectations whilst Marvel sets New Standards
As aforementioned, G.I. Joe is a well known franchise with a character popular enough to get his own movie. Thus Snake Eyes is a well established character, that although is shrouded in mystery is still someone that has been defined since his debut in the original Rise of Cobra movie in 2009. There are even flashbacks in this movie and its sequel which give him more depth than his fellow Joes will ever see.
Yet Paramount approves of depicting a completely different kind of backstory for some reason. In order to go wherever the wind takes them, this version of the character would have to be free of such restraints like existing core character traits. And they ignored a noticeable one which was Snake Eyes' mute nature. Henry Golding talks but at no point is it touched upon or given any inclination as to why the character might not speak in the future. To add to this he’s only given his signature suit at the end, with no earlier reference or suggestion towards a costume change. It makes me ask important things like, why doesn’t Snake Eyes unmask in the original movies? Why can’t he speak? Is he uncomfortable with who he is or just shy? Those are all questions that you would assume should be answered in a G.I. Joe ORIGINS movie right? Choosing not to acknowledge any of this or respect the established universe before this movie not only undercuts the entire purpose of an origin story, but more importantly makes the experience far less meaningful.
Luckily, Shang-Chi doesn’t suffer from this problem because even though the character was created and has featured in Marvel comics since 1973, much less is known if at all about him from a general audience's standpoint. The MCU has been going on for a while, but now much like the Guardians of the Galaxy did when they made their onscreen debut, Shang can also start fresh and make its mark in this connected universe. Even though it rightly needs to respect those humble comic book origins, this first ever live action portrayal of the character isn't greatly defined or shackled by expectations as Snake Eyes with his third appearance currently.
Not many people were interested or cared to know about a talking racoon and anthropomorphic tree let alone an Asian character, but in an ever expanding multiverse there is always a need and desire to introduce more characters and tell their stories. That is to say the right way.
“I always bet on Asian"
...but who had the better fight scenes and choreography ?
Honestly, I'll let you judge it for yourself because it can only really be appreciated in a visual space, but what I will say is that is all looks very cool. Sword fighting is a given in a story taking place in Japan and I respect how Eastern cinema culture gave us and led to many awesome battles including Snake Eyes'. There were moments where I did wonder why Snake Eyes didn’t ever want to use a gun like he does occasionally in the original movies, but I've been too hard on his movie so I'll let that nitpick slide.
I'll give credit where it's due because there is clearly a lot of thought and time put into these fight sequences. Still, I can't fully appreciate the detail when most of them take place at the dead of night and/or it's raining. If it wasn't for the dim lighting and environment I would give the fights a 9/10 but that's the artistic choice they made so I'll give it a solid 7 or 8 instead.
A martial arts movie boasting authenticity in every aspect needs to get the fight choreography down to the punch. Thankfully, Shang-Chi is the greatest fighter in the entire Marvel universe so there's nothing to worry about here. That includes the likes of Stunt Coordinator and Second Unit Director Brad Allan who was a member of world famous stunt actor Jackie Chan's Stunt Team. Sadly he passed away last month, but Allan still contributed a great deal of genuineness, excitement and familiar charm that shows in the production. His legacy lives on through his work and I hope he rests in peace knowing he entertained many.
Before Shang-Chi I would have gone as far to say that the era of Jet Li, the above-named Jackie Chan and of course Brad Allan is sadly over but never forgotten. I thought the implementation and appreciation of the fighting style was a thing of the past in Western mainstream media, but now there seems to be a resurgence through exceptions such as the Avatar: The Last Airbender TV series and now Shang-Chi. It’s refreshing and damn satisfying to watch to say the least.
Whether it's bad or good I want to see more (representation)! Preferably the latter with more practice, but only time will tell.