9/10 Snake Eyes is the movie people like to pretend MCU movies still are.
An underground street fighter known only as Snake Eyes (Henry Golding) drifts from job to job down the West Coast looking for the man who killed his father. A Yakuza boss named Kenta (Takehiro Hira) offers him the information in exchange for a complex service. Snake dives into a treacherous international underworld, playing both sides in a family grudge between the Yakuza and the Arishkage clan, keepers of
an infinity stone the Jewel of the Sun, a fist-sized citrine with the power of, oh it’s just an infinity stone.
Coming up on two years ago now, legendary director Martin Scorsese lit the internet on fire when he said Marvel movies aren’t “cinema,” which led to a lot of different takes. Snake Eyes is the character-driven, within-boundaries offering that still scratches the itch for that gaudy, cartoon-come-to-life feeling, the 2021 proof that these elements can coexist. Comparing it to something like Black Widow, Snake Eyes laps it both in terms of human drama and crazy comic book action.
It’s tough to overstate what a step up Snake Eyes is. Here’s a clear-cut superhero movie, but it’s a movie! It’s got outrageous Power Rangers outfits and crazy action scenes to bring you joy, but also meaty themes like the weight of a family legacy and the consumptive power of revenge. It feels unique and intentional, like someone actually sat down to plan it out – and not just for money, but as a genuine artistic expression, an attempt to make a world in their own eyes and show it to others.
This most frequently shows up in the electrifying lighting, set and character design choices. Snake Eyes is an adventure to watch, from the traditional “hero’s journey” threshold-crossing tropes to the neon, anime underworld it transports viewers to and the colorful characters that inhabit them.
It’s a movie that’s about people in a way that a lot of major blockbusters aren’t right now. Snake Eyes doesn’t present its characters with increasingly elaborate forces of potentially world-threatening antagonism, it presents them with choices. Snake spends the movie playing both sides, and is presented with various opportunities to choose between furthering the Yakuza’s goals, honoring the Arishkage or continuing his own quest for revenge – this is the difference between a dumb action movie and a character-driven drama that has ninjas in Power Rangers outfits in it.
There’s an edge to Snake Eyes that movies about skybeams and genocidal space gods just can’t hone. Between the blank slate of a character whose backstory has always been “classified” and stakes that matter only within the boundaries of this film, Snake’s decisions aren’t pre-determined by other plot elements. The dramatic question isn’t whether he’ll save the world, it’s what he’ll choose to value and who he’ll choose to betray.
In a media landscape that banks on catering to built-in fans, Snake Eyes shows a lot of guts with its aggressive, whole-cloth rewrite on its title character and a serious tone that will leave anyone who actually likes those early G.I. Joe movies disappointed. Siloed into their private ninja plot, Snake and his rival, Storm Shadow, were the silliest but also the best-remembered parts of those otherwise easily forgettable movies. In Snake Eyes, they’ve brought in Golding, the charismatic breakout star from 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians, for the title role, which was previously facelessly and voicelessly portrayed by Ray Park, the martial artist best known for bringing Darth Maul to life. Golding is playing against a different career stuntman in Andrew Koji, whose biggest gig before this was as an uncredited extra and stunt double in Fast & Furious 6, but he looks like he’s been acting all his life bringing a roiling, anxious nobility to the Storm Shadow character.
Sadly, Snake Eyes is also 2021 proof of what the MCU is really about now – brand recognition, and a movie that stretches its full title out to G.I. Joe Origins: Snake Eyes just doesn’t have it. The movie opened at just $13.4 million behind a poorly received M. Night Shyamalan effort, roughly 15% of what Black Widow opened to despite that film having a day-and-date streaming release – roughly 20% of what Black Widow made just from streaming that first weekend! – and was still only $2 million ahead of Black Widow, which was three weeks old by the time Snake Eyes came out.
Quality is not the issue right now in Hollywood. Brand dominates, and while every movie represents an opportunity to make something unique and bold, more and more centralized movies are taking fewer and fewer risks and becoming closer and closer copies of each other by design – something Black Widow is itself a perfect demonstration of. Director Robert Schwentke, screenwriter Evan Spiliotopoulos and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli, all who whose careers I’m going to be watching with great interest moving forward, went to great lengths to make something special with Snake Eyes in an environment where truly creative movies rarely get made, and it’s being strangled by another less creative film.
With the pandemic smacking theaters roughly a year later, we still haven’t really seen Hollywood react to Crazy Rich Asians’ dramatic establishment of Asian Americans as a power demographic, but we’re about to – Marvel will move all its chips onto that audience with Shang-Chi and the Ten Rings, releasing Sept. 3 after pandemic-related delay. Hopefully that isn’t also vastly inferior to Snake Eyes.