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Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

It really feels like Marvel Studios can do just about anything. Back when it was announced as a film, Guardians of the Galaxy felt like a risk, an out-of-the-blue change in direction. Most franchises prefer to play it safe, sticking with the recognized story and character beats known to work. But Marvel’s big idea dreamers do not rest on their laurels. They looked outward from the world of the Avengers and began to pull in more threads from the greater universe. But they’ve done this before – several years ago, Iron Man was relatively obscure in comparison to other superheroes that have graced the silver screen, and now Tony Stark and Robert Downey Jr are practically synonymous. Marvel takes chances. They try new things. And they went back to the well of obscurity and elevated a band of five cosmic misfits into this summer’s most anticipated blockbuster.

Courtesy Marvel Studios

Peter Quill was eight years old when he got abducted from his homeworld. Having grown up among a rather nasty band of pirates called the Ravagers, the Terran is on the trail of a mysterious orb people are paying good money to acquire. There are also those who would rather kill than pay: Ronan the Accuser, a Kree extremist, dispatches one of his chief lackey, Korath the Pursuer, to retrieve the orb. Quill (who for some reason calls himself ‘Star-Lord’) escapes to Xandar, home of Ronan’s enemies. Ronan sets the assassin Gamora on the trail, while the Ravagers post a bounty for Quill, a hefty sum saught by Rocket (an enhanced raccoon) and his best friend Groot. When they wind up in prison together, along with a well-spoken but driven maniac named Drax, they hatch a scheme to escape and split the reward for the orb, even as Ronan hunts them down.

As a complete, start-to-finish film, Guardians of the Galaxy has a consistent and strong storyline that is not difficult to follow. Its tone has a tendency to vary, but that is definitely a strength rather than a weakness. James Gunn, director of Slither and Super, is just as adept with comedy as he is with emotional scenes heavy with pathos. In the final equation, it balances out extremely well. The heavier scenes pulls us into sympathetic embraces with our characters, and their comedic turns let off some of the pressure to pave the way for more antics and action.

Courtesy Marvel Studios
Something tells me they don’t want to talk about having a personal relationship with Galactus.

These characters, in addition, are definitely worthy of their places in Marvel’s cinematic universe. In particular, I was very happy with Gamora’s characterization. In my previous discussion, purely based on some erroneous conjecture, I feared that she would exist as the ‘token girl’ and disappoint in doing little more than rolling her eyes at the tomfoolery of the males. Thankfully, she is very much her own character, with agency, drive, and independence, from start to finish. I was wrong in what I said before; I couldn’t be happier to admit that. What we see on screens is most definitely the deadliest woman in the galaxy, and Zoe Saldana brings her to vibrant, captivating life.

The two CG characters, Rocket and Groot, are incredibly well-realized. Rocket, in particular, is a wonder just to behold. While we’ve seen mo-cap characters before, Rocket is easily believable with his attitude, outlook, pain, and power. You actually feel something for the little guy. Similiarly, Groot conveys a great deal without saying more than a few words. His expressions, actions, and presence all speak to an individual that means well, and that can’t help but stand out in light of other characters behaving in very selfish ways. As for Drax, I definitely need to see the movie again because I swear I missed some of his loquacious dialog in the middle of all the ray-guns and explosions. I like what they’ve done with him and I’m eager to see more.

Courtesy Marvel Studios
“I’d flash you my business card, but my hands are too full of guns.”

The glue holding the entire endeavour together, however, is Chris Pratt as Peter Quill. This man is going to be very busy in the years to come. He carries the mantle of leading man very well. His performance draws out the best in the cast around him, and he very much gets both what motivates his character and how the audience can relate to him. Under the flippant demeanor and die-hard nostalgia is some very real pain and more than a couple unresolved issues, and as I mentioned before, the whole film exists in the same balance between the two feelings. Both the actor and the story do more than just walk that line, however; they outright dance on it.

I could spend a lot more time discussing the villains, universe, and greater implications of Guardians of the Galaxy, as it is a surprisingly dense film in terms of lore and setting. There is a huge universe implied in almost every shot of the movie, and I am merely scratching the surface. What I will say is this: we have not had a romp through space like this since Serenity, and even that had a rather intimate scope within which to tell its tale. In many ways, Guardians of the Galaxy is the direct opposite of the previous Marvel film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but that just makes them two sides of the same excellent coin. The previous film was a powerful story of intrigue and personal trial with a very modern bent; this one is a deliberate throwback to more whimsical tales like Flash Gordon or Star Wars, but bearing extremely modern sensibilities. The universe we behold has a very lived-in feel, is filled with color and wonder, and clearly contains perils and unknown terrors that are ripe for the exploration. It expands Marvel’s cinematic arm exponentially, and gives us just the right mix of heroes and villains to leave us wanting more.

Courtesy Marvel Studios
Even minor characters have distinct personalities and memorable traits.

As a movie-goer and erstwhile critic, I would say Guardians of the Galaxy is exemplary science-fiction action-adventure storytelling that I unreservedly recommend. As a long-standing fan of the comics, particularly since I picked it up back when Dan Abnett was starting to write the team we see on screen, I could not be happier. Much like our first real shot of the Avengers, seeing these misfits, murderers, and makers of mayhem come to vibrant life tugs at all of the right strings in my heart. Guardians of the Galaxy is exactly what you want and precisely what we need in the middle of summer surrounded by drek and drudgery: a damn good time at the movies. It is definitely worth seeing. Just don’t be surprised if you do, in fact, get hooked on a feeling.

Return of the Jedi (or possibly Sith)

Courtesy LucasArts

Maybe it’s because I’m hopeful Guardians of the Galaxy evokes the old feelings of wonder that came with A New Hope. Maybe it’s the discovery of the excellent X-Wing Miniatures game. Maybe it’s just nostalgia. But whatever the cause, I have been on a sizable Star Wars kick lately, and a big part of that is the time I’ve been spending in Star Wars: The Old Republic.

I did a first impressions post a few years ago when the game was in beta, and upon reflection, I ended up being a bit harsh in the name of blunting my nostalgia. I think leaning towards objectivity is good for anybody looking to present a review of entertainment for a wide audience, but I think it would have been okay if I had talked more about my curiosity and excitement about a new facet of the universe opening up and less about the clunky mechanics and the opinions of non-fans.

Playing it now, I’m definitely hooked. I’m curious to see where the various stories go. I’m doing my utmost to avoid spoilers, and I’m actually enjoying the quest structure. It doesn’t feel like a grind – I’ve never had more than two or three quests in my log at any given time. “Kill X amount of Y” only pops up as a bonus, and since I get jumped by uppity bunches of Y on my way to the objective anyway, why not pull in a little extra XP? It does still have a lot of mechanical similarities to World of Warcraft, but the little differences do more than their fair share in setting the game apart. The bottom line is, even moreso now than back in the game’s beta days, I see potential.

I think that’s been what keeps Star Wars a positive thing in my mind. For all of its flaws and missteps, the universe Lucas created has always contained the potential for truly great storytelling. The military sci-fi bent of Rogue Squadron stories, the antiquated feel of Tales of the Jedi, the way Dark Forces felt like so much more than a DOOM clone because you were stealing the Death Star plans… I could go on. Lucas may not be the best director or a very good scriptwriter, but the seeds he sowed almost 40 years ago were in very fertile ground indeed.

I’m interested in exploring the Edge of the Empire RPG, probably after I move, if I can rope my new housemates into it. I’m expanding my collection of X-Wing Miniatures. I’m going to play a lot more of The Old Republic. And I am keeping a wary eye on this new film of theirs. While I don’t agree with the official word ejecting the expanded universe as canon, JJ Abrams has always been more of a whiz-bang director than the intellectual contemplation that Star Trek really demands. In spite of my cautious curiosity, though, one thing is certainly clear.

Star Wars is back in my life. I enjoy Star Wars quite a bit. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Ongoing Progress

Test Pattern

I will be the first to admit that I am a work in progress. The person I am now is not the person I want to be, and I have goals I continue to work and struggle towards. The work is not always clean, and nowhere near as ordered as I would like. Change does not happen overnight. I still have a solid idea of how I want my schedule to look, but I can’t flip a switch and make that happen, unfortunately.

With a pending cross-country move, loose ends to tie up here, and all sorts of other obligations and diversions, it’s been difficult to nail things down and stick with them. More than anything, though, I’m trying not to focus on my failures. I’d much rather spend my time setting up for future success, even if it means my goals aren’t being realized as expediently as I would like.

I’m simply trying to keep myself honest and moving forward. Not to mention sane. I’m hopeful that, by this time next month, the path forward will be clearer, and something that I have defined for myself.

It’s never too late to start over, to try again. It’s only quitting if you stop trying.

Is Social Media A Necessary Evil?

Courtesy andrebarcinski.blogfolha.uol.com.br

Social media, and our means of interfacing with it, continues to grow. From evolving platforms like Fourspring becoming Swarm, to applications proliferating all over phones and tablets, it feels almost like an infiltration. Lives have been changed because of social media, even damaged. It could be argued that social media does more harm than good. But is that really the case?

Digial delivery systems for media, be they stories or critiques or commentary or something entirely new, require unique methods of finding audiences by their very nature. Most up-and-coming content creators do not have the capital to line up advertising budgets. Success and failure depends almost entirely on word of mouth. The nature of the Internet, and by extension, social media, means that those words can be transmitted to a multitude of ears far more efficiently and quickly than normal modes of conversation. 140 characters may not sound like much, but with persistence and the right timing, they can be just as effective as the biggest billboards lining a superhighway.

There’s also the fact that social media allows people to remain in touch over very long distances and through shifting circumstances. Moreso than phone or emails, social media allows for immediate connections, and immediate feedback. That’s part of its power, and a big portion of its curse. You can’t take back what you say, especially on social media. The more you try to cover up or remove, the worse things look for you. Just ask any number of the independent game developers that try to make negative reviews of their games go away.

In the end, social media is a tool. For connectivity, for promotion, for information – it is a means to an end. Those ends can and do vary from person to person, from goal to goal. It is difficult for me to believe that any permutation of social media was created with any sort of malicious or damaging intent. Like so many things on the Internet, we’re talking about about information. Information, if you’ll pardon the old cliche, is power. The uses and abuses of that power are their own animals. Social media itself is not to blame. I cannot subscribe to that interpretation.

That said, it can impede things. It can distract, detract, and even disrupt. Sometimes, stepping away from the whole mess is the correct course of action. I don’t think anybody can or should be blamed for making that decision. However, for all of its flaws, all of the dust-ups and all of the feet finding their way into mouths, social media is not the enemy. I find it hard to believe that a tool that keeps people connected, spreads unfiltered information, and allows for new breeds of entertainment to find voices they wouldn’t otherwise, has something inherently wrong with it. I know some would call social media a ‘necessary evil’. But I am not sold on the ‘evil’ part.

Bring Out Your Dead

Courtesy HBO & GRRM

Writers are murderers. This is an established fact. But I would contend that only bad writers kill characters on a whim, “just because”. If you look at good writing, a character death is never accidental, never flippant. It’s a calculated move. And, if you’re attached to said character or characters, after the initial shock, if you think about it, you can nod and say “Yes, that was a good death.”

Spoilers ahead, obviously.

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Quite a few character deaths are, unfortunately, are a means of raising the stakes. Joss Whedon has a habit of doing this. From Shepard Book and Wash in Serenity to Coulson in The Avengers, the death of characters is a sudden gut-punch that knocks the wind out of the audience for a moment and demonstrates that things are serious, and deadly. Our pathos shoots up for those left behind. We feel raw loss at the same time as the surviving characters, and while this can sometimes feel like manipulation on the writer’s part, the effect is undeniable.

Character deaths are even better when they are the result of character decisions and actions, cause and effect, leading to that terminal point. I think of The Wire as a good example of this. Some of the character deaths may seem senseless, in one case even random, but a moment’s thought puts the violence in context, and the realization comes that every bullet is the final result of a series of choices made by the characters. Especially since good writers go out of their way to realize their characters as people, we can understand why those decisions were made, even if we don’t agree with them.

A Song Of Ice And Fire is notorious for character deaths, but here is another example of characters dying more as a result of deicions made by themselves or others, rather than seemingly at the whim of the author. The deaths are just as calculated, but the arithmetic is obscured by deep characterization and excellent dialog. Consider the death of Tywin Lannister. Here is a man who had power and ambition, but also cunning and charisma. He definitely made enemies, and burned a lot of bridges, but for a while, he seemed almost untouchable. But many of the decisions he made were disadvantageous for his second son, Tyrion. He underestimated the fury and calculation of his malformed child, and even when the terminal point was reached, Tywin’s pride does not allow for him to do anything other than confront Tyrion directly and boldly. Neither man backs down and, in the end, it’s the one with the crossbow that walks away.

So. Character deaths. Let’s talk about them. What has stood out in your mind as a good death for characters? Which have seemed pointless, or badly executed? How powerful is death when applied from a writer’s toolbox?