Nothing can kill a movie for you like hype. It’s one of the reasons I avoid almost all reporting, trailers, and interviews about anything I know I want to see. But, of course, since I couldn’t go to the theater when it released, the hype swept over me for weeks on this one. Still, I managed to keep much of the secrets at bay and even most of the hyperbole.
And let’s be up front, the representation in this movie is a watershed moment. So was how it brought to life myth and legend from Chinese culture as well as the pervasive use of subtitles throughout the film. I know many who finally felt seen by this story. For that aspect alone, it is important. I’ve had my own moments of that (and await others) so I do understand the value and excitement of that acknowledgement.
And here’s where I’m likely to get yelled at: That doesn’t necessarily make it a good movie. I can only give you my impression of my own experience. That’s what these writeups are for and I try to be honest.
Director and co-writer (with his oft-collaborator Andrew Lanham) Destin Daniel Cretton (Just Mercy) is great at the human side of stories. He can pluck the individual tale from the chaos around his characters and bring it into sharp relief. Marrying that to the MCU was never going to be easy. Adding a third writer to the mix to fill that gap was smart, though the choice of Dave Callaham (Mortal Kombat) was not likely their best. The resulting tale is very personal as Simu Liu (Kim’s Convenience) and Awkwafina (Raya and the Last Dragon) make their way across the globe to reunite family and save/destroy the world. Tony Leung (In the Mood for Love), Meng’er Zhang, and Michelle Yeoh (Gunpowder Milkshake) complete that collection of travelers and fighters. The cast is strong and, generally, very good. However, as much as I like Awkwafina in many of her recent roles, she clunked for me in this one. She is brilliant at being a counterpoint to everyone around her no matter the story, but in this case it often shattered the movie for me, pulling me out of it too often rather than providing a moment of grounding, humorous respite, or insight.
More importantly, though, the story never really had that epic feel of other MCU origin stories for me. It had nothing to do with familiarity or lack of it; I knew very little about many of the characters and their origins as I went down the rabbit hole when Iron Man came out. And I know plenty of Chinese myth and folklore (not to mention watching lots of movies from the region). It has more to do with the shape of this movie, it’s ebb and flow. Sure there are phenomenal fight scenes. There are even very high stakes. But we never really know the enemy…it’s an impersonal evil that we don’t meet till the last minutes of the film. By focusing so much on the personal journeys (admittedly essential), Cretton never builds up an understanding of the threat or a character to root against on a personal level. That is a key part of how the MCU stays interesting; how any good vs. evil story stays interesting. We want to dislike Thanos, but we also are forced to understand him to a degree. By focusing so much on the family drama, he lost that opportunity, even as he built an interesting path for Leung’s character.
I did love how this story ties back into other MCU tales and the surprise appearances of two wonderful characters. And, while it isn’t all that different in style and execution from the many, many Chinese fantasies that have been coming out for decades, having one come out from Hollywood is a milestone and a mainstreaming that should have happened ages ago. But, again, these aspects don’t make it a great movie on its own.
So, in the end, while I may have a had a reasonably good time and loved so many of the visuals and incredible choreography, as a movie it sort of fell flat a bit. Perhaps over time I’ll revise my assessment, but for now it feels like half the balloon wasn’t inflated for me, and that made the whole trip a little less interesting.