Pikmin Turns 20!

Today, October 26th 2021, marks the twentieth anniversary of the release of Pikmin in Japan!

Yes, somehow, it’s been two full decades since players were introduced to the multi-colored half-plant/half-animal aliens known as Pikmin, and the brave Captain Olimar, the hero of the series.

Pikmin was the brainchild of none other than Shigeru Miyamoto himself, the creator of Super Mario, The Legend of Zelda, and Donkey Kong (in addition to less prominent series Star Fox and F-Zero). Although it’s never achieved the same level of success as Mario or Zelda, Pikmin certainly shares in their spirit, with Miyamoto’s signature “fun at all costs” philosophy present throughout.

The original Pikmin was released October 26th 2001 on the Nintendo GameCube (it barely missed the console’s launch both in Japan and stateside), and saw Captain Olimar utilize three Pikmin types: fast and fire-resistant Red Pikmin; Yellow Pikmin, who could be thrown higher and (strangely) were the only Pikmin who could throw bombs; and aquatic Blue Pikmin, who have since become a staple as the last Pikmin type the player meets in each game. With the help of the Pikmin, Captain Olimar had to recover the 30 pieces of his rocket ship within a 30 day in-game time limit, before his air supply ran out (so its story is kind of like a more serious Toejam & Earl, a game which recently celebrated its 30th anniversary on the 15th, by the way).

Pikmin was a big deal because, at the time, it was the first big new franchise Nintendo had made in some years (the N64 era was mostly about bringing Nintendo’s established franchises into the third dimension). And of course, the fact that Miyamoto was its creator certainly helped. Not to mention its unique gameplay, which combined elements of puzzle, action and real-time strategy into one innovative package.

Three years later, Pikmin 2 was released, also on the GameCube. This entry introduced Louie, the Luigi to Olimar’s Mario, as a second playable character. Pikmin 2 also brought in new Purple Pikmin, who had ten times the strength of other Pikmin types, and White Pikmin, who were not only resistant to poison, but would poison whatever creatures managed to eat them. The story here was that the company Olimar and Louie work for is in debt, and the Pikmin planet just so happens to house treasures that are quite valuable on Olimar’s home planet of Hocotate.

Although Pikmin 2 still utilized a day/night cycle like the first game, it no longer had a time limit for the adventure. Additionally, the player could traverse underground dungeons for the game’s best treasures and boss fights, which ignored the clock altogether until the player returned to the surface.

Oh, and Pikmin 2’s claymation promotional art? Sublime.

Both GameCube titles would later be re-released on the Nintendo Wii with newly implemented motion controls, which some felt improved the games. But outside of those re-releases, the Pikmin series would lay dormant for nine years after Pikmin 2.

Finally, in 2013, Pikmin 3 was released on the Wii U. Though the Wii U would end up being a financial failure for Nintendo, it had a strong selection of first-party titles, and Pikmin 3 was one of the best of the lot.

Pikmin 3 introduced three new characters: Alph, Brittany and Charlie, who came to the Pikmin planet in search of fruit seeds to regrow their planet’s food supply. Though they hailed from a different planet than Olimar, they would encounter the returning Pikmin hero (and Louie) during the adventure. And while the Purple and White Pikmin were sadly sidelined to one of the game’s secondary modes, two new Pikmin types were introduced: Rock Pikmin, who could break through objects the other Pikmin could not in addition to delivering a kind of sucker punch to enemies when thrown; and Winged Pikmin, who could fly, giving the player a whole new way to explore the world.

Pikmin 3’s omissions of some of Pikmin 2’s features was met with criticisms (besides the largely reduced presence of the purple and white Pikmin, the game also left behind the dungeons from its predecessor), but it also received strong praise as the most approachable Pikmin title, a sentiment I would have to agree with.

Like many other Wii U titles, Pikmin 3 was eventually brought over to the Nintendo Switch as Pikmin 3 Deluxe in 2020, featuring new modes that brought back Olimar into a playable role.

Besides that re-release, the only Pikmin game since Pikmin 3 was Hey Pikmin! on the Nintendo 3DS, which was like a side-scrolling spinoff game. Hey Pikmin! had a lukewarm reception, probably in no small part to the fact that Pikmin games are so infrequent that fans really just want another proper Pikmin game.

Sadly, we’re still waiting for a full-on Pikmin 4. It’s been eight years since Pikmin 3 was originally released (geez, already?!), meaning that the wait between Pikmins 3 and 4 will match the time gap between Pikmins 2 and 3 in just a number of months… Hopefully Nintendo can at least give us an update on Pikmin 4’s in the not-too-distant future. More Pikmin could only ever be a very good thing.

I guess I should correct myself, as there now is another Pikmin spinoff game, as Niantic – the creators of Pokemon Go – have just given a ‘soft release’ to their new mobile game Pikmin Bloom today, to commemorate the series’ twentieth anniversary. I still play Pokemon Go to this day, so I’ll have to give Pikmin Bloom a go myself!

We may all still be waiting ever so patiently for Pikmin 4, but for a series of surprisingly few entries, Pikmin really has carved a strong legacy for itself in the twenty years since it debuted as that quirky new GameCube game “from the creator of Mario and Zelda.”

“I still have that Pikmin promotional booklet from Nintendo Power!”

Happy twentieth, Pikmin!

The Adventures of Tintin Review

The Adventures of Tintin is based on the Belgian comic strips of the same name by Hergé, which have had a strong influence on pop culture adventures in the decades since their initial publication. In 1981, director Steven Spielberg became a fan of Tintin after a critic compared his film Raiders of the Lost Ark to the famed comic stip. Hergé himself – who disliked the Tintin adaptations during his lifetime – believed Spielberg was the only director that could do Tintin justice. It’s fitting then, that when The Adventures of Tintin finally received a major feature film in 2011, it was directed by none other than Steven Spielberg himself. To add a cherry on top, Peter Jackson also had a prominent role with the film as a producer. Suffice to say, Tintin was getting some pretty special treatment.

Tintin would end up being the first animated film directed by Spielberg, as it utilized motion capture technology (though there’s an argument to be made as to how much a motion capture film counts as being animated). Tintin ended up garnering critical acclaim, earning favorable comparisons to Spielberg’s Indiana Jones series.

The film begins when Tintin (Jamie Bell), a young journalist, spots a model ship – the Unicorn – at a market. No sooner does Tintin purchase the ship that he is approached by two separate individuals who want to buy it off him. The first man is in a hurry and warns Tintin to “get out while he still can” before Tintin refuses the offer. The second man, Ivan Ivanovitch Sakharine (Daniel Craig) is more calm and collected, offering Tintin whatever he wants in exchange for the model of the Unicorn, but Tintin still refuses.

Now more curious than ever about the ship, Tintin takes the model home, only for it to be broken by his rambunctious dog Snowy, with an important piece getting lost in the commotion. Tintin’s apartment is later robbed, and the model ship stolen. Thankfully, the thieves couldn’t find the broken piece, which Snowy manages to uncover. This piece contains a small scroll, which promises to reveal the location of the real life Unicorn, and its unfathomable treasures, if the other pieces of the scroll are found.

This leads to a wild series of events for Tintin and Snowy, which sees them taking to land, sea and air in (and avoiding) almost every vehicle imaginable. They go to exotic lands, get into fistfights, and importantly, team up with a washed up sea captain named Haddock (Andy Serkis), who is a slave to the bottle. All the while trying to stay one step ahead of Sakharine and his men, who seek the fortune of the Unicorn for themselves, and are willing to do anything to get it.

The film is a lot of fun, and is one of those action-adventure movies that rarely gives the audience a moment to catch their breath. The Adventures of Tintin is one of those “BANG ZOOM!” rollercoaster type adventures that you rarely see much of anymore (perhaps even less so in the decade since Tintin’s release). I don’t think many would argue against the idea that The Adventures of Tintin is a more worthy successor to the 80s Indiana Jones trilogy than Kingdom of the Crystal Skull ever was.

While the action and entertainment value may be consistently satisfying, the animation may be more of a mixed bag for some audiences. Although motion capture may work for visual effects characters in live-action movies, it hasn’t faired so well when using it as the basis for an entire animated film. Live-action films capture reality, animated films capture its essence by making their own reality. By trying to make animation look more real, motion capture films just end up looking artificial.

Thankfully, by the time Tintin rolled around, filmmakers seemed to have learned a bit since the days of the expressionless faces of The Polar Express. The characters here are heavily stylized (Sakharine kind of looks like an exaggerated version of Spielberg himself). They look like Hergés characters but with realistic skin and textures. The stylization certainly helps Tintin be less unintentionally creepy than previous motion capture films, although the ten years since the film’s release have revealed its visuals aren’t necessarily timeless, either. Some of the character’s movements can look stiff and awkward. Definitely an improvement over past efforts in motion capture, but even Tintin might look a little off to some viewers.

Still, I guess it plays all the more to the film’s benefit that The Adventures of Tintin is as fast paced and action packed as it is. You’ll be so swept away by the big set pieces that you likely won’t be thinking too deeply about the visuals while you’re watching the film, and can appreciate the overall look of it at face value.

Adding to the film’s entertainment value is its sense of humor. While Tintin may be aiming to look realistic, it embraces its animated side when it comes to comedy. Snowy being more competent and crafty than the humans, Captain Haddock often stumbling into a solution by sheer accident, things like that. And we even have a duo of bumbling police officers in Thomson and Thompson (Nick Frost and Simon Pegg).

As the icing on the cake, The Adventures of Tintin features a great musical score courtesy of John Williams (this is a Spielberg film, after all). The music really sets the fun tone of the film right out of the gate.

On a more sour note, this film was initially to be the first in a planned trilogy of Tintin movies (the second would have swapped the director and producer roles for Spielberg and Peter Jackson, while a third film would have featured both filmmakers in both roles). But the Tintin sequels seem unlikely by this point. Spielberg and Jackson still bring them up from time to time, but it’s been ten years now. I guess I shouldn’t get my hopes up.

Still, the Tintin movie we did get is a whole lot of fun. The kind of movie you can easily rewatch again and again for the sheer joy of it. It was a visual spectacle upon release in 2011, perhaps less so now. But its sense of excitement and adventure is undeniable.

7

The Addams Family 2 Review

The Addams Family is back again, in a follow-up to their 2019 animated reboot. The 2019 movie was an uneven affair, but it provided some fun moments for younger audiences. I feel like The Addams Family 2 can be described in pretty much the same way. It’s a cute, uneventful yet inoffensive animated film that may provide some entertainment for its target audience, though the older crowd definitely shouldn’t expect to be equally entertained, as they would be with the better animated offerings of today.

The story here is that the Addams parents, Gomez (Oscar Isaac) and Morticia (Charlize Theron), feel that their children Wednesday (Chloë Grace Moretz) and Pugsly (Javon Walton) are drifting apart from them. So to grow closer as a family, they decide to have an Addams Family road trip, with Uncle Fester (Nick Kroll) and butler Lurch (Conrad Vernon) in tow. So it’s a similar setup to the recent The Mitchells vs. the Machines, though unfortunately it can’t hope to reach those heights.

An additional dilemma occurs, however, when a lawyer (Wallace Shawn) shows up at the Addamses’ door just as they’re about to leave, and informs Gomez and Morticia that Wednesday may not be their biological daughter, as she may have been switched with another baby at birth. Morticia and Gomez write off the lawyer’s claims at first, but grow suspicious once Uncle Fester reveals that, on the night of Wednesday’s birth, he accidentally scared the babies in the hospital when visiting his niece, so he juggled all the babies to calm them down. He thinks he put all the babies back in the proper place. Okay, that’s funny. That’s the kind of humor I expect from the Addams Family.

Sadly, that humor becomes less frequent as the movie goes on. Besides having the lawyer on their tail (he needs a DNA test, but Morticia and Gomez are determined to avoid him), the movie has a number of sub-plots: due to one of Wednesday’s science experiments, Uncle Fester is developing squid-like properties; Grandmama Addams (Bette Midler) stays at home to housesit and throw wild parties; Pugsley turns to Uncle Fester for advice on how to attract girls; and Cousin Itt (whose gibberish voice is provided by an electronically sped-up Snoop Dogg) shows up during the trip to… show up, really.

A persistent issue with these Addams Family movies (even going back to the live-action adaptations from the 90s) is that they feel the need to add so much story and plot, but play out more like a disconnected series of jokes. The Addams Family is at its best when it’s just the simple idea of this weird, creepy family interacting with “normal” people. Just lean into that and embrace those jokes, instead of trying to tie them together with so much plot. The family road trip was all the story this movie needed, did we really have to add the bigger issue of Wednesday’s parentage on top of that (and is it just me, or is Wednesday the Addams who always gets the spotlight)? If The Addams Family 2 were simply about the individual moments of the family’s road trip, and the hijinks therein, this may have been a really fun comedy.

Instead it’s only a so-so movie. The Addams Family 2, like its predecessor, seems to be aimed at introducing these characters to younger audiences, and that’s fine. A plus to that is it means, at its worst, the movie is simply unmemorable, as opposed to something offensively bad. Still, given the heights animated family films continue to reach in recent times, you can’t help but wish for more. I’m not expecting an animated classic here, but I think an animated Addams Family movie could produce a legitimately good comedy if given the effort. Sadly, I’m still waiting.

The Addams Family 2 has fun animation and a strong voice cast, which also includes Bill Hader as an eccentric scientist (particular praise goes to Isaac, Theron, and Moretz). But the writing falls a bit flat, and only a few of the jokes really land. You can’t help but feel these Addams Family movies are missed opportunities.

Still, it could be worse. It’s merely The Addams Family 2. Not The Addams Family: Let There be Carnage.

5

Venom: Let There be Carnage Review

Venom: Let There be Carnage is the awkwardly-titled sequel to 2018’s Venom. While Venom wasn’t among the better superhero movies of recent years, it at least made the smart choice of saving its titular anti-hero’s primary nemesis, Carnage, for the sequel. So with the setup of its protagonist out of the way and a proper villain ready and waiting, the Venom sequel had the potential to be a big improvement over its predecessor.

Unfortunately, that didn’t turn out to be the case. Not only does Carnage fall short of the first Venom film, but it even bungles its namesake villain’s big screen debut.

Set a year after the first movie, journalist Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) has hit hard times: his ex-fiancée, Anne Weying (Michelle Williams) is now engaged to someone else, his career is at a stand-still, and while the alien Symbiote Venom (voiced by Hardy) still resides in his body, the human/alien parasite duo have been laying low, due to Venom’s habit of “snacking on bad guy’s heads” leaving an accidental trail to their vigilantism.

The only break Brock can seem to get in his journalism are his interviews with death row inmate Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson), with Kasady refusing to speak to anyone else. Eddie is trying to get information on Kasady’s missing victims, something that Venom manages to deduce by looking at the sketches on the wall of Kasady’s cell. Finding the missing bodies propels Eddie Brock’s career, which in turn causes a riff between him and Venom (the latter of which is desperate to eat bad guys again, having to settle for eating chickens for too long). During one last interview with Kasady, the deranged killer bites Eddie’s hand, and inadvertently gets a taste of Venom in addition to Eddie’s blood.

With their relationship strained, Eddie and Venom “break up,” with the alien Symbiote removing itself from Eddie’s body and hopping from host to host as to see the city (though seeing as none of these hosts are “perfect matches” for Venom, a number of them die as a result of being his host, which makes me wonder why I’m supposed to see Venom as a good guy). Meanwhile, Kasady’s earlier encounter with Eddie has produced a Symbiote spawn within Kasady’s body, which calls itself Carnage.

Carnage is basically a stronger version of Venom, and allows Kasady to break free just as he’s about to be executed. With a superpowered alien now inhabiting his body, the already dangerous Kasady can now commit any evil deed he so desires. Though that ultimately amounts to little more than breaking his longtime girlfriend Frances Barrison (Naomie Harris) – who also goes by “Shriek” due to her supersonic screams – out of her own prison, and then setting up a makeshift wedding between the two.

Naturally, the only person (and Symbiote) capable of stopping Carnage is Venom. So Brock sets out to reunite with his gooey alien buddy in hopes to save the city.

And that’s it, really. There’s not much else to the plot other than that. I suppose I wasn’t expecting an extravagant storyline here, but I would have at least hoped that with a simple plot, the movie would flesh out the elements it does have. But it never does, with two key areas really falling short of their potential.

The first of those areas is the relationship between Eddie and Venom itself. Here the dynamic between Eddie and Venom is almost entirely comedic. The first movie played their relationship for laughs on a number of occasions, but Carnage plays up the “odd couple” aspect of Eddie and Venom’s relationship at the expense of everything else. And I have to ask, does every superhero have to be funny these days? Particularly someone like Venom, who was always an anti-hero anyway, isn’t he allowed to be a little more serious? Do we really have to see Venom perform a mic drop? What’s the point of a Venom movie if Venom is just going to act like any other superhero, exactly?

“There is a LOT of talk about chickens and chocolate in this movie.”

The other underwhelming aspect of the film is (somehow) Carnage himself. I don’t know, a serial killer possessed by an alien entity sounds pretty terrifying. It should write itself. Instead, Kasady and Carnage seem to have no clear goal here. And I don’t mean in a “mindlessly create mayhem and destruction just for the hell of it” kind of way. That would actually be a kind of goal for a character like this (Carnage is often seen as Marvel’s answer to the Joker). What I mean is that the movie has no real idea what it wants out of its villains. Kasady and Carnage basically make a deal to free Barrison so Kasady can marry her, and maybe they’ll kill Venom when they get around to it. Nothing more. They’re evil, they’re just not ambitious.

What’s worse, when you combine these elements with a short running time, Venom: Let There be Carnage just kind of zooms by. I suppose that’s a better alternative to a bad movie overstaying its welcome, but maybe with some more time, Carnage could have given us a reason to care about its story.

The whole picture feels like it’s missing something. More specifically, Let There be Carnage feels like it’s missing an entire second act. We have the setup with the “breakup” between Eddie and Venom, and the birth of Carnage, but then we basically go from there straight to the big finale. When Venom and Carnage came face-to-face, I expected that to simply be the first meeting between the two, which would lead to a bigger fight later on. A few minutes into the battle I realized there wasn’t going to be a round two before the movie was through. That was disappointing. If you’re going to drop the ball on the story in a movie like this, at least make up for it with an excess in action between the alien monsters.

I suppose on the plus side, Tom Hardy seems to be having a fun time (he also helped produce), and it’s a credit to him that he’s able to keep things afloat. Of course, this makes it all the more of a shame that the film is so hellbent on making Venom a funny character, because I think Hardy has more to offer to the role than what’s allowed.

There might be moments of fun here and there in Venom: Let There be Carnage, but the film fails to develop any of its pieces, and put them together into a meaningful whole. Venom himself has become something of a joke, Carnage is surprisingly underwhelming, and the film is absent of a proper middle act, with the two remaining acts feeling like they’re set on fast-forward.

The first Venom didn’t exactly set a high watermark to reach. Even still, Let There be Carnage is a disappointment.

4

My First Trip to the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures

Well, I had quite the satisfying week, I must say. I got to see my favorite film, Spirited Away, on the big screen again. Always wonderful. Seinfeld, arguably the best sitcom of all time, is now on Netflix so I’ve been watching the heck out of that. And to cap it all off, I visited the newly-opened Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.

After several delays, the Academy Museum finally opened on September 30th, and I just couldn’t wait to make my way there. Especially since the museum’s first temporary exhibit is dedicated to the films of Hayao Miyazaki, my favorite filmmaker.

The Miyazaki exhibit was truly something else. I can’t share any photos, because they didn’t allow pictures to be taken in the Miyazaki exhibit (perfectly fair). Everything in the exhibit was so lovely and beautiful, I really had to keep reminding myself that pictures weren’t allowed. I was, however, allowed to take pictures of the wall outside of the exhibit. See?

Pardon my questionable camerawork. There was a line of people in the area so I went for the pictures I could take without getting anyone in the shot. And also I’m just not good at taking pictures.

The entire museum was great, featuring all kinds of costumes and props, and lots of history to delve into (they even had pages of the handwritten script for The Wizard of Oz). They had this cool room filled with walls of movie clips, with the clips changing genre or style every couple of minutes. They even have two movie theaters for special screenings (although I didn’t get to see anything this time). But it was the Miyazaki exhibit that truly stood out as magical.

It is such a shame the Miyazaki exhibit is only temporary (it will be there until June), as the museum will really lose something without it. But I think that’s probably due to Studio Ghibli wanting their contributions back in their native Japan. I guess I can’t argue with that. But if it turns out the exhibit’s temporary nature was a decision by the Academy Museum, they’d be out of their minds.

Seeing all of these original concept sketches and storyboards – drawn by Miyazaki himself of course – just took my breath away. They had various clips of his films being projected against the walls (both Japanese and English clips, which I appreciated. None of that “subtitle supremacy” nonsense). There were models and sculpted recreations of places from Miyazaki’s films. Different sections were dedicated to the themes and devices of the director’s filmography. They even had a desk once used by Miyazaki to draw those beautiful illustrations that serve as the starting points of each of his films.

A particular object in the exhibit that caught my eye was one of Miyazaki’s early sketches from My Neighbor Totoro. It was of the house featured in the film, done entirely in pencil, not colored in or anything. You could see wrinkles in the paper, and one of the corners had been torn off (not affecting the sketch itself, thankfully). Seeing that just really hit me. The fact that these wonderful movies, these masterpieces of animation, began with drawings like this, is just amazing. That this little, imperfect piece of paper featured this (very detailed) pencil sketch which, in turn, helped create something I have loved and cherished my whole life… It blew my mind. I mean, I know how animated films work, and specifically of Miyazaki’s unique process. But to see that original sketch (and all the others) drawn by Miyazaki himself, right there in front of my face, it just made it all so real for me. I can’t explain it.

The whole thing, the whole exhibit, really moved me. Again, the whole museum was great. It was interesting and informative. But that Miyazaki exhibit made everything else seem mundane by comparison (which I suppose is true of the movies themselves). From the moment I stepped inside, being greeted with the heavenly sound of “The Path of the Wind” from My Neighbor Totoro, to the moment I exited through the tunnel from Spirited Away, with the sounds of the Ogino family’s footsteps echoing against the walls (both of which brought me to tears, by the way), the entire Hayao Miyazaki exhibit had me feeling like I was in another world. I can’t wait to make my way back.

Truly magical.

My Month in Movies (September 2021)

Well, here’s something a little bit different. I had a pretty solid month in movie-watching this September (the month of my birthday!), so I figured I’d write something quick about it here.

I watched over twenty movies in September, which may not be a whole lot for some people, but for me (these days) it’s something. Quite an eclectic lot of movies too, I must say. A number of them I watched for the first time.

Despite the name of this post, I don’t think this will be a monthly thing (if it were, I should have started this a couple of years ago when I was watching movies more frequently), but I thought it’d be a fun thing to write for a change of pace, and maybe I’ll write more of these here and there in the future. We’ll see.

Here is the full list of movies I watched in September 2021 in order of viewing. Movies I watched for the first time will be marked with an asterisk.

Shan-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings*

Bright*

Speed*

Demolition Man

Superman (1978)

Lethal Weapon

The Rocketeer

Last Action Hero*

Lethal Weapon 2

The Fugitive*

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: The Secret of the Ooze

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III

TMNT (2007)

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows

Jurassic Park

Tron

Speed 2: Cruise Control*

Citizen Kane

Goodfellas

Up

So yeah, quite the variety of movies. I like to think of myself as someone who can appreciate both Citizen Kane and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, thank you very much.

Speaking of TMNT, as you probably guessed by this list, along with my recent review of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters, I’m on a bit of a Ninja Turtles kick as of late (I can’t wait for that Shredder’s Revenge game next year). I actually reviewed all of the TMNT movies a few years back, but I feel like I have more to say about them. Maybe soon I’ll write an entire retrospective of the TMNT movies, and some other stuff about them as well.

Anyway, a number of the movies I have listed here that I haven’t reviewed, I would like to review some day. Some sooner than others, as I have a lot of things to say about the Speed movies, The Fugitive and Last Action Hero.

I also have to say, after watching the original Superman movie for the first time since I was a kid, I think THAT is how Superman should be depicted. I’ve grown something of a disdain for the character over the years, but I think that has more to do with the depictions of the character in the years since than it does the character himself. People are always trying to make Superman “cool” or “gritty,” or coming up with dumb ‘what if?’ scenarios like “what if Superman went bad?” and crap like that. A lot of what works for other comic book superheroes just doesn’t work for Superman. Keep him simple: a beacon of hope and optimism. The 1978 movie, despite some flaws, gets that so right. Just make Superman THAT.

Of course, there’s a lot to say about Citizen Kane and Goodfellas. Great movies, to be sure. However, if I’m being completely honest, the best film I watched last month was Up. I know, I’ve committed cinematic blasphemy by daring to say anything is better than Citizen Kane, and I’d be shunned by movie buffs by even suggesting that something could be better than the work of the movie buff man-god Martin Scorsese. Hey, I’m not saying Citizen Kane and Goodfellas are bad, just that I think Up is better. Of course, so much as suggesting such a thing – particularly of an animated film – would get me disgraced as a “serious” movie buff. Oh well, I’d rather enjoy movies than fit into some club.

It seems action movies were my overall flavor of the month for September . While most of the action movies I watched were good, the best of the lot has to be Speed. I can’t believe I had never watched it before.

I also watched some notable “technically revolutionary” films in Jurassic Park and Tron. Two truly pioneering movies that I’ll no doubt talk more about later. Speaking of Tron, I also watched The Rocketeer again. Like Tron, The Rocketeer deserves mention with the best live-action Disney movies, alongside the more obvious choices of Mary Poppins and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.

I already reviewed Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which was also a lot of fun. My apologies to Mr. Scorsese that I watched a Marvel movie in the same month as one of his films. Or maybe he should apologize for being such a prude. That works too.

Best Movie I Watched All Month: Up

Still one of Pixar’s best films. Part of me is tempted to even say it’s the best Pixar film, but when I remember Inside Out, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Wall-E and Toy Story 2 (still the best Toy Story) it gets difficult to pick a definitive winner. But Up is probably in the top three at least. Still one of my favorite movies full-stop.

Sure, Citizen Kane and Goodfellas are classic films that have earned their acclaim: Citizen Kane is widely considered the greatest film of all time, and I can understand it being considered the best up until that point. Though if we’re being honest, it isn’t magically better than any other great movie to be released since, as critics would have you believe. It’s just kind of become that “safe pick” for critics, similar to what Ocarina of Time would become for video games. It’s great, but many other works are just as great. Meanwhile, Goodfellas is often hailed as one of the best films of the 1990s, and rightfully so. It’s also often considered to be Martin Scorsese’s best film. To that I say… yeah, it probably is.

My point though, is that I can appreciate Citizen Kane and Goodfellas as great, groundbreaking films. They make for great conversation and it’s fun to dissect and analyze them. But Up is the kind of film that really moves me. It makes me appreciate life and its little things more. It makes me want to be a better person. It makes me cry. No Citizen Kane or Goodfellas has affected me on that level. So Up gets the crown. Sorry/Not sorry.

Best Movie I Watched for the First Time this Month: Speed (The Fugitive being a close runner-up)

I’m not sure if it’s the numerous references to Speed made in the Sonic the Hedgehog movie, or my need for more Dennis Hopper in my life, but I finally decided to check Speed out. Boy, am I glad I did. It’s honestly one of the best pure action movies I’ve ever seen. It deserves to be mentioned with the likes of Mad Max: Fury Road and Terminator 2. It’s pure popcorn bliss.

Shame about Speed 2: Cruise Control. Talk about a dip in quality between a movie and its sequel. Woof. Very ouch.

The Fugitive is also a classic 90s film, released a year earlier than Speed. Though it’s more of a suspenseful thriller than pure action. A feature film remake of the 1960s television series, The Fugitive was actually a really big deal in 1993, but for some reason doesn’t get talked about much anymore. We need to fix that and start talking about it again.

Worst Movie I Watched All Month: Bright

Speed 2 may be a disappointing sequel, but it isn’t entirely without merit (there are a few brief moments of suspense, and Willem DaFoe is fun as the baddie, even if he’s not an equal to Dennis Hopper’s villain from the original). Bright, on the other hand… Whoo boy….

In case you’ve forgotten (hopefully you’ve forgotten?), Bright is that Netflix movie from a few years back starring Will Smith as an LAPD officer in a modern world filled with fantasy races and creatures, with Will Smith’s partner being an orc. It isn’t the worst concept ever, but I always wonder why Hollywood and the like are constantly trying to “reinvent” fantasy. Fantasy opens the door to literally any story, in a way that no other genre can. So why not use that to tell an original story, instead of trying to reinvent fantasy itself?

Anyway, Bright is from the same director as 2016’s Suicide Squad, and somehow makes that movie look like a joy by comparison. The social commentary – while perhaps well meaning at some early point – is so heavy handed and constant (and I mean constant), that it just comes across as trying way too hard. The movie may have had something with that if it knew how to dial it back a little, but instead its constant shouting of its themes make it seem like it’s trying desperately to be important.

Basically, it’s like a Niell Blomkamp movie. Only fantasy instead of sci-fi.

On top of that, we have action that isn’t really exciting, comedy that isn’t funny, and a wildly inconsistent tone (note to filmmakers: if you’re going to go into as dark of territory as having the villains in your film murder a family, don’t try to be a jokey buddy cop movie two minutes later. It just doesn’t work). It’s a messy, ugly, unpleasant movie.

The Guilty Pleasure Award: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows

I genuinely love this movie. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not what you would call a “good” movie. It’s just that I don’t care. I’m having too much fun.

While none of the Ninja Turtles films would be considered fine cinema, I enjoy them greatly. As someone born during the boom of Turtlemania, I have a soft spot for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The first two films, in particular, are some of my earliest movie memories.

But Out of the Shadows is the Ninja Turtles movie I always wanted as a kid, but didn’t get until 2016. While the ugly character designs for the turtles are carried over from the (also enjoyable) 2014 movie, everything else is like the 1987 cartoon and the toys brought to life on the screen: It has Krang, it has Bebop and Rocksteady, it has Baxter Stockman, it brought back Casey Jones, it has the Technodrome, it has the theme song!

Due to Michael Bay being attached as producer, a lot of people seem to lump the 2014 and 2016 Ninja Turtles movies together with those awful, awful Transformers movies. They really don’t deserve that. The Transformers movies are bad. The Ninja Turtles reboot movies are fun. Dumb fun. But a whole lot of it!

It’s a shame Out of the Shadows was a box office bomb (which I once again attribute more to the Transformers/Michael Bay connection than the movie itself), because I feel like the series finally got on track to replicating the TMNT we all knew from the cartoons and video games, and could have had another fun sequel or two. But it was a dead end. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is now being rebooted (again) with two different movies (one animated, and a new live-action one), so it’s unfortunate that Out of the Shadows won’t have a proper follow-up. At the very least, please don’t recast Tyler Perry. He seemed to be having the time of his life as Baxter Stockman.

And there you go!

Again, hopefully I’ll be able to write about these movies more in-depth at some point, whether through reviews or other such write-ups. I already have so much more to say about some of them, that I really should get to those soon. And some of the movies I didn’t talk about as much here definitely deserve more love. We’ll see how quickly/slowly I get around to all of these.

September was definitely an enjoyable movie watching month for me. I’ll have to wait and see how October stacks up. If it does I may have to write another one of these (the fact that I already have my tickets to see Spirited Away – my favorite film – on the big screen is already a great sign). But please, don’t expect me to write these every month. I’m already backlogged with my video game reviews, I really should emphasize those for a while before I think about writing something else…

Hopefully you had a fun little read here. It was fun to write, and something a little different for me. So I hope you had a decently good time with this. At the very least, I gave you a place where you could read a little bit about Citizen Kane and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in one spot. I see this as an accomplishment.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters (SNES) Review

In the late 80s and well into the 90s, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ruled the world. Although it started as a comic book by the recently defunct Mirage Studios, it became a pop culture phenomenon with the 1987 cartoon series. TMNT would go on to become one of those rare franchises that hasn’t really lost its popularity in the years since that early booming period, with several movies and subsequent comic books and cartoons that continue to this day. And of course, we can’t forget the many video games to star the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Although the Turtles are most associated with the beat-em-up genre in the world of gaming, they’ve appeared in a number of other genres as well. Strangely, even though the peak years of Turtlemania coincided with the fighting game boom of the early 90s, the Turtles only starred in one such fighting game during that timeframe: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters by Konami.

I suppose you could say the Turtles starred in three fighting games of the time, seeing as Tournament Fighters saw releases on the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis in 1993, and weirdly made its way to the NES afterwards in 1994, with each version having notable differences from one another (with most praising the SNES version as the best of the lot, because of course it was). Although the pairing of TMNT and fighting games seems like such an obvious success, Tournament Fighters doesn’t seem nearly as remembered as some of the other Turtles games of the time.

Perhaps that’s due in part to the game’s selection of playable characters, many of whom would still be considered deep cuts to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles aficionados even today. The SNES version contains ten playable characters, but only half of them would be very familiar to Turtles fans. Four of those are obviously the Ninja Turtles themselves: Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello and Michelangelo. The other familiar face is their archnemesis, the Shredder (though he is bizarrely labeled as “Cyber Shredder” in the game).

The remaining characters are varying degrees of niche. There’s Armaggon, a shark-like mutant; Wingnut is a humanoid bat; and the oddly-named War is a purple triceratops-like creature who is not in fact a member of the Triceratons (triceratops-like aliens from the franchise). These three characters all originated from the Archie Comics TMNT series, which I emphasize is separate from the original Mirage Studios comics. Of the lot, only Wingnut appeared in the 1987 cartoon, though Armaggon would eventually show up in the 2012 series. And then we have Chrome Dome, a robot character who appeared in a few episodes of the original series. But the last character is the real odd-duck of the lot.

The final playable character is Aska (which really should be spelled “Asuka”), a ninja woman who made her first and only appearance in the TMNT franchise in this game (meaning we have at least one more deep cut character the newer cartoons can resurrect). Apparently, Aska was intended to be the character Mitsu from the film Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III, to which she bears a strong resemblance (though the video game character is a little ‘bouncier’ in certain areas). But due to that film’s poor reception from fans, the character was hastily tweaked to the Aska seen here.

So if you were hoping for fan favorites like Master Splinter, Casey Jones, Bebop and Rocksteady, Krang, or frequent crossover character Miyamoto Usagi, you’re out of luck. Splinter is kidnapped in the game’s story mode, and Bebop and Rocksteady are background characters on one of the stages. So the character selections may have been off-putting to fans at the time. Seeing as this was around the height of Turtlemania, fans were probably hoping to see more of their favorites in the game. Though perhaps the more obscure selections make the game more interesting in retrospect.

Anyway, aside from the lack of fan favorites, Tournament Fighters has a lot to offer TMNT fans, and is a solid fighter in its own right.

The game features three different modes: Tournament, Versus and Story. Tournament is your expected arcade-style mode, where you pick any of the ten characters, and go through a series of fights. You have unlimited continues, and can switch characters if you lose. Versus allows players to fight matches at their own leisure, and can be played with two players (making it the game’s real main event, and what will keep you coming back if you have other players available). Story is similar to the Tournament mode, but fittingly features more cutscenes and dialogue boxes. You can only play as the Ninja Turtles themselves in this mode, with the order of opponents differing depending on which turtle you select, and you only get three continues here.

The story is that the Shredder has been defeated and is no longer in New York City (though he’s still an opponent, so maybe “Cyber Shredder” is like a robot or something?). But the Foot Clan returns under the leadership of Karai (marking the character’s first appearance outside of the Mirage comics, further playing into the game’s love of lesser-known TMNT characters). Seeking revenge for Shredder’s defeat, the Foot Clan kidnaps Splinter and April O’Neil to goad the turtles into combat. It’s a fighting game plot.

Additionally, players can go to the option menu to alter the difficulty of the game, and even choose a setting that speeds up the gameplay. The Tournament and Story modes end earlier on easier settings (Tournament ends against the non-playable Rat King, and Story against Cyber Shredder, with players only facing Karai herself on more difficult settings). But the easier settings will probably be more enjoyable for most players, since it seems like Tournament Fighters is one of those retro fighting games where the AI opponents can seemingly break the rules of the game on harder settings.

This is the game’s most annoying drawback. I admit I’m not the best player of fighting games, particularly against other people. But I usually enjoy trying out the more difficult settings in the single-player modes. Though some of the older fighting games can get ridiculous on higher difficulty settings. They don’t simply get harder, but the computer AI seems to be able to do things the human player can’t, and unfortunately Tournament Fighters is one of those games. The AI opponents spam moves faster than you can react to them, and on several occasion when I knocked my opponent down and approached them to follow up, they somehow managed to grapple me before they even stood back up! It’s cheap little things like that that make this one of the fighting games where I just don’t want to bother with the harder settings.

I suppose the higher difficulties are only there for those who want them, however. The easier settings will provide some good fun while they last. Though the game’s lasting appeal will of course be its two-player versus mode.

The gameplay itself is tight and intricate, and actually feels on par with Street Fighter II. Each character has two punch/weapon attacks and two kicks (a weak and strong variation) mapped out to the four buttons on the SNES controller. There are familiar button combos and a good variety of moves for each character. Additionally, continuously attacking an opponent will fill up a green meter under your health bar. If you can fill up the bar completely, you can unleash a powerful special move by pressing both of the stronger attack buttons. Sure, by today’s standards, Tournament Fighters may feel a little slow. But for its time, this is as good and fleshed-out as fighting mechanics got. It’s still a fun game to play.

To top it all off, the game looks great. Although maybe not as colorful as the more famous Turtles in Time, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters features the kind of detailed, fluidly animated character sprites you would expect from the SNES. The sound is maybe a bit less consistent (Rat King sounds kind of like Sylvester Stallone), but it does what it needs to.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighter may not be the most remembered Turtles game, but it has perhaps held up the best out of those released during the early days of Turtlemania. It clearly took more than a little inspiration from Street Fighter II, and I’m actually surprised how well it compares to the influential fighter.

If you still have a Super Nintendo at the ready, Tournament Fighter is a fun time. And if you have a friend over, it should be a great time.

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Thoughts on Today’s Nintendo Direct (9/23/2021)

Nintendo had a new Direct today, which maybe not-so coincidentally happens to be the 132nd anniversary of the founding of the company (happy 132nd birthday, Nintendo!). It was certainly an improvement over their E3 Direct this year (not a very high hurdle to jump, but I meant it as a compliment). There were numerous big announcements, so let me talk about the ones that caught my attention.

First thing’s first, Nintendo 64 and Sega Genesis games are coming to Nintendo Switch as part of an upgraded Switch Online. That’s cool, and with the NES and SNES already a part of it, it just feels more complete now. All the classics together again for the first time since the Wii (I know many people would hate me for not including Atari consoles as part of “the classics,” but let’s not pretend like those hold up). A lot of the obvious games will be included at one point or another, like Super Mario 64, the N64 Zelda titles, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, etc. But then they (briefly) showed something that really caught my eye…

“Buh Gawd King!”

Yes, Banjo-Kazooie is coming to Nintendo Switch, making it the first time since its original release that Banjo-Kazooie is on a Nintendo console (where it really belongs, if we’re being perfectly honest). It was a “blink and you’ll miss it” kind of announcement, which is odd, seeing as it’s actually a pretty big deal given the whole history of the series (and developer Rare) with Nintendo and then Microsoft and everything. Could this mean a new Banjo-Kazooie game is in the cards? Probably not. But it gives some semblance of hope for a future for the series. Plus, Banjo-Kazooie (and the other N64 games) on the go? Sounds great!

Before we move on to more games, let’s take a moment to talk about something else that was discussed during the Direct: the upcoming Super Mario animated movie!

While the fact that the film is being made by Illumination has me a bit skeptical (their movies tend to be perfectly content with being “adequate”), I would be lying if I said I weren’t interested. Particularly after this Direct, when Shigeru Miyamoto himself announced the cast!

Chris Pratt wouldn’t have been my first choice for Mario, but I can totally imagine it now after the announcement. I admit I’m a bit disappointed that Seth Rogen is voicing Donkey Kong. But Anya Taylor-Joy as Princess Peach and Jack Black as Bowser? Hot diggity dog! I mean, I always imagined Brad Garrett as Bowser (he was great as Krang in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows), but Jack Black is a more than worthy substitute.

Also, Cranky Kong is in the movie.

Also also, Foreman Spike is in the movie. Now THAT is the kind of deep cut I was hoping for from this Mario movie. The kind of deep cut Super Smash Bros. USED to do, but would never do these days.

Speaking of Super Smash Bros., the last DLC fighter for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate wasn’t announced during this Direct, but will be announced in October. I’m kind of glad they didn’t reveal them here. It’s probably just going to be another anime guy with a sword or another vanilla fighting game character. They’ll likely be a character who has little to nothing to do with Nintendo’s history anyway, so why sully this Direct with another inevitable disappointment from Super Smash Bros?

Anyway, back to the good stuff. Next year will see the release of Chocobo Racing GP, a Switch exclusive sequel (or maybe remake) of a semi-obscure Mario Kart-style racing game from the Playstation One.

I. Loved. This.

I have many fond memories of Chocobo Racing back in the PSOne days (hard to say how well it would hold up, since I haven’t played it in such a long time, but for its day I had a lot of fun with it). Never would I have thought Square-Enix would actually make a sequel to it after all this time. I’m happy they are. Especially since Nintendo seems to keep forgetting to make Mario Kart 9, a kart racer like this is all the more welcome. So happy to see Square-Enix remember something other than Final Fantasy VII for once.

And finally, the big news (for me, anyway) was the announcement of Kirby and the Forgotten Land. The first fully 3D Kirby game!

Good gracious, that trailer. It started off quiet, showing off an abandoned civilization. Typical video game stuff, but with an added colorfulness not usually seen in “abandoned civilization” scenarios. Then we cut to Kirby waking up on a beach. “Oh cool! A new Kirby game!” I thought. Kirby’s always reliable in producing quality games, though he is a Nintendo mainstay so it wasn’t the most shocking revelation.

But then… it happened.

The camera zoomed out behind Kirby. “No, it can’t be…” I thought, before Kirby started moving around freely in this new environment! It’s a Kirby 3D platformer! Good heavens, it’s a Kirby 3D platformer!

Do you know how long I’ve waited for a 3D platformer starring Kirby? Way too long! To pull back the curtain on the depths of my nerdhood, I’ve sometimes thought about what kind of games I would make in various existing franchises, and one of my recurring ideas has always been a 3D Kirby platformer. And now it’s actually happening. I actually got a little misty-eyed in the trailer.

But what am I telling you for? Just watch it yourself!

Now, to be fair, 2D platformers have a much better track record than 3D ones (3D Mario games are amazing, but they haven’t had any real competition since the days of Banjo-Kazooie). But the potential has always been there. And in this day and age, when Rare hasn’t been present in the genre for well over a decade, Mario’s 3D platformers (sublime though they may be) are really the only ones out there. Oh, you can bring up Ratchet & Clank all you want, but that series is far more an action-adventure game than a platformer (just because it has cartoony characters doesn’t mean it’s a platformer). So we need 3D platformers now more than ever. There’s never been anything wrong with 2D Kirby games (literally, there’s never been a bad one), but I’m happy to see the series branch out with a full-fledged 3D platformer after all this time.

There were plenty of other things discussed in the Nintendo Direct, such as a long-awaited update to Animal Crossing: New Horizons (yes please), and a new trailer for Bayonetta 3 (which closed out the Direct for some reason. I personally would have ended it with Kirby, which has a much richer history and – I’m just going to say it – is a much better, less button-mashy series). But if you just want the news that came out of the Direct, you can read that elsewhere. I’m just giving my thoughts on my favorite bits of the presentation. So hopefully you enjoyed reading my thoughts on this Nintendo Direct.

Jack Black is Bowser.

Ten Years of Dark Souls

Today, September 22nd 2021, marks the ten-year anniversary of the original release of Dark Souls in Japan. So not only is September 22nd the birthday of both Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, but I guess you could call it Dark Souls Day as well.

Yes, somehow it’s been ten full years since Dark Souls first captured our imaginations (and made us smash our controllers) with its intricate gameplay, epic boss fights and unique dark fantasy world. It would end up being (unquestionably) the most influential video game of the last decade, with many imitators in the “Souls-like” genre (none of which are a patch on the real deal) being made in its wake, and games in just about every other genre adopting many of its elements and mechanics.

Okay, so technically Demon’s Souls started the series. Though while Demon’s Souls may be a classic in its own right, I think it’s safe to say it was with 2011’s Dark Souls that the series really took off and conquered the video game world.

Unlike so many games from the late 2000s/early 2010s, Dark Souls has aged beautifully, and its impact and influence has remained intact in a way that’s usually reserved for Nintendo’s best titles. I mean, who the hell talks about Bioshock anymore? Good riddance, I say.

Ah, but Dark Souls. It really is one of the medium’s modern classics. Although now that it’s ten-years old, do we take out the “modern” and simply categorize it as a “classic?”

At any rate, that’s what Dark Souls is, a classic! Its sequels and follow-ups are also stellar (though BloodBorne is probably the only one whose reputation matches the original). The series was a dominating force in gaming in the 2010s, and it seems its influence will continue well beyond that.

Series creator Hidetaka Miyazaki’s next game, Elden Ring, is one of the most anticipated games on the horizon. But it certainly has a lot to live up to if it hopes to have the same impact as its 2011 predecessor. A hell of an act to follow.

Happy tenth anniversary, Dark Souls!

“Ah, dang it!”

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings Review

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is the twenty-fifth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. By now these Marvel films are so frequent, that it may be easy to take for granted the fact that they’ve been mostly good. Shang-Chi is the second of four MCU movies being released in 2021 alone, and it comes after we’ve already had four different Disney+ series set in the MCU in recent months. Amidst so much Marvel-ness, a movie like Shang-Chi (which harkens back to the superhero origin stories of the MCU’s early days) could have been drowned out as the rest of the MCU seems to be aiming for grand scale epics. But Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings not only stands on its own two feet, but stands tall among its MCU contemporaries. It may not exactly reinvent the Marvel formula, but Shang-Chi manages to improve on it in a few key areas.

Although the film’s hero is the titular Shang-Chi or “Shaun” (Simu Liu), the film’s backstory centers around his father, Wenwu (Tony Leung).

Over a thousand years ago, Wenwu discovered the Ten Rings, mystical artifacts that granted him superhuman strength and abilities, as well as immortality. With them, he became a warlord and established his army, which he dubbed “The Ten Rings” after the source of his power. As centuries passed, the Ten Rings organization adapted with time, eventually becoming more of a terrorist organization than an army. But their goal was still the same: bringing down nations and give Wenwu more power.

In 1996, Wenwu had begun searching for a legendary village called Ta Lo – which serves as a kind of gateway to a dimension of mythical creatures – in hopes to conquer this new world. Wenwu finds the entrance to Ta Lo, but is confronted by its guardian, a woman named Ying Li (Fala Chen). Ying Li has powers of her own, granted to the people of Ta Lo by its dragon protector. Despite the power of the rings, Wenwu is defeated by Ying Li. But the two quickly fall in love, with Wenwu making return visits to the site just to see Ying Li again. Her love changes him to the point that he removes the rings and abandons his organization so he can start a family. But the people of Ta Lo frown on the relationship, and won’t allow Wenwu access to their village due to his dark past. So Ying Li leaves her people (and her powers) behind in order to be with him. Shang-Chi is born to the couple a few years later, followed by a daughter named Xialing (Meng’er Zhang).

When Shang-Chi and Xialing were kids, a tragedy struck that cost them the life of their mother. With Ying Li gone, Wenwu fell back into his old ways, reclaimed his organization and put the rings back on. Shang-Chi became just another assassin in training to his father. Xialing became ignored by Wenwu, who claimed his daughter reminded him too much of his late wife to even look at her (she would learn to teach herself the same techniques Shang-Chi was learning in order to survive the world her father created). Eventually, Shang-Chi couldn’t handle life under his father any more, and so he left, leaving his sister behind.

Fast forward to the present day (which I believe is currently 2023 in the MCU), and Shang-Chi, as Shaun, has been living a mostly normal life in America. He’s become a chauffer at a fancy hotel alongside his friend Katy (Awkwafina), with whom he often spends long nights goofing off. That is until one day, when assassins sent by Wenwu confront Shang-Chi during a bus ride, leaving him no choice but to reveal his past (and fighting abilities) to Katy (as well as providing one of the MCU’s best set pieces in quite some time). Wenwu is after both siblings, so Shang-Chi – with Katy in tow – sets out to find his sister and uncover his father’s plot.

For anyone familiar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (which I think it’s safe to assume is pretty much everyone at this point) the story of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings won’t feel like anything new. It follows the established Marvel formula pretty closely. But Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings stands out in at least two key areas.

The first are the action scenes. As enjoyable as these Marvel movies are, I have to admit their familiarity can extend beyond their narrative structure, and even bleed into the action sequences. They’re almost never boring, but many of the MCU’s action scenes can feel a bit deja vu, as if Marvel has found its safe spot with its action, and doesn’t wish to tread new waters with it. But Shang-Chi is one of the exceptions, with beautifully choreographed fighting sequences, and big set pieces that dare to do something visually distinct from the rest of the pack (pointing again to the bus sequence, where one moment has the audience peaking in on the action from the windows).

The other area in which Shang-Chi stands out is in its villain. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has had a pretty persistent villain issue, with the baddies not being nearly as memorable as the good guys (kind of a reverse of the superhero movies from before the MCU, in which the villains often outshined the hero). If an MCU villain isn’t some rich guy with the same powers as the hero, it’s another underdeveloped bad guy from the deep reaches of space (see Ronan the Accuser or Malekith). Very few of the MCU’s bad guys could be called “interesting,” with perhaps the only examples so far being Thanos, Erik Killmonger, and Adrian Toomes/Vulture (okay, and I suppose Loki… at least until his own series turned him into the most passive and boring hero in the MCU). But I think Wenwu is arguably the best of the lot.

Wenwu is the MCU’s proper adaptation of the Mandarin character (mercifully retconning the ridiculous twist on the character from Iron Man 3. And don’t worry, Shang-Chi addresses that whole situation brilliantly). But Wenwu certainly transcends his (outdated) comic counterpart. Wenwu is a villain who’s ruthless but sympathetic, powerful but pitiable. While audiences were expected to understand where Thanos was coming from, with Wenwu you actually kind of feel for him.

Without spoiling too much, Wenwu’s ultimate goal is to be reunited with his late wife. He’s a man who’s lived for over a thousand years, but only the small handful of years he spent with Ying Li meant something. Despite living centuries with power as his only ambition, he willingly gave up that power when he found someone he could love. The problem is he could only love that one person. And the fact that that love didn’t extend to his children after his wife’s passing is part of what makes him a villain.

Though the movie is well cast all-around, I do feel that Tony Leung’s performance as Wenwu deserves special mention as one of the best in the MCU dating all the way back to the first Iron Man.

There are other, smaller things I like about the movie: the titular Ten Rings are one of the more fun super powers the Marvel movies have provided. Wenwu wears five rings on each arm (they’re more bracelets than rings, really), and can shoot them off and bring them back with his mind, they can link together to make a whip or shield, or just hover around him like some kind of magic satellites. Conversely, Shang-Chi himself doesn’t seem to have any actual super powers. He’s a really good fighter, but doesn’t have any powers in the traditional sense. I thought that was a fun little twist on Marvel norms.

I also kind of like that Shang-Chi is a (mostly) self-contained origin story. I feel like that’s what Marvel should have focused on for a while after Avengers: Endgame, though Shang-Chi is only an exception here, as Marvel seems hellbent on fast-tracking the next Endgame-level scenario (*Cough! Loki! Cough!*). So enjoy these more standalone MCU features while you can.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings may be familiar Marvel territory in a lot of ways (which isn’t too bad of a thing, given Marvel’s track record), but for both hardcore fans and the more casual Marvel audience, the action scenes and villain may make it stand out in the Marvel canon, no matter how many movies and TV shows they churn out.

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