Marvel 2014: The Guardians of Stasis - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Marvel 2014: The Guardians of Stasis

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Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord, assembles a team of misfits to fight a galactic threat in Guardians of the Galaxy.  Steve Rogers returns to take down an enemy from within and face a specter from the past in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  Spider-Man continues to try and find the balance between his responsibilities as a hero and as a loved one in The Amazing Spider-Man 2.  Wolverine is sent back in time by a group of mutants desperately trying to stop the genocide of their race in X-Men: Days of Future Past.

This is Marvel 2014 in review.

Marvel 2014 SwitcherooI hope, if nothing else, Guardians of the Galaxy's trailer that uses Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit in the Sky" makes it into classes on how to cut an effective promo.  Revisit it with me now, and tell me how you could not walk away from that trailer feeling like something special is approaching.  We've been so deluged with grand scores and epic characters in our comic films that there's an impish energy to the images of the nontraditional protagonists that are featured in that gloriously compact span of time.  Going into Guardians that trailer leads the audience into thinking that the film is going to be as nontraditional as the use of "Spirit in the Sky" is as a raccoon and tree rain destruction on their enemies.

My expectations, as you might imagine, were set pretty high, both based on this taste of Guardians' tone and the talent that would be behind the camera.  From the two films that I had seen from him previously, director James Gunn had the potential to turn into one of the greats.  SLiTHER was a nasty bit of horror-comedy that made great use of the soundtrack and was filled with loving homages to the creepy crawlies that Gunn grew up with, as well as a loving nod to the nearly zero-budget filmmaking he got a taste of as part of Troma Entertainment.  Then there's Super, which showed that Gunn was willing to confront the darker impulses that come with the admiration, and actions, of a costumed vigilante.  Super mixed documentary techniques, low budget fuzz of faith-based after-school specials, and illustrated comic layouts to show how dangerously out of touch its hero is.  Those two films also showed that Gunn can draw surprising depths out of unexpected sources, with Riann Wilson's work in Super being a career high for the man mostly known for his work on The Office.

But Guardians does not mine horror territory nor is it a cautionary tale in the vein of the costumed vigilante.  Instead it is firmly in Marvel's wheelhouse as another superhero action film, but that isn't where Guardians' problems start.  After the prologue, which I'll return to in a moment, Guardians reveals itself as one of the most entertaining and punkish creations to come out of Marvel Studios.  Instead of being weighed down by continuity and existing characters Guardians opts to explore a brand new universe with the effortlessly charming Chris Pratt leading the way as Star-Lord.  The soundtrack, so prominently displayed in the trailer, gave only a taste of what to expect in that amazing opening sequence with Star-Lord prancing around ancient alien ruins singing "Come and Get Your Love".  Then as the additional players come in the punk spirit keeps expanding until it reaches its apex with a daring prison escape with multiple lines of action, background jokes galore, and Rocket Raccoon (voiced with relish by Bradley Cooper) mounting his giant tree companion Groot (the also well-cast Vin Diesel) to take on all comers.

It was everything I wanted.  More.  Glorious and well crafted destruction with strong personalities who owe explanations to no one, bound together with a raucous spirit of fun.  I loved those first thirty minutes.

My feelings on Guardians aside, Chris Pratt's multimedia publicity blitz and sudden surge in popularity is a wonderful thing.

My feelings on Guardians aside, Chris Pratt's multimedia publicity blitz and surge in popularity is a wonderful thing.

However, I set the prologue apart separately, because those moments contain the seeds that blossom into a confined space the rest of Guardians spends pushing its characters into.  It's not enough that Pratt could charm his way out of any prison, so Gunn included an opening scene where he fails to say goodbye to his mother, who is dying of cancer.  This scene is handled with bright lights creating a hazy halo around the young Star-Lord and his heavenly mother as tight closeups of his beloved tape player cutting to the dying mother make the connection between the two clear.  He is unable to hold her hand as she dies, then he runs outside where he is captured by space pirates, and taken off into his grand adventures.  This moment emphasizes a heavily emotional style of production that is not replicated throughout the rest of Guardians, and has the unmistakable whiff of forcing relatability on Star-Lord.

Mom is the source of the soundtrack, creating mix tapes for young Star-Lord so that he could have the same music she did growing up, even after she's gone.  This adds an unfortunate subtext to the scenes where the soundtrack takes emphasis.  When Star-Lord is trying to seduce Gamora (Zoe Saldana) with his pop hits, is he thinking of his dying mother as he pulls the momentarily distracted assassin closer?  Or how about when the soundtrack is playing as he suffers torture and humiliation under the hands of the prison guards?  On its own, the songs create an ironic distance between the violent imagery of the film and the cheery sound waves wafting through the speakers.  But adding in the back-story with mom's death, it brings up questions that Guardians is just not equipped or willing to deal with.  In essence the prologue boils cancer down to just another plot point designed to make the already compelling Star-Lord more dramatic.  It's a crutch.

A disgusting crutch at that, relegating a tragic disease to a plot point.  This kind of storytelling shorthand is revisited as the characters gets their dull monologue that explains their pain and history.  Never mind the already great personalities and performances, they have to explain everything.  Then the villainous power elements and are introduced, which are also thoroughly explained.  Slowly everything has a reason, carefully spelled out, for existing in this world that was mysterious only moments ago.  The direction follows suit, and what starts as an unpredictable powder keg of cosmic weirdness is slowly filled with unclear action scenes where indistinct balls crash into one another, and culminates in yet another sea of identical gray adversaries running into the heroes as they pose and sometimes quip their way through a forgettable battle.

No rogue element goes unaddressed without a course-correction into sterility.  Rocket Raccoon's dissenting voice is browbeaten into going along with the token heroism.  False climaxes filled with "just kidding" fake-outs give way to  traditional battle.  By the time the credits have rolled the one compelling emotional sacrifice is reversed.  The eventually named Guardians of the Galaxy start as a rogue crew of shaky alliances and end with them being deputized into protecting the status quo of authoritarian fuddy duddies.  This is the opposite of fun, or progress.

Chris Evans' new costume in The Winter Soldier is one of the welcome changes to the character.

Chris Evans' new costume in Captain America: The Winter Soldier is one of the welcome changes to the character.

This is what Marvel films, particularly those coming out of Marvel Studios, have spent years doing.  Guardians of the Galaxy was a last stab at showing that individual productions could be something more than stepping stones to the next film.  The last five minutes does nothing but set up the next step, the villain is constantly relegated to second class status next to the real bad guy four or five movies down the road, and the Guardians film is not a brave exploration of unusual characters, but a highly advertised, carefully constructed, and altogether dull breakdown of just another cog in the Marvel canon.

This is conservative cinema, no matter the occasional doubt that crosses the minds of the characters in these films as interesting elements on the perimeter are flattened out in order to make sure that the status quo is being maintained for the next story.  In this vein Captain America: The Winter Soldier should have been the worst offender, but makes up for it with a top-notch set of action sequences that are about as relevant to the Cold War as the original The First Avenger was to World War II.  But even the questions raised about S.H.I.E.L.D., the organization that has been the front for a multinational terrorist group no thanks to Nick Fury's (Samuel L. Jackson) guidance, are passed aside to return to the status quo.  At the end of The Winter Soldier, Cap is off on his personal journey while the apparatus that caused all the problems in the film is still under the control of the man who failed to keep evil from doing the devil's work in the guise of good.

Why is this not addressed?  Because Marvel Studios needs to get the Avengers sequel out, and in order for there to be a pre-planned sequel after that the status quo needs S.H.I.E.L.D. and Nick Fury almost as much as it needs Captain America to stay on the side of the angels.  Never mind that those angels may be the bad guys in disguise, it's instead better to accept the status quo as it is and make way for the next film in the franchise.  On top of being conservative, it's cowardly to bring up these issues of surveillance and government overreach in our current political climate without having the courage to follow through with any kind of moral opinion.  As A.O. Scott so aptly put it in his review of the first Thor film, the Ponzi scheme has to keep rolling without judgement, and as I noted in my review of the sequel, this means that Marvel needs to give the impression of a living universe without running the risk of it ever evolving.

"Half-heartedly question your government, but don't do anything to change it," becomes the lesson of The Winter Soldier.  It's still a film worth watching because of those stellar action sequences, including mixing up the previously all-white Avengers Action Club with Anthony Mackie as the skilled Falcon and showing how strong Scarlett Johansson is as Black Widow when she's not reduced to window dressing, but that doesn't make its preservation of the status quo any less disappointing.  Similarly disappointing is that the brief stab at diversity in The Winter Soldier doesn't look to be making its way into the next Avengers film with new additions Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, and Vision matching the heroic color code established by the first film.

In an interesting twist, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 ditches the homemade costume of the first film for a basic replica of the Sam Raimi model.

In a revealing lack of confidence, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 ditches the homemade costume of the first film for a basic replica of the Sam Raimi model.

This disappointing preservation of the status quo goes beyond the universe presented onscreen.  As bad as the Marvel Studios films are in making sure little changes between each film, they at least are picking and choosing which bits of comic canon to film and make some kind of cohesive story versus what is going on with Marc Webb's The Amazing Spider-Man series with Columbia Pictures.  In a world of carefully structured sequels Columbia's efforts come off the most crass, rebooting a franchise that was already a smash success on its own terms and creating one of the most smug, careless, and static versions of Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) to exist in all media.

Two films now, and there is no indication that Columbia and Webb's version of Peter Parker will be anything more than a violent teenager incapable of learning from his past mistakes.  It doesn't help that the two Amazing films are the worst of the ongoing superhero cash-in taking place among the various studios.  The world that Webb has created for Peter Parker is dark and at many times difficult to follow with extensive detours into the Parker family legacy that result in emotional payoffs that are, at best, tangentially related to the struggles at hand and at worst mopey distractions.  They hit their emotional beats so awkwardly that when Uncle Ben dies in the first Amazing film it comes across as though the creative team forgot that for there to be a Spider-Man, there has to be a dead Uncle Ben, at least as far as the comics' canon is concerned.

But that pales to the conclusion of Amazing 2.  One of the few things that the Amazing series did well was give Gwen Stacy room to breathe as a credible equal to Peter Parker.  As much as I disliked the first climax of Amazing 2, Emma Stone gave Stacy a strong backbone and unwillingness to recede in the face of danger, ultimately helping Andrew Garfield's Spider-Man come out on top of Electro.  But instead of allowing this relationship to grow and play off of Stone and Garfield's considerable chemistry, Webb and Columbia held faithful to the comics canon that much like Spider-Man cannot exist without a dead Uncle Ben, he cannot exist without a dead Gwen Stacy.  What makes Gwen's death so terrible in the second climac is that it is so sadistic in the way it plays with audience expectations over the course of an agonizingly long free-fall.  Instead of the rushed death of Uncle Ben we get the drawn-out demise of Gwen, killing the only great thing to come out of the Amazing series, and rebuke to the boys club that these superhero films are, all to uphold the comics' canon.

With the future of the Amazing series delayed, I hope, probably against hope, that the extra time is spent not on just padding out the Amazing universe with tie-ins, but with promising deviations from the norm.  The latest news from Sony, who distributes the Amazing franchise, about making a female-centered Spider-man spinoff film is only mildly encouraging considering the quality of the films that I have seen so far.  Still, as this news and the latest X-Men film show, it's not all predictable gloom in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Now here's a pleasant surprise.

Now here's a pleasant surprise.

Unlike my experience with Guardians of the Galaxy's trailer there was little in the preview for X-Men: Days of Future Past that gave me hope.  I was not a big fan of First Class, because even though it didn't strictly hew to the comics' canon, it was still a safe story that transported the veiled Civil Rights struggle of the X-Men world into a mostly dull Greatest Hits version of Bryan Singer's X2.  The trailer for DoFP looked, at best, dire, featuring a bunch of glum characters standing around ominous landscapes while the welcome, if a bit tired, tones of Patrick Stewart gave dire proclamations about the future.

But, by god, DoFP is something glorious to behold.  I am aware that it took four previous X-Men films to get to this point, but the free verse plotting of DoFP would work just as well on its own.  Instead of making sure every character relationship in the past films is cleanly laid out, Singer jumps straight into the X-Men universe without a steady guide.  As a result he ends up creating the most compelling Marvel cinematic entry of 2014, a hodge-podge of colorful pop art with strong colors, fun historical tinkering, massive battles filled with distinct characters, and a status quo that is actually questioned then radically altered by the actions we witness.  Sacrifice is not something that teaches an easy lesson to be forgotten by the next scene, but a radical tool that culminates in hard steps toward equality and harmony between humans and mutants.  It's also not all dour struggles, but stops to enjoy some downright fun and creative scenes, like the loopy Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) sequences where he demolishes an ambush by playing an impish role I hoped would have been present through Guardians.

This is one of the few films that gives me hope when friends and media commentators say that it's a good time to be a geek.  "To what end?" I wonder.  There has, at least in cinema, never been a bad time to be a geek, especially one in the 18-40 white male demographic that all of these movies are targeted to.  Does it mean that we'll end up with more once-adventurous minority assassins who end up subservient to a white captain like in Guardians, or will instead diversity grow to include characters of all shapes and sizes that have their own agency like in DoFP and The Winter Soldier?  Yes, there are still considerable issues with the diversity and ideas on display in both, but at least they're taking steps in the right direction.  The positive steps in creativity with DoFP seem to be continuing with diversity through production studio 20th Century Fox, whose Fantastic Four reboot courted geek fury when they cast the excellent Michael B. Jordan (Chronicle, Fruitvale Station) as The Human Torch.

Change is not an automatically good thing and growing pains are part of any refocusing attempt, but it would be healthy for the MCU to take at least some tentative steps in that direction.  We're set to be hit with waves of sequels, nearly a dozen between now and 2018 from the MCU alone, all the while the demographic makeup of America will keep changing in a way that the MCU is not handling.  I want to think better of the MCU, and not that they'd give us a story about Miles Morales or Kamala Khan just because there's an untapped supply of cash out there, or because anti-government sentiment is getting so high that agitprop is the only solution - but because their stories reflect the radically diverse world that exists, one that can grow and become stronger, not the one that is propped up by Tony Stark and Friends every time the status quo is threatened or sanitizes rebels like the Guardians of the Galaxy.

I have hope, and wish that to be reflected in the media we consume and produce.  If it means taking a few disappointments to balance out the occasional triumph, then that's what is needed.  Until then, it was a better year for Marvel than I expected though that was one low hurdle to clear and still stumbled a bit in the leap.

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Guardians of the Galaxy

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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The Amazing Spider-Man 2

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X-Men: Days of Future Past

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