Watch as Marvel Takes Over the Galaxy

Like Rocket—a genetically engineered, cybernetically enhanced raccoon—Guardians of the Galaxy is a strange beast. Wanting to make a little cash, Rocket and his talking tree-buddy Groot try to collect a bounty on that guy from Parks and Recreation (and Zero Dark Thirty [Chris Pratt]). But the human, who wishes he were known as Star-Lord, not only has a 40,000 unit bounty on his head, but a softball-sized orb of power that every bigwig in the galaxy wants to steal or buy. Gamora, a femme fatale working for her supervillain step-daddy, crashes the party as Rocket and Groot try to bag Star-Lord, and all four go to jail, where they meet a musclebound literalist named Drax (whose stilted take on English sounds like those foreign dudes from Family Guy). Following in the wake of critically acclaimed comic book adaptations like Iron Man and The Avengers, Guardians represents an emphatic stake by Marvel Studios on the genre of comedy. It’s still a sprawling action movie, complete with boilerplate plot, senseless acts of violence, and large-scale digital destruction. But make no mistake: Guardians of the Galaxy is a riot, and Marvel’s master plan to take over Hollywood is well under way.

Much of the levity of the movie comes from the unremitting irony of its soundtrack.  Taken alone this collection of songs might be the most pandering soundtrack in the history of cinema. But the songs are tearily justified by the script, and it’s hard not to be amused by scenes of alien worlds and sleek technology overlaid with some of the catchiest songs of the seventies and eighties. Most are played for maximum dissonance, such as “The Piña Colada Song” during the team’s desperate escape from prison. One track sets the mood for a romantic moment—until Star-Lord starts talking about Kevin Bacon and Gamora kicks him in the balls.  The montage preceding the conventionally epic final battle is set to “Cherry Bomb” by The Runaways, which serves as a reminder that just because it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck doesn’t mean it’s punk rock (although Joan Jett is still in there somewhere). Like the Runaways, this film shows betrays a crass yet calculated commercialism, the raison d’etre of some some white male hegemonies in L.A. It fails the Bechdel test, it features little racial diversity, it suffers from obvious white savior syndrome as Star-Lord ‘dudes’ and ‘bros’ his way through the quadrant and finally wins the heart of the lady. Brutal violence against blue-collar humanoids is perpetrated with nary a moral qualm, despite young Star-Lord, in a 1988 prologue, standing up to frog-smushers at school and getting a black eye for his trouble.

Meanwhile, the strength of the film emerges from the interactions of the characters. Just like in The Avengers, banter between well-drawn team members saves the film from the meaninglessness of its blockbuster body plan. Rocket Raccoon becomes the surprising anchor of the story; he is an ingenious and violent freak, a perpetual outsider, a victim of ridicule and prejudice, an angry, embittered anthropomorph who ultimately doesn’t mind being pet a little. Voiced to great effect by Bradley Cooper, Rocket is not only visually believable, but emotionally credible as well. Rocket’s connection with his magical tree friend is the deepest in the story. Yet Vin Diesel, though well-billed as Groot, could probably have left his voice work on an answering machine.

As for the science, its totally non-existent. The universe is said to have formed from six singularities each leaving behind a differently-colored ‘infinity stone’—which might satisfy a cabalist, but not an astronomer. The purple stone, contained within Star-Lord’s orb, propels the plot: it destroys all organic matter on contact, oh and also it can only be wielded by beings of supreme power.  Luckily Star-Lord’s mom had sex with an angel and he’s only half human, allowing him, with some extra help from his team, to save a world that looks suspiciously like Elysium (or, for that matter, SHIELD HQ)—which is to say, so rich and polished that it could only have been built on the back of extreme poverty and ghettoization. Star-Lord’s angel DNA may also explain why he can space-walk without a suit. Of course, the term ‘science fiction’ is hardly applicable to a film like this. Its closest cinematic relative is The Fifth Element (1997). We’re talking the iconography of SF taken to extremes of fantasy and humor.

Crucially, despite the trappings of space opera, this film is set in 2014, and Earth is somewhere in the distance. This places the Guardians into the same diegetic space and time as the Avengers, Iron Man, the Hulk, Captain America, and Thor. The prospects for character and genre recombination in the Marvel Cinematic Universe are dizzying. With principal actors like Mark Ruffalo, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Downey Jr., and Scarlett Johansson, rising superstars like Chris Pratt, venerable old pros like Glenn Close and Robert Redford (in the surprisingly astute security-state criticism Captain America: The Winter Soldier) plus talented and familiar actors everywhere you look, Marvel has the star power to back its pantheon of freaks and heroes. Next to join the milieu is comedian Paul Rudd in Ant-Man, which truly boggles the mind. We can only be thankful that the X-Men and Spiderman have their own ‘cinematic universes’ to inhabit (Marvel having sold the rights to other studios).

It doesn’t matter if you’ve never read the comics: if you like movies, you might love what Marvel is doing. At a time when visual effects artists can accomplish anything, cinema is the next level of comic books as a medium for making fantastical stories and images. Some of Marvel’s films have been amazing, and I can’t wait to see what’s next. The audience agrees: applauding the end of the film, then sitting through the credits to catch a glimpse of the future—which also walks like a duck, but quacks like something entirely different.

MCU Must See:
Iron Man (2008)
The Avengers (2012)
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2013)
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)


Spoiler Alert: Ender’s Game

This movie was already spoiled for me because I read the book many years ago.  But the movie can’t help but spoil itself.  It’s a great film and one of the best adaptations of a novel to ever appear onscreen, but if you really know nothing about Ender’s Game, and can read at a 9th grade level, honestly go read the book first.  If you have time.

The problem is that by the time of Ender’s “final exam,” it’s hard to imagine anyone in the audience sympathizing with Ender’s shock that he hasn’t really been playing a video game; he and his tween friends have been controlling actual spaceships killing actual aliens by the billions.  The immersive, CGI photorealism of the game just looks too real; the audience can’t help but accept it as real.  The “simulation” in this film looks the same as diegetic reality in other Hollywood blockbusters!  And we have been trained to suspend our disbelief!  In other words, the photorealism of the battle simulations undermines the premise that they’re not for real.

Commanding a battle from his combination IMAX and holodeck, surrounded by his subcommanders and fighter pilots, Ender can control a disembodied point-of-view at will.  This POV has no physical or temporal limitations; it is seemingly omnipotent and all-seeing.  This suggests that within the diegetic universe, the images really were simulated from live data feeds, unless the hawkish grown-ups have a magical flying camera transmitting video by ansible.  But to the naked eye, could anyone, real or fictitious, distinguish between this graphic simulation and a live video feed?  To the genius Ender, who’s used to playing with Shrek-like graphics on his iPad, doesn’t the life-likeness raise suspicion?

Orson Scott Card, who wrote Ender’s Game in 1985, was also a producer on this film.  The film stays true to to the book without ever feeling burdened: it manages to recreate the key episodes and characters and tie them together in a way that evokes the emotion and meaning of the original novel.  The only drawback here is that things have to happen a little too fast to fit within two hours.  In the book, it comes as a shock that midway through his supposed education, he has already won the war!  In the movie, we know it’s time for a climax.

One highlight of this film is the training room, a weightless 3-d solarium with re-arrangeable blocks.  The students play a version of capture the flag with paralytic suits and light guns, thinking in three dimensions, as they would in a space battle, to beat the other team.  It would have been great to see more of these scenes and some of the ingenious tactics dreamed up by Card in the novel.  As there was recently in Gravity, there are some well-timed push-offs and counter-rotations to get our protagonist sailing toward the right aperture.  And there is one formation that Ender later uses to win the war.

P.S. If you’re wondering why I didn’t spoil Gravity, it was just too fuzzy and wholesome.  But if you want to see every space spation, shuttle and valuable piece of technology in orbit get shredded by debris travelling at 20,000 miles per hour, you should see Gravity.  Also if you believe in Murphy’s Law you should see Gravity.

P.P.S. The moral of Ender’s Game is that ants are people too, so think about that the next time you reach for a can of poison.