West Week Ever: Pop Culture In Review – 9/10/21

Gather ’round, kiddos, ’cause it’s story time. Back in my collegiate a cappella days, we used to have this annual standing gig for a local charity. Despite performing at the event every year, we had no clue what the charity even supported. It was at this beautiful house on the lake, and the guests spoke in vague, almost coded language. Well-to-do White women would hold glasses of champagne, as they gave speeches on how much the charity had helped them. These people were rich, so what, exactly, did they need charity for? Was it rehab? Was it a swingers thing? We never knew. We just sang and cashed those checks.

One year in particular, we had had enough, and just kinda made jokes off to the side during the whole thing. Some of the guys and I were laughing to each other, trying to decode what these folks were actually talking about. I said “If this were an 80s movie, this is the exact event where the catering staff turns out to be terrorists, and whip out semiautomatic guns out of nowhere!” Hahaha! We all had a good laugh, off to the side. Someone else offered “Yeah, and a helicopter would come flying over the lake, strafing this whole yard.” More chuckling was done by us, while the guests and hosts were none the wiser. We did our thing, building up buttercups and demanding that folks keep their hands to themselves. We thanked them for having us, exited quietly, and went back to the cars, laughing about the terrorist siege we had concocted on the spot. In fact, we called our Fall concert “Save The Clocktower”, which might be familiar to you Back to the Future fans. We decided to carry the 80s terrorism theme over to the concert poster, which would have seen the Cornell clocktower in crosshairs.

“Why are you telling us this story, Will?” Well, ya see, the date of that performance? September 9th, 2001. In just 2 days, our little joke wouldn’t be as funny anymore. We scrapped the concert poster idea. Remember how the world changed? How quiet things got? And then how nice everyone was for, like, a month? We wouldn’t see that kind of solidarity again until the launch of Pokémon Go! It’s hard to believe that it’s been 20 years already, and everyone’s got their own story of where they were when it happened. College freshmen weren’t even born yet! My 11th story is boring (I was looking for underwear in my drawer), so I went with this one instead. Seemed more, I dunno, poignant.

If you’re a regular here, you know how this works, so you probably expected this to be a little further down in the post. I know, I know, but I just couldn’t do it. Yeah, I saw Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings last Thursday night, and I really wanted to love it. I did. I understand what it means for Asian representation, and I wouldn’t want to take that from anyone. That said, I really didn’t think it was good. And this is a departure for me, because I tend to say things are “not for me”, but rarely weigh in on quality. I feel like, somewhere in there, were parts of a great movie. I’m sort of amazed that I’m alone in this assessment, though, as I see folks posting things like “Top 5 MCU Film!” And I’m over here, like, “I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!” Buckle up, ’cause there be spoilers ahead.

First off, I love the cast. Simu Liu is a surprisingly refreshing choice for the lead, and Awkwafina was a great comedic foil. Tony Leung is great, but that also leads to a bit of a problem. For being the “Evil Villain”, Leung’s Wenwu never actually does anything EVIL. Yes, he murders the gang that killed his wife, but that’s a revenge killing, so it’s almost like a crime of passion. Sure, there are flashbacks to him crushing his enemies and conquering lands 1,000 years ago, but isn’t that what powerful men did back then? Yes, he had the Ten Rings at his disposal, but isn’t that the sort of manifest destiny that drives expansion, signaling the rise and fall of empires? Anyway, he did this kind of thing for 1,000 years, but then meets Shang-Chi’s mother and falls in love with her. It’s funny to me that a franchise that spends so much time on “balancing the scales” and clearing the “red from your ledger” just lets Wenwu get off scot free. Mr. Evil falls in love, and suddenly everything is gucci? It’s like the movie can’t really commit to Wenwu being a bad guy. This is further exacerbated by the fact that his motivations in the movie itself are simply that he wishes to be reunited with his dead wife. He doesn’t think he’s doing anything wrong. He’s not trying to take over the world, or balance the universe’s resources. He just wants his old dead wife back.

Is Wenwu a stern and inattentive father? Yes. Did he train his son to exact revenge on the man who destroyed his family? Yes. Does he love his kids, in his own way? Yes. Does he just want his family back together? Yes. Not to sound racist, but it’s a situation reminiscent of Snake Eyes from a few weeks back, another story where we were to root for Snake Eyes, when Tommy was the more sympathetic character. Here, Wenwu is the more sympathetic character. Sure, Shang-Chi doesn’t like what his father made him become, but he also doesn’t really give him a chance. So, we’ve got a hero driven by revenge, facing an enemy whose main sin is he’s heartbroken.  In Snake Eyes, he was driven by revenge, while Tommy did everything for honor and family. Are we to believe these are bad virtues?

OK, Wenwu stuff aside, I also would have thrown out the entire 3rd act. It’s messy and there’s a ton of shaky cam mid-air dragon battles. Who knew that ancient dragons would be where I drew the line for this universe? Welp, that’s the line. I just couldn’t get down with The Great Protector. I know there’s some cultural significance there, and I’m sorry, but it was a bridge too far for me in a universe where a giant purple man can erase half the population when a bop comes on the radio. And if the Soul Eater dragon was destroyed, why couldn’t those souls go back to where they came from? Most of the bodies weren’t even cold yet!

Speaking of the universe, we’ve been trained that “It’s All Connected” when it comes to the MCU and, while they delivered here, did they really? Just like how the GI Joe stuff felt tacked on to Snake Eyes, the MCU stuff felt tacked on here. I get that not everyone lives in the thick of NYC in the MCU, so they would have some distance, but the MCU links felt forced. Wong? The best they could do was WONG? Even the mid credits cameos felt B-list. And why reintroduce The Abomination for such a wonky cameo? They couldn’t even be bothered to explain WHY Wong participates in illegal cage matches? Is it just for shits and giggles? Is there some bigger thing afoot? It just felt like the fanserviest fan service that ever fan serviced. It felt like the kind of thing Warner Bros would do.

Again, if you loved it, I’m glad. I’ll admit I was never really looking forward to it, but I was trying to go in with an open mind, as I’d had similar trepidations about Guardians of the Galaxy. That one was a pleasant surprise, but Shang-Chi just felt underwhelmingly mid-tier to me.

Trailer Park

Star Trek: Picard (Paramount+)

I still have issues with where this show left things at the end of Season 1. I mean, the solution to the elephant in the room wasn’t very “Picardian”. I’m sure that this season will deal with the ramifications of that decision, but I’m still a little put off by the whole thing (Yes, I’m trying not to spoil it for the folks who haven’t seen it yet). I really enjoyed Picard, but I enjoyed it as a binge, and not as a weekly commitment. Also, as much as I love the cast, and it’s great to see Jean-Luc again, the show doesn’t feel very Trek. Sure, they’ve got uniforms and communicators and starships, but something feels off. The fact that they seem to travel to the present day next season means it’s going to feel even more distant from the Star Trek that we know. Remember when Voyager came to the 21st century and hung out with Sarah Silverman? I hope this is better than that. Anyway, it was announced on Star Trek Day this week that it’s already been renewed for Season 3, so there’s that.

The Matrix Resurrections

I liked The Matrix. I wasn’t obsessed with it or anything. Travel back to 1999 and there were people who built their entire personalities around that movie. That was not me. I can’t even tell you the difference between the blue pill and the red pill. I do, however, appreciate it for the innovation it brought to filmmaking. Remember how much everyone used and abused bullet time after it was showcased in that movie? Pepperidge Farm remembers. Whenever a new entry in the franchise came out, you could count on some new amazing special effects sequences. I always felt that was a shortcoming of filming the second and third back to back: technology hadn’t moved ahead enough to really wow us by that third film. The first movie had bullet time, the second had that awesome truck sequence, and then the third one had….Bueller? So, with as much time as has passed since we last visited that world, I’m expecting something breathtaking. I hope I’m not setting my sights too high.

Things You Might Have Missed This Week

  • Apparently John Mulaney lived every G4 fan’s dream over the last year, by getting high and putting a baby in Olivia Munn.
  • According to spoilers that have leaked from an airing in France, it appears that Power Rangers: Dino Fury may have introduced the first official LGBTQ Ranger to the franchise. More as this develops.
  • Jaleel White will be strapping on the suspenders one more time, for the upcoming, animated Steve Urkel holiday special, Did I Do That To The Holidays?, on Cartoon Network.
  • The Hasbro HasLab X-Men Sentinel has started shipping to those who backed the crowdfunded campaign. Early reports, however, indicate it’s got some wonky knees. Uh-oh!

Yeah, yeah. Shang-Chi didn’t have the West Week Ever. Close, but no cigar. And you know we do things a bit differently around here. Sure, to a lot of folks, it was THE event of the week. To me, however, it paled in comparison to something that happened in the world of music. Something that no one thought would ever happen: after FORTY YEARS apart, Swedish pop group ABBA reunited last week. Not only did they drop new music, but they also announced a new tour, and there’s so much more to it than initially meets the eye.

Last Thursday there was a worldwide event as people awaited an announcement from ABBA. A picture leaked prematurely, showing the aging stars in motion capture suits. People assumed it must have been for a video game or something. So, here’s the deal: a special arena is being built in London to house this new stage show that the group is developing. Since they’re really too old to be touring, this arena will be home base as the music, new and old, will be performed by avatars of the singers as their younger selves (called “ABBAtars”), hence the mo-cap suits. These avatars, designed by Industrial Light & Magic, are really some Uncanny Valley stuff, as it kinda creeps me out how sterile and soulless they look.

They also released 2 new songs, the first of which was called “I Still Have Faith In You”. The video gives a glimpse of what the “group” will look like at the concert. I found the song underwhelming, and I tweeted that it was reminiscent of when The Beatles released “Free As A Bird”. All those years without new music, and you give us THIS?! The second song, however, was ABBA perfection.

When you think of ABBA, you probably immediately think of “Dancing Queen”. In the spirit of “giving the folks what they want”, “Don’t Shut Me Down” is the spiritual sequel to their mega hit. From the opening piano glissando to the chord progression, they basically remixed their biggest hit, in much the same way that The Four Tops gave us “It’s The Same Old Song” built on the bones of “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)”.  But wait, there’s more! Listen to the lyrics. If you weren’t already creeped out by the CGI avatars, imagine if those same CGI characters spoke these words to you:

And now you see another me, I’ve been reloaded, yeah
I’m fired up, don’t shut me down (Don’t shut me down)
I’m like a dream within a dream that’s been decoded
I’m fired up, I’m hot, don’t shut me down
I am not the one you knew (I’m not the one you knew)
I’m now and then combined
And I’m asking you to have an open mind (And I won’t be the same)
I’m not the same this time around (Ooh)
I’m fired up, don’t shut me down

Like I said, creepy shit! What’s ABBA trying to tell us? Have they been replaced by their avatars? Is this how they plan to live on? Why, after 40 years, come back NOW? I guess we’ll find out on November 5th, when their new album Voyage comes out. Meanwhile, get your passports ready, as the ABBA Voyage arena experience will open May 27, 2022. Any fan of pop music from the past 40 years knows how big this is, and I can’t wait to see what else is in store for us from the supergroup. So, for these reasons, ABBA had the West Week Ever.