With Shang-Chi and WandaVision, Marvel finds a new villain in grief
How does one upstage Thanos, a villain driven by ideology? MCU makes grief, a motive far more personal and relatable, the bone of contention in Phase 4.
Michael Douglas' glorious words from Oliver Stone's 1987 cult film Wall Street set in stone the philosophy of several antagonists that both preceded and succeeded the film — "Greed, for the lack of a better word, is good." In the same year, Indian cinema saw Amrish Puri's Mogambo guffawing to glory after stating his intention to conquer the country, in Shekhar Kapur's Mr. India.
But over the next two-and-a-half decades, greed has ceased to be the primary incentive for the best baddies in town. The new G-word is grief. As greed got glorified through films and shows like Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and Scam 1992 (2020) respectively, grief gained new ground by presenting itself as a conflict in superhero movies that were obsessed with one-dimensional villains and their grand schemes to rule the
world universe cosmos.
Grief, unlike pride, greed, wrath, and envy, is not a sin. It is a universal emotion that has become more pervasive in the past year-and-a-half. As the need for contemporary antagonists to mirror our own inner demons becomes more prominent and profitable, emotions like grief keep factoring into the superhero film genre, hitherto obsessed with avoiding anything as real and uncomfortable.
The most recent instance arrives in Marvel's Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Early in the film, Asian American Katy's (Awkwafina) grandmother is seen talking to an empty chair beside her at the dining table, which she believes is occupied by her late husband. When Katy asks her to move on, her mother objects. "Moving on is for Americans." It is a veiled comment on Hollywood studios like Disney and Marvel, which have long discounted grief and other uncomfortable truths for sugarcoated spectacles. It is also a peek into the value system of the Asian community, which prefers to hold on to feelings that stem from the loss of loved ones, given they are more a family-oriented people than the individualistic Americans.
The passing statement on grief has reverberations through the film as the antagonist Xu Venvu, the father of the protagonist Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), goes against his children to "rescue" his wife Ying Li (Fala Chen), who has been presumed dead for years. He believes he hears her cries of help and vows to save her, a feat he could not achieve when she was murdered by a mob in the past. He claims hostility towards anyone who obstructs his course, including his late wife's ancestral village. "If they don't let me through, I'll burn the village down," Venvu tells his children.
It helps that the determined yet grieving father is played by the legendary Hong Kong actor Tonny Leung. He brings both unparalleled gravitas and unrelenting ache to the character of a crime syndicate leader, who returns to his evil deeds only to redeem himself from the guilt and pain of losing his wife. When he tells his son with moist eyes to let him pass in the climax, the soreness is reminiscent of his iconic character from Wong Kar-wai's 2000 romantic film In The Mood For Love. In the climax of that film, his character Chow Mo-van abandons the hope of reuniting with his lover Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung). The translated text on the closing shots of the film explains the dilemma of Leung's character in both that film and Shang-Chi,
"He remembers those vanished years.
As though looking through a dusty window plane,
the past is something he could see but not touch.
And everything he sees is blurred and indistinct."
The fact that Marvel allows these emotions to come into play, and make its antagonist emotionally present along with being menacing, occurs because it has expanded itself into recreating the experiences of global communities on screen. Wunwu, unlike Frank (Frances McDormand) from Chloe Zhao's Nomadland, does not hit the road to deal with the loss of their partner. Not that it is a defense mechanism that should be looked down upon. But there are people and communities so rooted in the idea of family that they are not able to navigate even the first stage of grief: denial.
Marvel's first show on Disney+, WandaVision, begins as a tribute to the 'golden age of American TV' — sitcoms of the 1960s like The Dick Van Dyke Show and Bewitched. But as the episodes unravel, the treatment reveals itself to be a facade that Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) has manufactured through her superpowers to keep alive her dead partner Vision (Paul Bettany). It is a heartbreaking account of the grief that leads to a make-believe world, and also a comment on how the American television has provided a sense of false comfort to an audience that was left emotionally insufficient to deal with harsh realities.
But in the final episodes, the grief in WandaVision is also glossed over through the introduction of a rather conventional villain in Agnes (Kathryn Hahn) that only underlined the romantic idea that the show propagated, "What is grief, if not love persevering?"
Grief has been a pattern in Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) are both seen seeking therapy in their show The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Loki is given a chance to live his life a different way when he is shown, by the Time Variance Authority, his impending demise at the hands of Thanos.
This detour in the MCU is most likely an outcome of the reception to the final few chapters of its previous phase, particularly Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. Thanos (Josh Brolin) was positioned as the supreme villain in Infinity War. The motive of his badassery was more ideological than expansionist. Thanos wanted to wipe out half of the creation arbitrarily so that the remaining half population can feed off the resources more responsibly, and make Earth and other planets better places to inhabit.
His motivation gained resonance in the contemporary world where several countries are going through the churns of new leaders and their ideologies. How does one upstage an ideological villain? The climactic events of Infinity War and their impact on Endgame yielded the answer. When Thanos blips half of the universe's population, it leaves large residues of grief. As seen in Endgame, every Avenger, as a representation of every human, is seen struggling with the grief of losing their loved ones. The 'pragmatic' solution of Thanos (and by representation, many world leaders) is not entirely full-proof, given a grief-stricken world is hardly managing to get by.
Even the climax of Endgame ended with a funeral — of Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr). But it also sounded the death knell of the Marvel bad-guy predecessors. The new villain or the fresh conflict would no longer have apocalyptic considerations or misled noble intentions of 'fixing' the civilisational wrongs.
The new motives would be deeply personal and internal, which often result from a sense of human loss. Grief driving the villain would no longer be only about revenge. It would come in all shapes and sizes — with denial, with guilt, with remorse, with a sense of being wronged, and with introspection.
The COVID-19 pandemic, that peaked between the end of Phase 3 and start of Phase 4 of the MCU, has coincidentally served as a warmup to the new villain. It has, to an extent, served as the blip, where people have lost their loved ones, and grief has become a daily ordeal. As we look upon superheroes to triumph that grief for us, Marvel has realised that grief, for the lack of a better word, is good for business.
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