Tag Archives: Guardians of the Galaxy

Superhero Stardom (A Response)

There’s a recent New York Times article I came across that laments how the rise of the superhero genre has conflated actor-stardom with character-stardom. The article itself doesn’t really chase down the points too well, but the central gist (as far as I can see) is that in the recent slate of films, characters have come to trump actors. As Wesley Morris suggests in the article, when you watch Oceans Eleven, it’s George Clooney doing all the cool stuff as Danny Ocean; but when you watch Rush, you don’t see Chris Hemsworth as James Hunt, you see Thor as James Hunt. And as more big name actors get roped into superhero films (Cate Blanchett’s gonna be in Thor: Ragnarok!), it’s more actors being roped in to playing a specific character.

Which makes Morris’ point of view seem a little weird. He implies that the fun of Ocean’s Eleven is seeing the star-studded cast play off of each other, whereas Civil War is more about watching the characters interact; the former being better. Which begs the question of whether or not you’re supposed to forget that it’s an actor playing a character and not something happening before you.

Now, the attitude here feels a lot like that kid who’s angry you got the same toys they did. For ages, the idea of a superhero has been derided. Like science fiction and fantasy it was that genre, one that no serious actor would get involved in. Heck, we even had a movie called Birdman which was all about how superhero films and all their sequels was where art went to die. Except now they are, and with it, taking on (and being known by) personae that they don’t get to create per se. Superheroes are a cultural mythology, why else are we able to discuss who’s the “better Batman?” Taking up the cowl means playing someone bigger than life. Kinda like being the next guy to play James Bond.

Hang on.

See, this is where things start to get a little weird (and Morris’ argument starts to fall down). Daniel Craig’s Bond is sharply different from Pierce Brosnan’s Bond. I mean, sure, they’re the same character, just done differently. Same with Clooney, Bale, and Affleck’s Batman. There’s still some wiggle room in really getting to build a character.

But, all the same, the more recent superhero movies are very much adaptions of the comic books; someone like Batman’s very much in the public consciousness, more so than, say, Star Lord was in 2013. It would make sense, then, that casting Chris Pratt as Peter Quill would allow for a straight shot of an adaption.

Except, again, it’s kinda not. Star Lord as he appeared in the comics was quite different from the one in Guardians of the Galaxy, more authoritative and less bumbling, though still prone to having everything blow up in his face. Much of Peter Quill in the film — and who he’s become in the comics these days — grew out of Chris Pratt’s performance and James Gunn’s script. So sure, it was based on something, but there was still a big room to build there. Heck, you can see it with all of the MCU characters.

In spending a chunk of today trying to pry apart Wesley Morris’ article I kept losing track of his point (which may be because he doesn’t back it up much). In any case, based on the title, is about the changing role of celebrity that the uptick of superhero film franchises has brought about. Which, alright, sure; but we’ve also changed from the studio system of the ‘50s. Marvel with the MCU (and, Fox with X-Men and DC with their attempts at catchup) are working on a new form of storytelling, one that sits somewhere at the nexus of film, television, comics, and those old serials from forever ago. Maybe it’s time that the nature of stardom changes, what with the steady rise of nerd culture into the mainstream. After all, the geeks shall inherit the earth.

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Top Nine Movies of 2014

Eventually you get to the point when you realize if you keep putting off this list until you’ve seen everything you wanna see you’re never gonna write the darn list. So I’m writing it.

So here’s my list of top nine movies for 2014; nine because I’m leaving a space for movies I haven’t seen but want to. And it’s my list, so it’s very, well, me. I liked Birdman well enough and loved Godzilla, but neither quite made the list. These are the ones that I liked best.

9. John Wick

I have a soft spot for action movies, especially when they’re really slick action movies with Keanu Reeves doing what he does best. But what really sets John Wick apart is the incredible world building. There’s a deep background to the assassins and mafia that made me really want to know more. Also, it’s beautifully shot.

8. Gone Girl

Y’know that thing where you’re enjoying a story and then it changes gears? Like how Black Swan went from ballet drama to psychological horror? Gone Girl does that with ease, masterfully unfolding its plot like a magnificent murder mystery. Also, it’s decidedly not a date movie.

7. Whiplash

A movie about drumming should not be this intense. But it is, due in no small part to Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons’ phenomenal performances and how far the script goes. By foregoing a moralistic thrust in lieu of about pure drive the movie is able to get grippingly dark. And it works, man, it works.

6. Interstellar

Christopher Nolan’s greatest weakness probably lies in his portrayals of characters and emotion. Yet Interstellar, for all it’s sci-fi grandeur, is able to remain grounded in people and be genuinely moving. It may border on being overlong, but it expertly weaves in its core of love into a movie about wormholes and time dilation.

5. 22 Jump Street

Being unfamiliar with the original television series, I thought the original was a lot of irreverent fun; but it’s in the second film, I think, that Chris Lord and Phil Miller really cut loose. Blisteringly self-aware, the movie skewers sequels (and itself) while packing in the laughs start to finish.

4. Chef

No, the movie may not be super dramatic, and yes, it is a very warm, very feel good movie. It does it all well, though, and its charm more than ends its sweetness. Plus, it’s a delicious movie rife with heart.

3. Guardians of the Galaxy

I limit myself to one Marvel film on these things, and Guardians beats Winter Soldier by a hair, and that’s probably due to my love of space opera. James Gunn’s effortlessly handles high adventure while keeping it firmly rooted in character. And it’s just plain fun. And the soundtrack’s awesome.

2. The Imitation Game

I actually read Turing’s titular paper a week or two before I saw the movie, which gave it some cool context. The movie, though, is beautifully heartbreaking. Benedict Cumberbatch turns in an unparalleled performance as Alan Turing, a Turing given considerable depth and breadth by a gripping story. The movie plain works.

1. The LEGO Movie.

Could it be any other? I grew up with Legos so the movie appeals to the kid in me. But then the film’s superb plotting and usage of the Hero’s Journey and various tropes is what really pushes it up there while still consistently bringing the funny. Then the movie brings in an emotional beat that you’re simply not expecting yet doesn’t feel at all out of place. It’s simply magnificent and also my favorite movie of 2014. Easy.

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Superheroes Are For The Birds

I’ve said too many times before that awards don’t always mean quality (especially when The Lego Movie gets ignored), but that doesn’t mean I still don’t have opinions. Especially when those opinions are about Birdman.

I really enjoyed Birdman. Its shot-as-if-it’s-one-take-ness got a little obtrusive at times and bordered on being gimmicky, but its strong plotting and performances helped bring it past that. It was interesting and a great movie; can’t really argue with that.

What I can argue with is with is its point-of-view. Birdman’s about a former superhero actor who’s trying to be taken seriously as a theater actor. The dichotomy there is clear: on the one hand you’ve got superhero movies, the ultimate pulpy-popcorn blockbuster, on the other is a Broadway adaption of a Raymond Carver short story, about as high the performing arts can get. The genres are opposites, and one is clearly shown as being more artistically valued than the other.

Which makes Birdman’s relationship with the superhero genre so fascinating. It’s a movie about a genre but instead of parodying it, the film takes apart the culture surrounding the genre. There’s a question of why so many actors are in superhero films (even Jeremy Renner), but more importantly being known for a superhero film follows Michael Keaton’s Riggan around, a literal ghost of his past. Birdman could have worked differently — we could have had Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger escaping from being action heroes, for example — and the central plot and theming would remain much the same: the idea here is that if you want to make true art you have to escape from the pulp.

Adding on to this view is that pulp and genre movies are inherently lesser than ‘serious’ ones. Especially when the genre’s a popular one. In discussing the overall critical distaste for superhero films, James Gunn, director of Guardians of the Galaxy, said “What bothers me slightly is that many people assume because you make big films that you put less love, care, and thought into them then people do who make independent films or who make what are considered more serious Hollywood films” (x). Way Gunn sees it, people figure that there’s a divide between real art and making money. Birdman, as an artsy movie, was made out of love whereas Guardians, the blockbuster, was made for a quick buck. Gunn vehemently disagrees, arguing that there’s still a great deal of love for the craft and storytelling even in an expensive, pulpy movie.

It’s storytelling, then, that should be paramount to defining art. Without its strong story Birdman would just be a movie about some washup idiosyncratically shot. What makes Guardians such a great movie is its commitment to plot and characters. Storytelling, not genre, should be the ultimate test of a movie.

I think that’s why I love good pulpy movies. Sure, they may not always be serious, but a strong plot goes a long way. Superhero movies too can deal with deeper themes. Iron Man 3 looks at identity, questioning whether you’re defined by who you are or what you’ve done. The Winter Soldier discusses privacy and the relevance of old ideals in a modern world. Guardians is about not having to be particularly special to save the world and the importance of having other people. That we don’t always notice these deeper scenes is part of the beauty, the films aren’t heavy handed; rather they intertwine theme and the story. Pulpiness and a lack of seriousness doesn’t mean a lack of depth.

Point of all this to say, genres are to be used. Though a great film, Birdman perpetuates the annoying trend that real art’s gotta be angsty, that flair has no room for substance. It’s problematic, saying that one way of telling a story is better than another. Because at the end of the day, nobody wants everyone telling the same story the same way.

Writer’s note: I definitely think Birdman earned its Best Picture, but I think Richard Linklater deserved Best Director for Boyhood give how singular that movie is. But eh, who cares, it’s just a statue.

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The New Western

The superhero genre – since it’s become a genre unto itself and not a subset of science-fiction or action – is really taking off, in case you haven’t noticed. Between Marvel Studios putting out two movies a year, DC’s big plans to do big things, and the companies Marvel sold characters to over the years trying to make good on their investments. It’s big.

Some articles I’ve read online have likened the superhero genre to the western. It sounds a touch farfetched at first; the western’s about cowboys and lawless towns, superhero flicks are about people in costumes and their derring-do.

But the western is also in some ways a morality play. You’ve got the good cowboy and the bad one, the white hat and black hat. Good versus evil. Same with the superhero genre. Dark and brooding as Batman is, he’s fighting for good. The X-Men want acceptance and coexistence, as opposed to the Brotherhood’s want to dominate. Robert McKee’s description of the western; “a mythical golden age for allegories of good versus evil,” works equally well for the superhero.

The western was immensely popular for a period of time, with some of the earliest movies ever made showing shades of the genre. These films, particularly the ones most remembered (which I’ve found out are considered revisionist westerns, as they deconstructed a lot of tropes of the westerns that came before), feature elements that can be reliably found across the board. You’ve got the desolate town on the edge of civilization and the duel at high noon, for example. There’re the themes of lawfulness and lawlessness and doing wrong to do the right thing. Conventions are expected.

Likewise, the superhero genre, now reliably bringing in millions of dollars at the box-office, is arguably the closest thing we’ve got to a sure thing. Until recently, the structure and set up of superhero movies were reliably similar to one another. You had the hero getting powers, the hero figuring out what to do with his (because face it, just about every lead in a superhero film has been male) newfound powers, rises to the mantle of his responsibility, then goes to fight the villain who’s often a byproduct of his own call to heroism. Usually, if we’re watching a superhero movie, be it Batman Begins or Iron Man, we know what we’re getting into – and we’re watching it for that.

There’s the argument that the western afforded greater flexibility. Simpler sets and lower budgets meant just about anyone could take a stab at it. With a great range of voices involved, the western offered diverse takes on the themes of the genre which allowed it to grow into the esteem it holds today. The western could be about someone audiences had never heard about and would still be engrossing.

But superhero movies need massive budgets for intricate special effects and they need the comic book source to do well. They’re tied to studios and the money they afford, strangling out creativity and voices in favor of rolling in the dough. Hence the formula.

…right?

See, here’s where I think the superhero genre’s moved forwards, maybe even more so than the western. And I’m not talking about the smaller, independent ones like Chronicle; I mean Marvel’s tentpoles and the like. Over the past few years, we’ve seen superhero films going past what we’re expecting from them. The Winter Soldier was more like a spy thriller than your usual superhero set up; The Dark Knight was a crime movie; and Thor has heavy shades of fantasy. They remain expensive, but the movies show thematic and stylistic variance.

Guardians of the Galaxy may be most emblematic of superhero movies going forwards. For starters, Star-Lord and the others were hardly household names when the film was announced. The majority of the film’s audience wasn’t going to the movie because of the recognition of the name. Then Guardians hardly followed the typical superhero plot, eschewing it instead for the space opera. So here’s a superhero movie that feels very much unlike a superhero movie, yet still is one. Why?

At its core, Guardians has that central theme of a superhero film: good versus evil, where the hero has to overcome their flaws to defeat the villain. At the end of the day, that’s the kernel of the genre. Unlike the western, however, superhero films have a lot more flexibility setting-wise with how to explore it.

So here we are, on the verge of several, several new superhero movies over the next few years, with a big concern being that we’re gonna grow tired of them really soon. But give the genres similarly to the western, the western’s staying power in its heyday, and the comparative flexibility of the superhero film; I’m thinking we’ll be alright.

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THEY’RE MAKING A CAPTAIN MARVEL MOVIE

Marvel announced their upcoming slate of movies this week and I am very excited for one very important reason: Captain. Marvel.

Now, of course I’m pumped for the other announcements. Captain America 3 is officially Civil War, which bodes very interesting the MCU at large. Black Panther’s also showing up in Civil War and getting his own solo film a year later. We’re getting a second Guardians and another Thor, which is cool (especially the art for Guardians 2). The Inhumans are getting a movie so they’re definitely part of other MCU (five bucks say they show up in Agents of SHIELD). And the Avengers film(s) following Age of Ultron Is, based on being named Infinity War, hopefully going to be based on the fantastic Infinity event from last year. So of course there’s all that.

But Captain Marvel. Those of you who’ve been reading this should know that I’ve been clamoring for a Black Widow film, which part of me still is. I’m assuaged partially because there are plans to weave Black Widow into other films. But mostly because not only will Carol Danvers probably be showing up in some of the other films, there’s going to be a freaking Captain Marvel movie.

I’m gonna come right out and say it: Captain Marvel is my favorite comic in print right now (up there with Avengers and New Avengers. Black Widow probably comes after).There are a bunch of reasons, like the epic adventure nature of the comics and the sheer fun they’re filled with, but it’s mostly because Carol Danvers is such a great character, especially as Captain Marvel.

There’s the obvious fact that she wears pants, which is a welcome respite. More so than that, she’s interesting. She does all the usual superhero stuff, time traveling, fighting bad guys, saving New York and so on. Best of all, the comic is never condescending. We have a woman fighting crime who’s not presented as a special case or just a sex-object. She’s fleshed out and great in her own right. Writer Kelly Sue Deconnick has done a fantastic job creating a character who’s not just layered but likable and, most importantly, fun.

With that, Captain Marvel (like Black Panther) will bring something new to the Marvel ‘verse. Black Panther’s the first not-white guy headlining a Marvel film and also, as the king of Wakanda, has the potential to add additional political intrigue to the universe. Captain Marvel, on the other hand, will be the first female headliner and, based on comments by Kevin Feige and the most recent batch of comics, bridge the cosmic and earthbound sides of things. Besides getting her powers from the Kree (who showed up in Guardians of the Galaxy), Captain Marvel’s also been running with the Star Lord and crew as well as getting up to her own space adventures. It’s this variety that’ll help keep the superhero genre from getting stale.

But there’s also the sheer nerdy joy. In four years not only am I finally getting a movie starring a female superhero, but she’s Captain frickin’ Marvel, one of my favorites. That’s exciting and that’s something that’s making me really eager for 2018 to come already.

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The Reels Are Alive With The Sound Of Diegetic Music

Here’s a word that no one uses unless they want to sound smarter than you: diegesis, that is the type of story that’s told by a narrator. Which means what, exactly? Well, in The Princess Bride the Grandfather is performing an act of diegesis when he tells the Grandson the story. The interactions he has with the Grandson are thus non-diegetic. Of course, it’s all a narrative being told to us, the audience, by the filmmakers in turn carrying out diegesis. In film criticism it gets a little more specific, referring to what happens in the film in and of itself.

Anyway.

Diegetic music is when music is played in the narrative itself. The band playing when Han and Obi Wan walk into the cantina in Star Wars is an example of diegetic music. The characters hear it, and so do we. As a bonus it adds texture to the world. It helps that it’s iconic enough that you’ve probably got it going in your head now.

It doesn’t have to be that big, though. (500) Days of Summer uses diegetic music as plot points; it’s Tom listening to The Smiths that helps strike up a conversation with Summer. No, it’s not a grand epic sequence (compare the Fairy Godmother singing “Holding Out For a Hero” during the climax of Shrek 2), but it serves the plot’s development and also provides an important touchstone of Tom and Summer’s relationship. We, the audience, are allowed to share in what brings Tom and Summer together. The film is not just telling us but showing us too, making the whole thing more immersive and more intimate.

And now I’m going to talk about Guardians of the Galaxy.

Diegetic music plays a huge role in Guardians, but not in the way it does in Star Wars. We’re not treated to a band playing local alien music as one would expect from a piece of fantastic science fiction. Instead, well, it’s pop music from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. As in Earth’s ‘60s and ‘70s. And it makes perfect sense.

Peter Quill, the protagonist of the film, was taken from earth in ’88, his only belongings what he had in his backpack, the most important of which is a mixtape of songs his mom made him before she passed away. It’s very much Quill’s only physical and emotional tie to Earth as he gallivants around the galaxy under the name of Star-Lord. There’s a good reason for the parachronistic anatopism that is his music. Furthermore, the placement of some of these songs is often key. Hearing a prison guard manhandle his Walkman and listen to “Hooked One a Feeling” provokes him into a fight, for example. The songs are personal for Quill.
They can be personal for the audience too. Guardians of the Galaxy is outlandish on a Star Wars level, which is odd for any movie, let alone one that shares its world with Tony Stark and Steve Rogers. Having Star-Lord listen to “Come And Get Your Love” while exploring a ruin on Morag immediately clues the audience in that, yes, we’re still in the same world of the 1988-set prologue.Having the characters listen to it also gives us a connection to them. Look at the spectators stomping and chanting “We Will Rock You” during the opening joust of A Knight’s Tale. Like inGuardians, it gives the audience something in common with the characters. We’re all listening to the same music.

Diegetic music can be used to great effect. Film critics love to cite the infamous patricidal mambo from Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind as a prime example, but I’m gonna throw in Guardians of the Galaxy too. Diegetic music done right can do wonders to a film, be it through adding texture, granting intimacy to the audience, or serving as a character’s emotional touchstone. That and it’s pure fun to see Star Lord fly through space to “The Piña Colada Song.”

And yes, a lot of the music in The Sound of Music is diegetic, what with it being a musical and all.

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Why Guardians of the Galaxy Will Be Awesome

Guardians of the Galaxy is not a Marvel movie I expected to ever happen. Not because they’re so, well, out there, but because prior to the announcement of the film I had no idea who they were. Unlike Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America, these guys had missed the general cultural osmosis that many superheroes enjoy.

So I read the comics; with the ‘new’ lineup from 2008, not from 1969. Simply put, the comics were weird. There’s a telepathic dog, time travel, a space warlock, a talking tree, and a gun-toting raccoon. Even by comic book standards it’s bizarre.

But it’s fun. There’s a cool dynamic to the changing team and their big struggle against Thanos is certainly exciting. The film is drawing on some great source material. Each of the six characters in the film are all rich within the series, which makes sense given that they’ve all been showing up in comics well before they teemed up. There’s history there.

History that the movie doesn’t need to adhere to. It’s an adaption, and as such needs to get at the heart of the idea. One of the cores of Guardians is a ragtag team who have no right to be saving the galaxy having to save the galaxy. There’s a team dynamic there that has to be maintained no matter the adaption.

Which, for all intents and purposes, the film seems to be doing. Based on trailers and such, the characters are all there. Rocket Raccoon is as sarcastic and trigger happy as he should be. Groot has heart. Drax is no-nonsense and hellbent on destroying. Gamora seems to be Drax’s distaff counterpart and properly deadly. Star Lord is roguish but trying to be heroic. The core characterization is there.And that’s quite exciting.

But what of everything else? The plot seems to be the next step of Marvel’s plans. Introducing the cosmic side of the universe allows for bigger stories later on. For the characters, meanwhile, it’s got a lot of what made The Avengers so great: it’s about a team coming together, figuring out how to be a team, and then working as a team. It’s a great personal plot structure and it works. Keeping the central conflict personal allows director James Gunn to go big and out there while we’re rooted with the characters.

That the characters seem to be the focus of it (rather than the world itself) brings to mind the original Star Wars trilogy. Like them it’s about characters in a world going on a big adventure. It’s got a very Star Wars-ian feel to it and may just out Star Wars the prequels. It has that bright, optimistic feel of adventure in a rich sprawling world. Which, adaption or not, is always a wonderful thing to have in a film.

For an idea of the fun nature of the film, look at a recently released clip which manages to balance the funny and the drama within a single scene. There’s an element of threat there, from Drax to Gamora, but there’s a wealth of humor to be found in Star Lord’s attempts at calming them down. Alongside all that we have world building going on too: Star Lord mentioning Kree and other aliens enlarges the world and gives it texture. Even from the scene alone, Rocket’s response to Star Lord’s intervention hints at their friendship. It’s a great scene, and we’re set if the rest of the film lives up to it.

I am excited for this movie, though fully aware there are things that could throw it off. But the trailers and clips thus far, as well as the 100% it has on Rotten Tomatoes while I write this are very reassuring. So yes, I am convinced Guardians of the Galaxy is gonna be awesome. Here’s to Friday. Or, y’know, Thursday night if you’re like me.

 

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