Sunday Smackdown: Aquaman vs Shang-Chi

Two movies, four worlds, one winner

I really, really enjoyed Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. I think Simu Liu is a revelation, everything with Michelle Yeoh is automatically interesting (even if not necessarily good), and it did a phenomenal job of bringing a martial-arts-and-magic based hero to the MCU without losing the character moments that make the MCU work in the first place.

I surprisingly enjoyed Aquaman. Not nearly as much as Shang-Chi, but more than I’d expected, which was none enjoyment. For a while, it’s been my example of how modern cinema is failing me: even as big, dumb spectacle, it didn’t have enough draw to compel me to go to a theater. But after watching it on HBO Max, I was pleasantly surprised. It still felt as if it were made up predominantly of the Zack Snyder version of the Justice League, combined with a movie exec in 2016’s idea of what bros want from a super-hero blockbuster, combined with Geoff Johns’s idea of what bros want from a super-hero comic book.

But there were enough moments of self-aware goofiness, and a willingness to poke fun at itself, that made it a lot easier to let everything else wash over me. If this were a “One Thing I Like” post, I’d choose the scene in which a bunch of guys approach Aquaman to start a bar fight. It captured exactly the tone I liked seeing peek through the rest of the bullshit that’s too insecure and defensive to let comics and comics-inspired properties just be fun.

Shang-Chi and Aquaman have more aspects in common than just “blockbuster super-hero movies built around lesser-known or disrespected characters from the comics.” Both of them establish that their main character is of two worlds, and both of them try to build up to a climax in which the hero is going to have to bring together both of his worlds to overcome his obstacles.

In Shang-Chi, this is made explicit in a scene so close to the final battle that you might think it was an afterthought: Michelle Yeoh’s character demonstrates to Shang-Chi that his mother’s strength as a fighter came not just from raw power, but from her ability to respond and react โ€” instead of overpowering obstacles, she bent them to her will. This is illustrated by encouraging him to change his closed fist to an open palm, or to channel his mother’s energy instead of just his father’s.

In Aquaman, this is illustrated by setting the final duel between Arthur and Patrick Wilson’s character to be above the water instead of under it.

Multiple characters tell him multiple times that he’s like the bridge between two worlds and that’s the key to defeating the bad guy, but I didn’t see this pay off in any way other than a change of venue. Which was especially bizarre since Aquaman was challenging him to be ruler of Atlantis, which is under water, and probably should go to the person who was really good at fighting under water.

But this is a movie built on CGI, not metaphors for internal character struggles, so it’s not as if Arthur suddenly recognizing the strength of his human side would’ve redeemed the movie on its own. It probably would’ve felt perfunctory, since it wasn’t carried through what was otherwise a “find the hidden treasure” story.

It was just kind of a disappointment. So much of the look of this version of the character is based on Jason Momoa’s tattoos, and Temuera Morrison is brilliantly cast as Arthur’s father. Morrison’s one of the few actors with enough inherent charisma that could play a non-powered human married to Nicole Kidman as a super-powered Sea Queen, and not be rendered completely inert in the process. So I’d been hoping that the key to defeating the arrogant Atlanteans would be some aspect of Maori culture that Arthur had learned. Something that was as much his birthright as was being super-strong and able to breathe underwater. (For that matter, they suggest that he is uniquely able to communicate with sea life, but I don’t feel like that came significantly into play, either).

Shang-Chi pulled off its ideas of balance so well because they were carried throughout the movie, echoed in a bunch of different ways, and then made the core of the climax. They showed not just how Shang-Chi could win, but why his father was doomed to lose: he only knew how to use power and domination, so he was at a loss whenever he met an obstacle that required understanding and flexibility.

Shang-Chi and Aquaman have something else in common: heroes who are surrounded by mystical things of colossal importance, but who refuse to take it entirely seriously. For Aquaman, it’s some much-needed comic relief and not much more; it’s entirely Momoa’s charm that makes even the most juvenile stuff kind of work.

But in Shang-Chi it’s another layer echoing that whole idea of balance. The final gag, in which Shang Chi suggests putting off their duties in favor of a night of karaoke, is a really solid, well-delivered joke. But it’s also a reminder not to be so wrapped up in the Solemn Duty of Being Defenders of the Multiverse that you lose the opportunities to just be human.

Winner: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (easily, although it’s not quite as much of a shut-out as I would’ve expected)