The Guardians of the Galaxy transcends the superhero genre yet again

Guardians of the Galaxy is exactly what the Marvel Cinematic Universe needed in 2014. It was something that introduced the more sci-fi elements, yes, but also something that broke the superhero fatigue, at least temporarily. Sure, there have been Marvel moments that feel unique: Thor 2‘s climactic subway chase taking on a Bug Bunny-esque madcap style, The Winter Soldier‘s surveillance paranoia. But Guardians of the Galaxy felt more like Star Wars than Iron Man 4, taking a ragtag crew and letting them hop around a universe that had no restraint in reality, or even preconceived mythology given their relative obscurity to figures like Thor. And everything clicked for it, from its well-tuned cast that benefited from just-pre-superstardom surprise turns from Chris Pratt and Dave Bautista, its colorfully constructed universe, its memorable quasi-irreverent soundtrack, and the instantly iconic Groot.

When the marketing cycle for Vol. 2 started, there was immediately reason for concern. Not because these elements were missing, but because the trailers seemed to lean into these elements incredibly hard. Liked Drax being obtuse? We’ll focus the first clip released of precisely that. That Baby Groot dance everyone loved at the end of the first? You bet he’s going to be everywhere in trailers being all adorable and stuff. Looking for ’80s hits? We’ll release the soundtrack in a bag of Dorito’s to make sure you hear them. Looking for references to Night Rider? Fuck it, we’ll have David Hasselhoff on the soundtrack. For something that was a breath of fresh air three years ago, everything looked pretty stale.

It’s no surprise that Vol. 2 delivers on these items, for good and for bad. What does come as a surprise is that, rather than build on the previous film to make a tighter experience, Vol. 2 is a much looser film, both stylistically and plot-wise, than maybe any other movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It very much feels like the Marvel execs put their complete faith in director James Gunn, as the DNA of his previous films Super and especially Slither is all over Vol. 2Vol. 2 is nearly a best-case scenario in giving a genre auteur a whole bunch of money and telling him to have fun, and as a result Vol. 2 wears influences from Star Wars (obviously) to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (hilariously inventing and immediately exploiting the rules of its universe) to The Thing (magnificently nearing body horror more than once). Taika Watiti’s Thor Ragnarok has a chance of pulling a similar trick soon, and Joss Whedon’s The Avengers clearly had his fingerprints all over it, but Vol. 2 is the rare MCU film that feels more like a creator’s vision than a brand obligation, even more so than its predecessor. In a way, it feels more like Darkman than Iron Man, which at this point is a very good thing.

As for the old characters, there it is a bit more mixed. Drax is probably the biggest victim of sequel fatigue, as the surprise of discovering that character’s quirks was a big part of the pleasure in the first. There are no new dimensions to Drax here, so the gags involving him simply aren’t as surprising. Baby Groot, on the other hand, is an absolute treasure. Sure, he’s adorable, and the kids in the audience loved him, but he’s often used as a vehicle for considerably darker humour than expected. As for the others, Gamora is generally a bit wasted, and Quill is a bit less of a wise-ass thanks to his position in the plot, but Michael Rooker’s Yondu is brought back to great effect, and Rocket Raccoon is still a lot of fun. On the new front, Kurt Russell’s Ego is a slithery presence, oozing that old-school cool in fitting with the 80s stylings. Considering the general failure of MCU villains to make any impression, Russell is top-tier. Even the secondary villains, a race of genetically engineered bourgeoisie, are a ton of fun and would have been interesting enough to carry their own movie if called upon to.

Plotwise, Vol. 2 is focused on family, especially the bond between fathers/father-figures and sons, but extending to sibling relationships and, of course, teams. While there’s plenty of boilerplate talk about the Guardians being one big family, the film overall nicely focuses on relationships between two people, putting together as many combos as possible and examining their familial stance. Sure, Quill/Gamora comes back up, and Quill/Ego is all over the trailers, but the film finds some depth in the bipartite relationships between Quill, Yondu, and Rocket Raccoon, even giving Yondu a father figure of his own, and further explores the Gamora/Nebula sisterhood to surprising effect. Yes, it does boil down to a dastardly plot eventually, but it avoids magicla MacGuffins like infinity stones or whatever and ties its developments into actual, believable character interactions.

But more than anything else, Vol. 2 is stock full of a few deliriously fun setpieces. The final battle goes on for about ten minutes longer than it should have, but the opening scene beautifully sets up a major battle only to have it occur out of focus in the background, while a fight involving Yondu, Rocket, and a horde of space pirates can only be described as a beautiful composed spree of violence. Throughout these sequences, Vol. 2 is willing to be completely cartoony, which weirdly makes it a standout among superhero movies. It takes risks, and is sure to dismissed as dumb by some, but it entertains in ways that are novel for a film of this budget and scale. It successfully transplants low-budget cult-horror visuals and ideas to the biggest budget scale there is, and is by a huge margin the best future midnight-movie in the MCU. Bring on Volume 3.

A-

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
Directed by James Gunn
Starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, and Michael Rooker
Rotten Tomatoes (87%)

  • Line of the film that literally no one else laughed at: “We got a whole box of hands back there.”
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The Guardians of the Galaxy transcends the superhero genre yet again

Some eye-popping scenes salvage the otherwise flat Doctor Strange

The Marvel movies that exist slightly outside of the Avengers orbit have a bit of a tricky situation on their hands. They’re given much more freedom, and are less restricted by existing storylines, allowing us the intergalactic funk of Guardians of the Galaxy. However, their style can’t be too extreme, or else they’ll clash when they inevitably join the rest of the squad, as seen in the drab approach Ant-Man took to the material. Ant-Man may have benefited from a bit more crazy behind the camera, but Doctor Strange, the newest addition to the MCU lineup, cleverly gets around this by building the crazy right into the structure of its world. The style of the special effects is like nothing you would see in Thor or Iron Man, but it’s not presented as a trick of the camera; by allowing some batshit crazy magical powers, batshit crazy visual tricks still fit the house style. Unfortunately, while the fantastical moments are far-and-away the best reason to see the movie, they necessitate a deeply silly mythology, and greatly outshine the least interesting cast of characters in any major MCU release outside of maybe The Incredible Hulk.

Donning the cape is Benedict Cumberbatch, who essentially plays the role he seems to always play as an effortlessly competent and talented individual with contempt for those who can’t perform at his level (he insulting calls someone a “Bachelors degree” at one point). It recalls his Sherlock, obviously, but also Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark, who similarly started off full of hubris and has seemingly boundless intelligence just because. But where Downey’s sardonic Stark is lovably self-deprecating, Cumberbatch’s Strange is infuriatingly smug. Where Stark applied knowledge he gained from his engineering background in his superhero persona, Strange is simply adept at wizardry and neurosurgery because he’s brilliant. It feels very much like a Chosen One kind of story, and while his ego is shot down often by Rachel McAdams’ love interest and Tilda Swinton’s guru, his natural competence flies directly in the face of those criticisms. He does brilliantly all while being a self-absorbed elitist narcissist about it, without the charisma to offset it (Cumberbatch’s natural charm is majorly blunted by his forced and completely unnecessary American accent).

There’s little in the rest of the story to really add much interest. Swinton’s The Ancient One is perhaps the sole bright spot, a fantastically designed character who is granted the movie’s sole moving moment, but Chiwetel Ejiofor’s fellow sorceror Mordo is underserved, Rachel McAdams is given a thankless role, and Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius is an unfortunate addition to Marvel’s trend of uninteresting villains. A lot of this can maybe be attributed to how arbitrary the rules of the universe seem to be constructed. This is a world full of sorcerors, sure, but the extent of their powers is never clearly defined. The advancement of the plot relies often on one-upmanship and lines like “they’re more powerful in this realm”, more reminiscent of Dragonball Z than Harry Potter. Hands are waved around and sparks fly for particular reason, and it’s more difficult to just go with than a giant green anger totem or a patroitic supersoldier for whatever reason. It’s just too silly, like something two kids would come up with bored in a backyard. Sometimes, this works; Strange’s cape has a personality akin to the magic carpet in Aladdin, and is appropriately endearing. Sometimes its just stupid. As a particularly egregious example, a lot is made of separating the body and soul as “astral projections”. While this leads to the aforementioned tender moment between Strange and the Ancient One, it also leads to an absurd ghost battle that serves no purpose other than making sure five minutes don’t go by without some action.

After the requisite training portion of the film, it really does kick into a non-stop action mode, in not necessarily the best way. After a great opening scene, it stops dead for about an hour, and then dives headfirst into the conclusion. By the time the movie arrives at the final showdown, it feels like the act-two break is still to come. The bloodless mysticism and senseless competence of Strange keep the action scenes from having real stakes, but Doctor Strange is creative enough with its special effects and design to make these scenes the far-and-away saving grace of the movie. Cities fold, floors and ceilings tile out into fractals, and the flow of time is allowed to play out differently in the background and foreground action. It’s nothing absolutely daring, and it wears it’s debt to The Matrix, Inception, and Cyriak (of Cows & Cows & Cows fame) on its sleeve, but it still has capacity to dazzle. I’m not sure if it’ll still dazzle on a small screen, but while the effects don’t make up for the lack of investment, they’re certainly the key selling point for seeing it on a big screen in 3D.

C

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Doctor Strange (2016)
Dir. Scott Derrickson
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, and Tilda Swinton
Rotten Tomatoes (90%)

Some eye-popping scenes salvage the otherwise flat Doctor Strange