GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY – Not as Good as You Thought it Was

Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel

It’s been a week. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is now playing and if you’re a Marvel fan, you’ve seen Guardians of the Galaxy. And you loved it, because everybody loved it. It was smart, witty, and broke new ground. Only it didn’t, not really. In fact, it was a lukewarm affair, tonally scattered, awkwardly plotted and too crowded.

For the uninitiated, Guardians of the Galaxy is the tale of a group of misfit renegades who must overcome their own selfish intentions to fight a great threat. It is set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe alongside The Avengers and Iron Man. However it is something of a standalone feature, pulled from decidedly obscure comic origins. As such, it represented something of a gamble for Marvel and Disney, being a previously non-established property with brand new characters in a foreign outer space world. It has been enormously successful and will spawn sequels and probably Avengers tie-ins in the future.

But it was weak. As a film, as the film it needed to be, it failed. The reasons are small, but important. We’ll start with the justification. For all intents and purposes, Guardians of the Galaxy is a completely unknown story line. That means that as a film, it carries the task of introducing the audience to the world in which its characters inhabit. Who’s good, who’s bad, who’s worth rooting for, the politics, the philosophies. All of that is imperative because the audience is going into the theater completely cold. I don’t know who Peter Quill is, who Ronan is, who Nebula is. These are the things we need to know so that we can empathize with the right people and jump along for the ride.

This was Guardians of the Galaxy‘s first mistake. Plot points that should have been made early and clear were not. It took me until at least an hour into the film to remember who Ronan was, the film’s main bad guy. That’s important because the protagonists are acting and making decisions as a result of the antagonist’s apparent pressures. Drax the Destroyer is on a suicide mission to stop Ronan, endangering his shipmates in the process. But I was confused about who that was so I didn’t care. Drax’s reckless and shortsighted actions, calling the cavalry on the Guardians because it would guarantee a showdown with his nemesis, held no weight because Ronan’s evil intentions were not made clear to me early on. It was only days later that a comic book fan friend of mine explained to me what his whole deal actually was. And that’s a problem. The filmmakers assumed that I was clued into the mythology, despite being from unknown source material. Now of course today there are avenues by which I can educate myself on character’s back-stories, but to assume that I’ve done my homework with untested material like this is missing the mark entirely.

It pops up in a number of ways, too. Most notably with Groot, the seven-foot tall walking tree that can only announce who he is. “I am Groot” is the character’s main joke. But it’s set up so poorly, so flatly, that while watching the movie I could only explain it like this: The filmmakers knew that I had watched the trailers to death, read up on the character, and was already sick of Groot’s one note that they didn’t need to deliver it properly. And that’s lazy.

The second problem is of personnel. There are way too many characters in this movie. Seriously. Let’s count. There are: five protagonists, five villains, and a dozen supporting characters each given minimal screen time but enough gravity in the plot to warrant deep characterization. The medium of film just isn’t long enough to cram all of that in effectively. It is a mess. I submit that to properly give the protagonists ample characterization, there should have been only six people in this movie: The Guardians of the Galaxy, and Ronan.

And what’s frustrating is that there have been ensemble precedents. X-Men for example did it right. Its was the story of a group of misfits who were able to overcome their differences and counter a dangerous man who threatened other people. Serenity was the story of a dysfunctional family who had to come together and uncover a truth to save people they didn’t call friends. But importantly, in both of those films the antagonists were clear. The X-Men battled Magneto and his minions; the Serenity crew tried to stay one step ahead of the Operative, the physical embodiment of the Alliance. In both cases, the scripts understood that the focus is on the protagonists, and since there are many, it’s best to keep the important villains to a minimum.

What’s more, it dilutes the potency of a bad guy to show him taking orders from someone else. Sure, Darth Vader is Emperor Palpatine’s protege, but that relationship is only introduced later, when escalating and expanding the plot dictates a zoom-out in scope.

Here’s what I mean: Thanos is completely ancillary to the plot of Guardians of the Galaxy. Of course he only appears because he’s being set up as a villain for future Marvel pictures, but this was the wrong place to introduce him. What it does is confuse the motivations of the real antagonist, Ronan, and dim his own menace as the mastermind. It turns Ronan’s actions into rebellion, not evil. Snore.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have the remaining three bad guys: Nebula, Korath, and Yondu. Under-cooked and boring, I can’t figure out why these people were even in the film at all, if not to fill seats with Dr. Who fans. Without going through them one-by-one, let’s investigate what they represent for the protagonists. Clearly, the writers decided that the Guardians’ back-stories needed to be different for each member. Everyone’s selfish, everyone’s got their own problems. Fine. But by essentially giving everyone there own villain, it detracts from the group dynamic and the growth it needs to experience as a unit by the end of the movie. Is the film any different if Peter Quill doesn’t reconnect with his adopted alien father figure? No. The audience wasn’t even clued into that fact until the very moment it’s necessary for Quill to do something. How about some lead-up? Let the audience come to the conclusion themselves that in order for Quill to be the man he should be, he’ll need to confront the man who put him in that situation to begin with.

Even the Guardians themselves are drawn thinly. In the opening scene, we’re introduced to Peter Quill, a young boy who’s about to lose his mother. On her deathbed, Quill’s mother notices that he’s sporting a fresh shiner from a recent fight. He explains that he confronted a group of kids who were harming a frog with a stick and took some heat for it. Great. We’ve established early on who Quill is. Deep down he’s a compassionate person, willing to stand up for the helpless and risk his own safety to be good. But then in the next scene he’s an adult, romping around an alien planet antagonizing small creatures. He literally kicks one square in the abdomen, sending it flying, just for being in his way. Now, I understand that the film might want to establish how jaded Quill has become, how far from his principles he’s drifted, but dashing an important characteristic without explanation, so early, doesn’t work. What made him like that? Why does he all of a sudden regard woman and animals as disposable? It’s crumby storytelling. Here’s what should have happened: Quill’s a renegade, he’s clever when he needs to be, but he’s careless and self-centered. That’s Quill. We get everything we need to know about him without even showing him as a kid. That way, it simplifies his arc to the core necessities. Quill was selfish, he became heroic and empathetic.

Anyway, the ending was crap. The movie wasn’t funny enough. The raccoon was stupid. I wasn’t compelled to really care. I’ll sum it up like this: Serenity did it better.

WHAT IF – Navigating Indie Film Trappings

Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan, Adam Driver


The bar for indie movies is thus: If you can justify being more than a Sunday night Netflix curiosity, you’ve done alright. Safety Not Guaranteed, Frances Ha, In Our Nature; are examples. And it’s hard to pin down why. But there’s a tendency for these sorts of films to devolve into basically fantasy, be it with stupid characters, unrealistic situations, or glaring logic inconsistencies. There’s a “twee allotment” that I like to assign. I’m more liberal than most but there’s certainly a threshold. Basically, it’s the amount of precious bullshit that can reasonably be passed off as drama. (Think Juno’s burger phone.) So when a film takes more than it deserves the suspension of disbelief is broken and I’m taken right out of the movie. It’s actually surprising, given the closeness and intimacy one expects small filmmakers to have with their material, that the core tools for storytelling (characterization, empathy, struggle, growth) are so often thrown out the window.

What If is on the good side of that spectrum. The dialogue is snappy which keeps the melodrama at bay. The characters are idealistic in a grew-up-on-Disney kind of way but tempered believably by life’s disappointments and challenges. Med-school dropout Wallace is in a funk when he meets animator Chantry. The two instantly hit it off and slowly become more important parts of each other’s lives, despite Chantry’s long-term relationship with her successful boyfriend Ben. It’s clear right off the bat that the two have chemistry, and they hint at their mutual feelings in moments, Wallace tiptoeing around the treacherous territory and Chantry torn between potential lives she isn’t even sure she wants.

The narrative framework is familiar, young people and their problems. But Wallace and Chantry have a playful repartee that infuses levity into otherwise mood-flattening proceedings. Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan play well off each other, often in conversations that look and feel at least partially improvised. Kazan is believable as a young woman at a loss answering the big questions, and Radcliffe is able to shed his Harry Potter typecasting, coming off very un-earnest, un-heroic, and down right funny. I’m not sure if he’s a leading man yet, (it’s the patchy stubble) but quiet material like this suits him.

Importantly, the characters are smart, which is appreciated. Reactions are naturalistic without drifting into mumblecore. The dialogue is peppy and post-modern enough to not some off too sappy. There is a bit of sap, of course. The wedding ending was wholly unnecessary, if flat out out-of-place for the genre. But these people are just cynical enough to be convincing as human beings that have lived and loved.

Oftentimes, people in these types of movies are bumbling and introspective to their own detriment. They act like they just woke up after being frozen for twenty years, plopped into adult situations with a child’s understanding of how the world works. And yes, there’s an argument to made for retaining a child-like wonder for the world. But that sort of reductionist thinking is merely a consequence of nostalgia, a rose-colored glasses view of yesteryear. Miranda July in Me and You and Everyone We Know is basically a little girl, getting into strange cars for no reason and resisting everything uncomfortable. She’s weird, but for weirdness’s sake. In real life, even shut-ins are pessimistic enough to not act like that. In contrast, Kazan’s Chantry is alluring in that manic pixie dream girl way, but also motivated by realistic expectations, plugged into communities that define her in complex ways, and is capable of self-actualization unrelated to her relationship with a man. An exciting executive job in Asia might not necessarily be what Chantry wants, but the point is that her character is not static like many quiet auteurs want their women to be.

I’d like to see Kazan next play completely against type, makeup, attitude, everything. Because unfortunately, even when she’s attempting to criticize the manic pixie dream girl, playing the titular character in her own film Ruby Sparks, she fits that archetype effortlessly. She’s alternatively pretty, intelligent, and effervescent enough to fall into that trap. She’s good though. She’s a talent.

When it comes to these movies, you have to go all the way. If you’re striving for different, something to put your audience on edge and compel them to see life sideways, make your film bonkers. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep, Amelie. You can justify the weirdness of your characters if your setting is also sightly twisted. It doesn’t have to be dark and nightmarish, but if your protagonist is a cartoon, attempting to sell an intimate, realistic slice of life premise is disingenuous.

What If plays it just about straight, with enough humor and wit from its cast to elicit a compassionate response. As a mature piece of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles counter-programming, it was enjoyable.

Star Wars, Marvel: The “Universe” is the Next Big Thing for Movies

Marvel was the model. Star Wars will continue the practice.

Since sequels are becoming something of a punchline, the summer movie season coming to be known as sequel season, studios are beginning to organize there tent pole properties in a much different way than before. Disney gets it. Warner Bros. gets it. 20th Century Fox gets it. 
It’s the “universe.” And why not? Comic books have been doing it for decades. Group your heroes under one umbrella, have them meet at certain times to overcome their problems, and then profit. Civil War, Avengers vs. X-Men, Crisis on Infinite Earths. There’s even a DC vs. Marvel where the outcomes were voted on by fans.
Source material that lives across multiple story lines (and timelines) like comic books are ripe for mining in an age where film audiences are shirking original cinema and doubling down on familiar formulas. Audiences don’t respond to fresh material like they do large franchises, which in turn makes studio’s weary of investing large sums of money into unproven ventures without established fan bases. But the sequel chain model is getting tired. Universal’s big cash cow, The Fast and the Furious series, will debut it’s seventh film next year. Which, while films are certainly growing more and more serialized as of late, is a bit ridiculous. And there are countless others. How many franchises can you name that were perceived to go on too long? Pirates of the Caribbean, Die Hard, Home Alone, Bourne, Saw, X-Men; there’s your starter kit.
What the universe model does is allow for an expanded range of related properties. Each film doesn’t necessarily have to follow the one previous. Supporting characters can be explored and fleshed out. What’s more you don’t have to attach a number to the end of your title. You’ve even given yourself the ability to wipe your hands clean of any miss steps. Think the Eric Bana Hulk movie and the original DOA franchise-starter X-Men Origins: Wolverine. These efforts can be tied off and ignored as “non-canon” or “in a different universe” now.
The big example is of course Marvel. If Disney were numbering these movies, the next one, Guardians of the Galaxy, would be No. 10. But instead, Marvel’s carved out for itself a scheme by which it can develop its franchise (and in turn sub-franchises) without the perception of overstaying it’s welcome. Iron Man 1-3 can exists alongside Avengers 1-2Captain America 1-2 and Thor 1-2 because they aren’t presented as necessarily sequential. They’re no doubt interrelated, but it allows for greater flexibility in storytelling and deeper explorations of characters that might not otherwise get their day. And it’s allowing for more variety, all told. Studios are figuring out that they can release films outside the main story line, The Wolverine, for example. It’s a one-off, simply an adventure the character will have at some point in his future. But while it exists simply to tell a self-contained story, its protagonist lives within a much larger cast and who’s worldview is framed by events that occur elsewhere. Audiences are happy because they can experience another adventure with their favorite superhero. Studios are happy because their brand comes with a built-in customer base.
And Disney knows it’s a winning formula. It should be no surprise that the Holy Trilogy -Star Wars- itself will eventually get the universe treatment. And while I think it has the potential for over saturation, it’s a no-brainer. Think about it, the deepest expanded fictional universe of all time is now completely open-ended and at the hands of a company who has had tremendous success juggling a rogues gallery of heroes, villains, and story lines. It’s in the best hands it could be.
I would even bet that Disney is now looking at the Avengers and eyeing some kind of end game. Not the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole, but the Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Hulk, mash-up parties these movies will become. That the first Avengers actually turned out to be an expertly crafted film is a tenuous thread to dangle your multi-billion dollar business model on. They’ve got the right guy in Joss Whedon, but ensemble movies like in the X-Men franchise tend to suffer from group fatigue eventually; they become weighed down by too many characters. The potential for subsequent Avengers outings simply not working farther along the road is high. They’re pushing the logic of the universe as it is. And you can tell. Thor’s second solo adventure took place on a different planet to not interfere with Earth happenings. Iron Man’s struggle was internal and contained. And Captain America barely left D.C. for the entire movie. But it’s becoming apparent that sooner or later these guys will have to cross paths more frequently than in the Avengers tie-in movies to make sense.
I would bet that the Avengers as a team are half over. Follow-up Age of Ultron will signal the beginning of Phase 3, which will see many of the original characters’ threads begin to get tied off. The death of Tony Stark seems likely. It’s not far-fetched to imagine then that Star Wars will be Disney’s real focus going forward. Comics are as popular as they’ve ever been these days, but nothing compares to the raw emotional connection generations have with Star Wars. It’s just no contest. Easily, Star Wars VII will be the biggest hit of all time]. Because it’s not just ticket sales. It’s merchandising, it’s an historic legacy that the films will live in forever. It’s just the nature of the brand. George Lucas knew it back in the 70’s, taking a pay cut in lieu of merchandising rights. Disney would be fools not to focus all their energies into Star Wars.
Which means you’ll see more of this type of film making in the future. The Hobbit is doing it. Harry Potter will doubtless be back in some form or another. Spin-off television shows will start becoming more prevalent. Which is fine. Say what you want about the dumbing-down of audiences today, they’re smarter now than they were 30 years ago. Audiences understand the concept of the universe, and “get” the reasoning behind reboots and one-offs. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has many threads running through it, and it’s still stupefying how well it’s so far come together. And it’s a large investment a studio is betting an audience member will continue to pay into, sticking around for a web of interconnected stories. Their hope is that that person remembers all the way back to the first Iron Man movie to understand his motivations today, or whatever. 
It’s a big thing, this. It’s a paradigm shift in the way film is presented. Many say cinema is dead. I tent to think that it’s as exciting as ever.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Redford
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the latest installment of Marvel’s extraordinarily well-planned cinematic business model. I’m not a particular fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’ve seen the important ones, and they register as generally competent, if not exciting. So far, in fact, I’m only 1 and 3 in the so-called “Phase 2,” post-Avengers series. I passed on Iron Man 3 and I passed on Thor: The Dark World.

So I went into Captain America: The Winter Soldier with only a mild degree of expectation. The first half of the original Captain America stands as among the best in the franchise, I think. The WWII aesthetic was a delightful change of pace, and the more intimate moments served the characters well.

Better than any superhero film to date in fact, Captain America: The First Avenger compels the audience to understand the character’s place in history and popular culture. In 45 minutes the film managed to capture the very essence of what makes the character important to the country. That he saves a hundred men so that they can go back to their wives, in spite of being both a rallying post and laughing stock, is complex and sophisticated world-building. The film places him in its history so deftly, wraps the mythology of the country around him so expertly, that it’s almost like he exists for real in both the fictional world and real life.

Unlike other origin stories, which follow an unknown on his or her path to anonymous greatness, The First Avenger knows that what makes the hero Captain America special is the halo of respect and adoration that its human counterpart, Steve Rogers, inhabits. Batman can be a relative nobody, existing in the shadows and applying pressure behind the scenes. (The point is that he can literally be anybody.) Captain America on the other hand lives in the public sphere because he rests in people’s hearts and symbolizes a large part of their national identity. “Captain America” is merely the story; Steve Rogers is the true hero.

And he resonates in a specific way. Embodying a warmer truth, Captain America inserted into the modern worlds represents a nostalgic sense of simplicity and an idealized era of non-compromised values. Captain America: The Winter Soldier excels because it conveys this idea quite well. It’s an inevitability that the highest-profile hero of all time would be tapped by modern governments to attack disorder and maintain political stability. The Captain’s outdated sense of right and wrong then is the perfect vehicle to shine a lens on the grayness of contemporary foreign and national policy. Ours is now a world of antiheroes and flaw. Superman must be a brooding orphan. Jason Bourne must be driven and compassionate, but broken and destructive. The idea of a role model is old hat. A protagonist can’t simply exist as a force of good anymore, there must be an underlying impetus (usually dark in nature) to compel them to act.

And that’s great. It means characters are more complex and true-to-life. But it’s refreshing to see a more traditional hero once in a while. What The Winter Soldier does so well though is understand its audience’s post-modern sensibilities. Captain America interacts with his new world with the lifetime of experience of an adult man, but wrangles with his own deficiencies in relating to contemporary worldviews like a child. The film knows that we might laugh at the Captain when he has no frame of reference for any given cultural touchstone, but in response it charges his character with enough conviction to demonstrate that raising a red flag when something conflicts with your sense of right and wrong is the truly heroic thing to do.

It follows that as a former soldier, he would gravitate towards people of a similar ilk. Certainly he’s trying to avoid societal re-integration as much a he can by front-loading his life with work. And maybe he’s convinced himself that the “lone wolf” is the path of least resistance. But Steve Rogers is the man at the end of the day, who must ultimately come to terms with the fact that his comfort zone is gone, and the world must now be what he can make of it.

It’s a personal journey, and one that I was pleasantly surprised to see make an appearance in such a high-profile film. Interestingly, it’s not for kids. The dozen or so at my showing were bored at the long scenes of character development and political techno-babble. They came for the big ole’ fight scenes and ‘splosions. And while that’s here, the action is relatively subdued, tempered by real-world consequences and pathos. It’s also surprisingly brutal. The hand-to-hand combat is quick and unforgiving; the violence is explosive and less like a cartoon. (SPOILER: Everybody gets shot.)

But it’s an effective film, closer in tone to The Bourne Ultimatum or Skyfall than many other superhero entries. It places its hero against the backdrop of political intrigue and national security, relevant concerns in the age of the whistle blower. “What would the Founders think of the TSA?” was a concept I was reminded of. At any rate, it’s an intelligent action film, one of Marvel’s best, and is proof that the studio’s multi-film framework is not only a ground-breaking gimmick, but also an electrifyingly fun ride.

First blog post

This is your very first post. Click the Edit link to modify or delete it, or start a new post. If you like, use this post to tell readers why you started this blog and what you plan to do with it.

This is your very first post. Click the Edit link to modify or delete it, or start a new post. If you like, use this post to tell readers why you started this blog and what you plan to do with it.

This is your very first post. Click the Edit link to modify or delete it, or start a new post. If you like, use this post to tell readers why you started this blog and what you plan to do with it.

This is your very first post. Click the Edit link to modify or delete it, or start a new post. If you like, use this post to tell readers why you started this blog and what you plan to do with it.

This is your very first post. Click the Edit link to modify or delete it, or start a new post. If you like, use this post to tell readers why you started this blog and what you plan to do with it.

This is your very first post. Click the Edit link to modify or delete it, or start a new post. If you like, use this post to tell readers why you started this blog and what you plan to do with it.