Everything everywhere at once is possibly the best film of the year so far, and it does something extremely bold. It presents a story about a multiverse within months of two of the greatest Marvel films of all time. Spider-Man: Far From Home and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. But the best part of the film is Michelle Yeoh’s performance as Evelyn Wang – who also recently starred in Marvels Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
The film has rightfully returned Wang to the top of the big screens everywhere as she is an incredible talent who deserves more leading roles than she currently gets. But many fans will likely recognize her in another film about heroes: the 2000 wuxia film Crouching tiger, hidden dragon.
Crouching tiger, hidden dragon was an anomaly in international cinema. At a time when mass audiences didn’t typically go to the cinema to see an international film, this film thrived and became a legend in its own right. And rightly so, because the film has everything a real cinematic experience needs. It has a great story, amazing and engaging characters, suspense, fun, impressive action sequences and fantastic production design. It’s one of the best movies of the 2000s, and serves as the perfect blueprint for what comic book-inspired movies should be at a time when superhero movies weren’t as plentiful.
The wuxia genre provides a great framework for superhero stories, as this Chinese genre focuses on stories of martial arts heroes taking on roles similar to heroes in modern comics. The name derives from “wǔ”, meaning “military” or “armed”; and “xiá”, meaning “chivalrous”, “vigilante” or “hero”.
For the most part, many comic book movies use some of these aspects Crouching tiger, hidden dragon does. This is particularly present with the characters now found in comic book movies, but arguably not nearly as well done as Crouching tiger, hidden dragon. There are so many well-developed characters in the film that it’s hard to know where to start. There’s Li Mu Bai, the famous swordsman, who wants to retire by officially hanging up his metaphorical boots by handing over his sword to an old friend, Sir Te. Yu Shu Lien is the downtrodden warrior who is close to Li Mu Bai. Jade Fox is the villain of the story who had killed Li Mu Bai’s master because of her oppression by him when he was still using her for his own pleasure. Finally, there’s Jen, the naturally talented young fighter trying to find herself and break free from the gender roles that have victimized the other two women. She learns all the lessons from the other three older characters as they try to make her fit her desires and ideals.
Each character is someone who would be found in a comic book film adaptation, but what makes the difference Crouching tiger, hidden dragon from the rest is how each character’s motivation and backstories intertwine and bounce off each other in a coherent way. Each character is connected in some way, and they have meaningful interactions that affect their development and personality. Although many comic book films do the same thing, they rarely work beyond just two characters who share this meaningful relationship – usually protagonist and antagonist. By connecting each character in some way, much deeper and more complex stories emerge that expand and fully fill the world and plot of the film.
But all of the characters’ motivations and repressions have to do with their physical abilities, which brings us to the high points and what comic book movies should encompass: the mythical, awe-inspiring action sequences. This film leans so heavily on melodrama that it invades the action scenes themselves and creates some of the biggest scenes on screen. The best of the action sequences in Crouching tiger, hidden dragon is that as the melodrama moves from the story into the action scenes, the fights themselves tell a story. That’s the advantage of using the exaggerated and unrealistic abilities of the characters in their physical conflicts, their political conflicts are also presented there.
There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with having action scenes that are “realistic” or “down to earth.” But in today’s film, they’re rarely more than fight scenes – and in Marvel’s case, simple fights with a few jokes thrown in as good measure. But these are stories about people with superhuman abilities, and by being grounded in the audience’s reality, rather than the film’s own, these super stories are stripped of their exaggerated nature. In the meantime, Crouching tiger, hidden dragon uses it all to his advantage. It’s not afraid to take its melodrama and sincerity seriously. The problem is that many think it’ll come across as “cheesy” – but that can work well in an over-the-top story like the one Marvel and DC tell. Comic book movies have so much potential. If they allowed themselves to take that extra step and delve deeper into this myth, it would Crouching tiger, hidden dragon done this expertly, they could really take themselves to the next level.
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