League of Gods wasn’t really that big of a blockbuster in 2016 (i.e. the year of The Mermaid.) The movie made $43 million… which wasn’t bad. According to Box Office Mojo, that’s less than The Legend of Tarzan, but more than Moana and the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sequel that was released stateside on Netflix. However, it’s got something enticing that those other movies don’t got: Hong Kong legend Jet Li in a fakey mustache and flowing white wig.
It’s also something of a Chinese superhero movie. I have often wondered, “How do other countries view the American superhero blockbuster?” With League of Gods, I feel like I get an answer. It’s weird and disorienting, but it’s colorful, crazy, and has that childlike sense of wonder that you can’t help but be riveted.
it’s also got some of the worst special effects imaginable.
Actually, let me clarify that. A lot of the effects are quite good. The opening scene set in Bad Guy Palace has the appearance of a modern day update to Emperor Ming’s Throne Room from Flash Gordon. I even liked the scene transitions, something seemingly comic book inspired where one scene is laid over another. Fan Bingbing (X-Men: Days of the Future Past, Iron Man 3) plays the deliciously villainous sorceress Daji. She looms in the background while ninjas navigate darkened corridors in the foreground. It perfectly captures the movie’s campy tone, and the elaborate costumes —- namely Bingbing’s blindingly gold headgear —- help distract from any shoddy CGI.
But then you get scenes where our hero, Leizhenzi (Jacky Heung), fights a guy out in the desert. The desert scenes were already obviously a green screen, which was … why? Were there no deserts nearby? Or … abandoned rock quarries? But it gets worse. Rather than, say, construct an abandoned city out of styrofoam, the director (or should I say, directors, as it’s credited to both Koan Hui and Vernie Yeung) decided to outsource the special effects to company with computer software from the late 90’s. As a result, the whole thing looks like an FMV scene from a Philips CD-i game. It’s so, so bad.
Is there a name for this genre, by they way? The one with which practically flouts the bad CGI as a feature? One of them, Monster Hunt, practically dominated the Chinese box office the previous year. Hop around Netflix and you’ll see how ubiquitous these are. Freaking Chow Yun Fat and Donnie Yen star in one of them! I’m pretty sure Chinese audiences know how awful the effects look: the box office is dominated, after all, by effects-heavy American blockbusters. So do they just not give a care? Or is there something inherently cultural that allows them to see these movies in a different way that we do in the West?
I feel like I’m on the verge of unlocking the reason why Warcraft was such a huge hit (the #3 movie in China this same year… right behind the aforementioned Mermaid and Zootopia. See what I mean about CGI being the key?)
The plot is quite simple, and hardly worth even mentioning. It is based on a 16th Century Chinese novel called Investiture of the Gods, a tale of the founding of the Zhòu dynasty that includes elements of Chinese mythology. There are two kingdoms: the good kingdom and the bad kingdom. The bad guys get a hold of a magical item —- a sword —- which can turn the tide for the good guys. They send Leizhenzi, who has the superpower to shoot lightning out of his hands. This is but one of the things that remind me of Big Trouble in Little China and the old school Hong Kong movies that was paying tribute to.
Leizhenzi travels the land, where he come across a toyetic assemblage of friends and villains. These include a guy riding a giant panther, a sentient piece of grass with one bulbous eye, and a merbaby. It is in this fantasy world where it is totally natural for our hero to fall in love with a pretty marionette woman (who is played by an actress enthusiastically named Angelababy). No judgment, Leizhenzi. It’s cool if you’re mooning over an old timey Realdoll.
And there’s Jet Li, the aged martial arts master who rides around like a boss on the back of a giant crane. Things get hairy when Li gets whammied with a magic spell that … gasp! … makes him younger. Seriously, that’s the kind of curse you want to have.
Leizhenzi’s most notable ally is Ne Zha (Wen Zhang). Ne Zha has a ridiculous collection of superpowers. He looks for an funds two spinning wheels that allow him to fly. When going into battle, he can sprout three sets of arms. Each hand wields its own chakram. 6 arms x 1 chakram = 6 chakrams. That’s a lot of chakrams. Later, he finds two spinning fire wheels that he rides on so that he can fly. These wheels are basically chakrams, which brings us to a total of eight chakrams. But wait… there’s more! Ne Zha can also turns into a terrifying CGI child at random moments. The child can likewise wield six chakrams. He also gains two new powers: 1.) explosive flatulence and 2.) copious urination. I guess that the fakey CGI was the right call in this case, as anything more realistic could be terrifying. This movie features a young child getting piled on by a bunch of enemies in cheap rubber fish masks who escapes by letting out a giant fart.
If you cannot understand the joy in which I typed that last sentence, then you’re never going to get my final assessment of this movie.
Not that there aren’t complaints. I already addressed the dodgy CGI. However, there’s also the ending. I don’t usually do spoilers in these articles, since I know that for most of you these movies will be totally new. In this case, though, I think knowing the ending ahead of time may make the movie more enjoyable. But if you hate spoilers, skip to the next paragraph (but stop to enjoy the fantastic “hero team” pose).
Rather than confront the Big Bad, one of the hero characters says, “Well, we have lots of time to fight off the villain. No need to rush.” And then… credits. I’m not even exaggerating. This is what happens. The set up for a sequel is thuddingly obvious.
However, this should not discourage you from watching League of Gods. Like I said, the plot doesn’t actually matter. It’s the spectacle. Seriously, look at the movie poster. It looks like the cover for an X-Men comic! League of Gods promises you massive comic book battles, and by God does it deliver.
X-Men, Big Trouble In Little China, Flash Gordon, classic kung fu movies… all these references go a long way in explaining why, despite it’s obvious flaws, I really had a blast watching this movie. It taps into the unsophisticated part of my brain that still enjoys Saturday morning cartoons and Ultraman reruns. For Pete’s sake, they basically fight Doomsday at the end of the movie… and it is far more enjoyable than the same battle from Batman V. Superman! The part where all you’ve got to do is wave something shiny in front of me … or, in the case of League of Gods, a guy in a bright and shiny golden armor. With geomancer powers.
There are some really stunning uses of color in this move. Early on, a captive typically clothed in white terryrobe cloth is drenched in blood. Rather than look terrifying, though, he resembles a tasty strawberry and cream marshmallow peep. Plus his eyes light up in neon blue, which makes him a stunning centerpiece amidst a sea of glittery distractions. Another sees a white robed woman, her tattered silks flowing slow motion in the breeze as she floats within clouds of cosmic rave colors.
The whole movie is filled with with these kinds of scenes, where you as a viewer is meant to “ooh” at, and I unapologetically dig it. Forget about the plot. Forget about character development. Just give in to the magic and spectacle of League of Gods.
NEXT: Made Overseas makes a bid for more readers by reviewing a film that everyone’s seen already: Kung Fu Hustle.