Avengers: Endgame (2019)

Oh boy oh boy oh boy! It’s here! It’s finally here! We’re in the Endgame now. All good things must come to an end, after all.

Speaking of all good things, remember how that was the title of the series finale for Star Trek: The Next Generation? And how that episode showed our dearly beloved Captain Picard visiting the past and the future, solving a mystery that spanned decades and giving the audience a chance to revisit where that series had started and where it could go in the future, while also putting a nice little bow on the journey of Picard and his cohort? Going into Endgame, I had the same feeling, and as it turns out, this was intentional, going as far back as last March, when Marvel Films bigwig Kevin Feige cited “All Good Things … ” as an influence on this latest (last?) Avengers picture. So for once, I’m not just inserting a Star Trek reference where it doesn’t belong; it’s relevant.

Here there by spoilers! You have been warned! There’s virtually no way to talk about this movie without them, so saddle up buckaroos.

The film opens exactly as Infinity War ends, with Hawkeye/Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) at a family picnic teaching his daughter archery. He turns his back for a moment and looks back, only to find that his entire family has been raptured turned to ash as part of Thanos (Josh Brolin)’s stupid, stupid plan to end scarcity across the universe by killing half of all living things. (This is also the plan of Kodos the Executioner from the classic Star Trek episode “The Conscience of the King,” because you should know by now that you can’t trust me not to insert Star Trek references were they don’t belong from time to time as well.) Three weeks later, the devastated remains of the team, Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and War Machine/Rhodey (Don Cheadle) are joined by the only surviving Guardian of the Galaxy, Rocket (Bradley Cooper) in their existential depression. Luckily, Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and his companion Nebula (Karen Gillan) are found in deep space by Captain Marvel/Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) just in time to prevent their suffocation, and she brings the two back to earth. With Nebula’s help, they locate Thanos’s little retirement farm and head straight there to retrieve the Infinity Stones and bring back everyone who was raptured dusted. When they get there, however, they learn that Thanos has already destroyed the Stones to prevent exactly this thing; Thor beheads the mad titan unceremoniously.

Five years later, people are still struggling. Struggling with depression, struggling with moving on. Cap goes to group counseling meetings. Natasha keeps the mechanisms of the Avengers in place, coordinating efforts to keep the peace, overseeing outreach and relief. Captain Marvel’s in deep space, helping the planets that don’t have the benefit of superheroes looking after them. Banner has managed to reconcile his two selves and lives full time as an intelligent Hulk. Tony has retired to a lakehouse with wife Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) and adorable daughter Morgan. And Ant-Man/Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is still stuck in the Phantom Zone Quantum Realm until his equipment is accidentally reactivated, popping him back out into the regular world so that he can have a tearful reunion with now-teenage daughter Cassie (Emma Fuhrmann) and heads to Avengers headquarters, where he tells Cap and Natasha that it’s only been five hours for him, not years. With help from a hesitant Tony, the team works out how to use the Ant-Man equipment to stage an elaborate “time heist,” plucking the Infinity Stones out of time to recreate Thanos’s gauntlet and undo the damage he wrought. It’s “All Good Things … ”! But Marvel! And I cried! I really did!

You don’t need the ins and outs of how all this shakes out. There’s that Marvel house style of comedy that you’ve come to know and (probably) love, coupled with the emotional devastation that you would expect in a world where half of the population has disappeared. Clint’s taken on the Ronin persona from the comics (although this codename is never used on screen), tracking down and murdering criminals as the result of having no moral tether after the loss of his family. Scott’s headlong run across San Francisco to try and find his daughter only to discover a memorial to the lost, which he searches frantically in the hopes that her name won’t be there. Natasha puts on a brave face, but you can tell that she counts every life lost as red in her ledger (she clears every crimson drop by the end of the movie, and then some). An unnamed grief-stricken man in Cap’s support group recounts a first date with another man; they both break down in tears over the course of the evening, but this is the status quo now, so they’re seeing each other again (so, you know, the post-snap world isn’t all bad).

The time travel premise lets us revisit past events from new perspectives, which makes for a lot of fun to counterbalance all that drear. This includes contemporary smart Hulk having to act like his brutish past self, much to his embarrassment and consternation. Tony’s interactions with his daughter are adorable, and went a long way toward making him more relatable and likable, especially after I’ve been pretty anti-Iron Man for a while. One of the most moving parts of the movie also comes as a result of its comedic elements; we learn that the remaining refugees from Asgard have set up a “New Asgard,” where a broken Thor has retired and let himself go (he’s got pretty standard dad-bod, but the internet has reacted as if he looks like Pearl from Blade, just in case you were wondering if bodyshaming was still a thing). Once the heist kicks off, this means that Thor and Rocket have to travel to the time of Thor: The Dark World to get the Aether from Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), giving our favorite Asgardian hunk a chance to have an affirming heart-to-heart with his departed mother Frigga (Rene Russo), retroactively adding more depth to her character in a lovely way.

I’m burying the lede, though, since what really matters about all these time travel shenanigans is that we get to see Peggy (Hayley Atwell) again. PEGGY! As soon as there was a wrinkle in the time plan and they mentioned having to go back to the seventies, I knew where we were headed and could barely contain my excitement. If I remember nothing else from this movie on my deathbed, I will remember the thrill of seeing Peggy one last time (and then again). That doesn’t even include the fact that Tony gets to have a nice moment with his father (John Slattery), too, and that there are appearances from every character.

Look, this is the perfect capstone for this franchise. If there were never another MCU film, it would be totally fine, because as a finale, this is pitch perfect. Every important and semi-important character (other than Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia, because she was presumably busy shooting Us) gets a moment to shine, as the Snap is undone (come on, you knew it would be). There’s even a moment where every living lady hero from the entire MCU is onscreen at once, and it is delightful, although I’m sure the internet is already full of comments about how it was “forced” or “cheesy,” but I don’t feed trolls and I try not to cross the bridges that they live under, so I wouldn’t know. But, as the people behind the MCU have noted, this is a finale, not the finale. We get to say our goodbyes to many of our favorites, but the future is in good hands with Falcon/Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) taking up the mantle and shield of Captain America, Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) taking her place as the new leader of the Asgardians in diaspora, and the possibility of future adventures of Pepper Potts as the heir apparent to Iron Man. The future is now, and it couldn’t be brighter.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

A Star is Born (2018)

I was almost an hour into A Star is Born when I realized Oscar Season had truly started, because it was then that a very familiar, mildly unpleasant feeling washed over me: I was pressured into watching a competently made, exceptionally performed 3-star drama opening weekend because of its value in the discourse, not because I was especially excited to see it. This fourth iteration of the classic Hollywood tale of fame, jealousy, and tragic romance is a decent movie packed with great performances, one that’s destined to sour in audiences’ collective memory as it’s over-praised in the next four months of Oscars lead-up. Great effort will be made to land Lady Gaga a (perhaps deserved) Academy Award for Best Actress and Bradley Cooper a (not at all deserved) Best Director statue; and the best possible outcome in either case is that they fall just short of winning, so that they don’t suffer significant critical blowback for being overdiscussed & overexamined. Frankly, I find this stretch of the cinematic year to be the most exhausting & unfulfilling, a feeling that hit me about halfway into this totally okay, already overpraised melodrama.

Whether you’ve seen this story play out before with Barbara Streisand, Judy Garland, or (if you’re a thousand years old) Janet Gaynor in the lead, the basic narrative structure of A Star is Born is too familiar to require recounting in a review. The most interesting creative decision Bradly Cooper makes as this version’s auteurist voice is in acknowledging that familiarity by allowing his players to color as freely as they wish within those lines. The entire film boasts an improv looseness in its performances, which are freed up by the rigid structure of its narrative to search for tossed-off, believably natural tones. Drunken (and deliberately unflattering) conversations between Cooper & Gaga’s leads in the film’s early, pre-fame stretch are especially impressive in their immediacy & cavalier looseness. Domestic home life exchanges of overlapping dialogue lovingly shouted between Gaga & Andrew Dice Clay (playing Gaga’s father) also land with a pleasant naturalism, even recalling the similar home life snapshots of the Oscar-winning Cher classic Moonstruck. Unfortunately, that exceptional-performances-contained-by-an-unexceptional-premise dynamic wears thin by the time the film demands that you emotionally commit to its melodrama, especially when Cooper pretends he has something useful to say about that authenticity instead of just letting it be.

Part of the reason I could already feel myself getting exhausted with Oscar Season discourse halfway into A Star is Born is that I was preemptively starting to have very strong, negative takes on how it handles its music industry subject matter, where the material isn’t distinct or daring enough to support that passionate of a reaction. I found the dichotomy Cooper establishes between meaningful, “Authentic” rock-country Americana vs. supposedly frivolous, high-gloss pop music to be gross, especially since the gruff nostalgia & macho guitar noodling that was supposed to stand for good, Authentic art is not at all my cup of tea. Lady Gaga’s drag bar Edith Piaf covers & high-production SNL performances of pop songs about butts struck me as far superior art when compared to the singer-songwriter ballads Cooper’s character “elevates” her to when they collab as a romantic & creative couple, which is the exact opposite of what the film was attempting to convey. I could feel myself getting increasingly angry with the movie’s macho, old-fashioned attacks on the high-gloss, traditionally femme corners of pop music (where Gaga cut her teeth as a performer in real life) for being in-Authentic, until I had a post-screening epiphany: it ultimately doesn’t matter. The movie is too modest in its artistic goals & achievements to justify any real, substantial umbrage; I was just forming a strong take on the subject because of its Importance in the discourse.

Someone with a much kinder ear for the proto-country Dad-rock Cooper & Gaga perform as a duo in the film will likely have a much easier time swallowing its attacks on the Authenticity of high-gloss pop music than I did. Even if not, the improv looseness of the film’s early, pre-popshaming stretch (including brief appearances from RuPaul’s Drag Race vets Shangela & Willam) is infectiously charming, enough so that it carries the film though much of its second-half rough patches. It’s just much easier to enjoy the film for those performance-specific touches once you divorce it from the context of Oscars talk. A Star is Born is a good movie boosted by excellent performances, but also one hindered by more than a few thematic disappointments (the pop music patronizing is where I personally fixated & soured, but there’s plenty more grossness to pick at elsewhere). The more it’s lauded as the cinematic achievement of the year, something that absolutely must be seen by all, the worse its memory will fare in the ether. That is, until this year’s Oscars statues are doled out and the merits of the performances are all we remember. And then the whole cycle starts over again next October, if not earlier, with the first high-profile melodrama of the Fall. Honestly, I’m already a little tired of that movie too.

-Brandon Ledet

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

The gang is back with a few new faces this time around in Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2, with director James Gunn returning to the helm of the weirdest series in the MCU franchise. Although there are a few missteps this outing, including a lack of screentime for some of your old favorites, violence that is at turns disturbingly unexamined in its brutality when it’s not cartoonish, and hit-or-miss emotional resonance, this second installment reminds us that Guardians is still the funniest and most charming Marvel property currently being produced.

After a flashback opening sequence that shows a CGI de-aged Kurt Russell planting a strange alien plant on Earth in 1980s Missouri while romancing Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) mother, the film finds the team performing a mission to protect the extremely powerful batteries of a race known as the Sovereign from theft by a gross, fleshy tentacle monster (its essentially Caucasian flesh tones and stubble make the thing quite nauseating to gaze upon, as it looks like a scrotum come to life). This first action sequence felt a little off to me, as the obsession Rocket (Bradley Cooper) has with getting Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) music ready before they fight seemed a rather on-the-nose tip of the hat to the popularity of the first movie’s soundtrack. As the action primarily occurs in the background, the camera follows Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) around the platform in a one-shot that’s impressive despite being largely CGI.

We then meet our decoy antgonist, the High Priestess of the Sovereign (Elizabeth Debicki), as she presents the Guardians with their payment for the successful defense of their batteries, a captured Nebula (Karen Gillam), who is to be taken back to Xandar by her sister Gamora (Zoe Saldana) for the bounty on her head. The team is pursued by the Sovereign as Rocket, unable to control his kleptomania, made off with Sovereign tech; as a result, the team is forced to crash land in a forest after taking heavy damage and ultimately being rescued by Ego (Russell) and his servant Mantis (Pom Klementieff), an empath who helps the powerful being sleep. After revealing his familiar connection to Peter, Ego offers to take him, Gamora, and Drax (Dave Bautista) to his planet to explain his abnormal existence, and present Peter with a unique opportunity.

Elsewhere, Yondu (Michael Rooker) faces an existential dilemma when it is revealed that he and his squad are outcasts in the greater Ravager community, in a way that ties back to his essentially having raised Peter after abducting him, moments after the boy watched his mother die. He accepts a bounty for the Guardians from the Sovereign, but when his crew learns that he did so in order to protect them rather than hunt them, they mutiny, taking over his ship and freeing Nebula, who goes after Gamora in pursuit of revenge. Rocket, Groot, and Yondu must then attempt escape, with a little help from everybody’s favorite Stars Hollow weirdo (Sean Gunn, whose character’s name is irrelevant, and we all know it).

There’s no Infinity Stone MacGuffin here, and it’s a real break from the MCU’s usual storytelling machine that the narrative of GotG 2 isn’t motivated by set pieces, action sequences, or even plot, but by character. The only real example of this in the franchise thus far has been Winter Soldier, which was motivated by Cap’s desires to save one friend and avenge another, but even that film was organized around the plot of a conspiracy thriller as much as (if not more than) character motivation. Here, however, every choice and conflict is about character. The conflict between Peter and Rocket centers around Rocket’s insecurities about whether or not he deserves to be part of a family, even if that family is a group of outlaws who found each other. The violence Nebula seeks against Gamora comes from an obsession with besting her sister out of misplaced jealousy and rage, without realizing that they are both survivors of the same abuse but who have allowed that past to push them in different directions. The interaction between Peter and his father gives rise to the film’s climax (although it feels the weakest to me, despite being the primary conflict). Yondu’s desire to right the moral failings of his past give him the longest character arc of the film, and even the comedy bits between Mantis and Drax, both fish out of water but from very different worlds, is display of character, rather than the needs of pushing the narrative forward.

This is an elegantly constructed movie, and it moves with such precision and humor that you’ll never feel bored. Still, it is odd that this is a movie with a protagonist character who readily admits to a lust not only for violence, but specifically of killing others, and he’s never really called out on it. I’m not necessarily opposed to the whimsical way one particular scene of what’s essentially a mass murder is treated, since this is a James Gunn movie that we’re talking about, but it feels odd, if not exactly wrong. The fact that this sequence follows another that has a distinct Looney Tunes feel to the violence simply makes it feel like something is out of place.

I’ll save my thoughts on the more spoilery content and the way that this film interacts with the rest of the MCU for our Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. review, but Guardians 2 gets an endorsement from me. It’s still the weird sci-fi comedy that you can recommend to your friend who doesn’t like superheroes. Also, be on the lookout for a cameo from Ben Browder, who portrayed the protagonist of Farscape (which was mentioned as a spiritual predecessor of Guardians in our Agents review), playing a member of the Sovereign and using his best Peacekeeper voice.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.: Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

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Superhero Watching: Alternating Marvel Perspectives, Fresh and Longterm, Ignoring X-Men, or S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X., is a feature in which Boomer (who reads superhero comics & is well versed in the MCU) & Brandon (who reads alternative comics & had, at the start of this project, seen less than 25% of the MCU’s output) revisit the films that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe from the perspective of someone who knows what they’re talking about & someone who doesn’t have the slightest clue.

Boomer: There was a great deal of consternation in the nerd and mainstream communities when Guardians of the Galaxy was first announced. Eagle-eyed viewers (and readers of Wizard) had already spotted an appearance by the Infinity Gauntlet in Odin’s weapons locker in Thor, and many had correctly guessed that the Tesseract that appeared in Captain America was one of the Infinity Gems, meaning that an adaptation or re-imagining of Marvel’s Infinity War storyline would eventually be on its way. With that in mind, there had to be a way to incorporate more of Marvel’s cosmic mythology into the MCU, but no one was certain which form this would take. Within the comics, space-based plotlines generally revolved around either the Shi’ar Empire or the Kree-Skrull War; neither of these two elements lent themselves to the MCU, however, because of the rights issues surrounding each. The Shi’ar are mostly linked to the mythology of the Phoenix Force (and thus the X-Men) and the Skrulls were a longtime recurring enemy of the Fantastic Four; with the film rights for both of those teams tied up at Twentieth Century Fox, there was much debate as to how the MCU would be able to address interstellar plots. Notably, Avengers had taken the Skrull stand-ins from the Ultimate books, the Chitauri, and made them the alien invaders in that film. Ultimately (no pun intended), the Kree play a role in this film, although the Skrulls go unmentioned.

Kevin Feige hinted in 2010 that a film bearing this title could be on its way, and confirmed in 2012 that the film was in production. Initial announcements named Peyton Reed as the director, although at that point his biggest successes were over ten years behind him, having helmed a few episodes of the last season of HBO’s terrific Mr. Show with Bob and David and 2000’s underrated Bring It On. Writing/Directing duo Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (the team behind Ryan Gosling vehicle Half Nelson) were also in talks to create the film and its world, but the project eventually found its way into the capable hands of James Gunn. Gunn only had two features under his belt as director, horror satire Slither and Rainn Wilson’s superhero pastiche dramedy Super, but the majority of his work was in writing, including the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake. Joss Whedon, director of The Avengers, was kept on by Marvel as a consultant for the films leading up to the (then untitled) sequel to the team-up film, and he was vocal in his excitement about Gunn’s hiring, citing the director’s enthusiasm and cinematic eye.

A virtual unknown, Nicole Perlman, was later announced as the film’s screenwriter. She had previously acted as an uncredited script doctor on a draft of Thor, and she was given free reign to choose which Marvel property she wanted to draft a script for, choosing Guardians because of her fondness for space opera. Although Disney’s screenwriting program no longer exists, Perlman was one of the last to graduate from it, and her script for Guardians was the only reason the film ended up being made, according to Variety in 2012; Senior Editor Marc Graser wrote at the time that Marvel “was high on” her initial script treatment. Since then, Perlman has admitted that she’s also written a draft of a potential Black Widow script that has yet to see the light of day, and she has also been announced as the screenwriter for the upcoming Captain Marvel film due out in 2019. Perlman’s name is also frequently banded about as the potential writer of a rumored reboot of Jim Henson cult classic Labyrinth (although talk of a reboot has largely died down in the wake of David Bowie’s recent passing). In the meantime, however, she has not one single IMDb entry that does not relate to the MCU, which is heartening considering what a boys club the franchise can seem to be at times.

Casting for the film’s default lead, Star Lord, began in September 2012, with a laundry list of people who tested or read for the role: Eddie Redmayne, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Joel Edgerton, Jack Huston, Michael Rosenbaum, and many, many others. Lee Pace also auditioned for the role, ending up instead slotted into the role of Ronan, the film’s main antagonist. Five months later, Marvel finally announced that they had found their man in Chris Pratt. Jason Momoa auditioned for the role of Drax, but he was passed over in favor of Dave Bautista (Momoa, of course, is slated to appear as Aquaman in DC’s upcoming attempted franchise). The nature of this new film meant that none of the MCU’s previously appearing characters could not reasonably make cameos in this film, although Buffyverse alum Alexis Denisof reprised his role as The Other, Thanos’s emissary who gave Loki his marching orders in Avengers. There was little publication surrounding other roles and testing for them, but the film’s cast was finalized by mid-2013 (minus Vin Diesel, whose vocal acting for Groot was only confirmed after the end of principal photography), and filming began in July of that year.

For those of you who have forgotten everything about the film except for a wisecracking raccoon and freshly-buff Chris Pratt being hosed down while flouncing about in underwear, a quick refresher: Young Peter Quill fled the hospital where his mother was dying in 1988 and was picked up by an alien ship. Years later, Quill (Pratt) acts as a scavenger in a fleet led by Yondu (Michael Rooker), a blue alien with an inexplicable Southern accent; he finds and takes a valuable item from a space tomb and ends up on the run from Kree radical Ronan (Pace). Multiple bounty hunters are sent to apprehend Quill, including Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his partner Groot (Diesel) and assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who was kidnapped from her home by intergalactic warlord Thanos (Josh Brolin) and trained as a killer. These four untethered people are eventually captured and detained in a space prison; when they escape, they are joined by fellow inmate Drax (Bautista), who has his own axe to grind with Ronan and Thanos. They are opposed by Ronan and Gamora’s warrior “sister” Nebula (Karen Gillan) and the police-like Nova Corps, led by Nova Prime (Glenn Close). These decidedly-not-team-players reluctantly accept that no one else is in a position to save the galaxy from total annihilation and rise to the challenge.

Brandon, what did you think about Guardians of the Galaxy? If I remember correctly, this was one of the MCU flicks that you had seen before starting this project; does it fare better or worse now with more of a background in this world? Or, given that this film that lies outside of the MCU’s reach for the most part, does that context change your opinion at all?

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Brandon: I’m starting to feel extremely foolish about how I received Guardians of the Galaxy at the time of its release a couple years ago. I liked the film well enough as a loud, vibrant action comedy that provided a much-deserved starring role for America’s affable older brother (or boy toy sex symbol, depending who you are) Chris Pratt. However, I remember buying into the idea that the Marvel “house style” had significantly put a damper on the over-the-top exuberance of madman schlock director James Gunn. Gunn was familiar to me as the dark soul behind depraved camp titles like Slither and Tromeo & Juliet, so it was weird to see his style somewhat homogenized into a Luc Besson-style space epic. The truth is, though, that Gunn’s version of an uninhibited MCU entry probably would’ve turned out more like the grotesquely asinine Deadpool film I’ve spent the last month brooding over. In fact, Gunn already directed a nastily misanthropic superhero film, simply titled Super, that I generally enjoyed, but also found difficult to stomach at times due to the lighthearted way it depicts sexual assault. I don’t know if this is me getting increasingly sensitive with age, but another The Fifth Element, Star Wars-style space epic with Kevin Feige & company keeping Gunn’s sadistic id in check actually sounds preferable now to what might’ve been delivered otherwise. It might also be the case that the act of catching up with the rest of the MCU’s output in recent months has helped me realize just how unique Guardians is as a modern superhero popcorn flick & just how much of Gunn’s personality is noticeably present on the screen.

In any case, returning to Guardians of the Galaxy with fresh eyes was a revelation. This is a fantastic work of crowd-pleasing action cinema, the exact kind of delirious spectacle I look for in blockbusters. In that respect, the only film that might‘ve topped it in the year or so since its release is Mad Max: Fury Road & I mean that with full sincerity. The film’s detailed, lived-in version of space opera is literally worlds away from the rest of the MCU. Its superheroes aren’t truly heroic or even all that super. They’re mostly thieves, murderers, aliens, and the bi-products of cruel science experiments. Something that largely got by me the first time I watched Guardians of the Galaxy was just how emotionally damaged its central crew of space pirates are. Their families are dead. They’ve never known true friendship. They’re sometimes prone to drunkenly curse their own very existence. The film’s tendency for 80s nostalgia & crowd-pleasing action set pieces are really fun in an overwhelming way that I think often distract from just how devastatingly sad its emotional core can be. I never knew an anthropomorphic raccoon grimly complaining, “I didn’t ask to get made!” could make me so teary-eyed, but Guardians has a way of making the emotional pain of its damaged, nonhuman non-heroes feel just as real as the physical space they populate looks. That’s no small feat.

That’s obviously not to say that all of Guardians is deep-seated emotional pain. The film is mostly a riotously fun action comedy with broken hearts & bruised egos only peppering its blockbuster thrills. I love how inane its outer space worldbuilding is. Blue people, green people, purple people, and purple people eaters all roam about as if they are on a silly 60s sci-fi television show. Villains are known to say absurd things like “Nebula, go to Xandar and get me the Orb.” The MCU’s ultimate MacGuffin, the Infinity Stones, actually feel at home in this kind of space age gobbledy gook. It’s also fun to watch this atmosphere clash with Pratt’s womanizing bro humor as Star Lord, as I feel like I’ve lived in this kind of space adventure before, but I’ve never met anyone I could describe as a “space bro” as comfortably as Star Lord. I particularly enjoyed the line when describing the filth of his space ship/bachelor pad he confesses, “If I had a black light these walls would look like a Jackson Pollock painting.” The kicker is that Guardians not only has the most successful humor of the MCU’s output so far; it also has some of the most exhilarating action sequences in the franchise. The Kyln prison break in particular is a beaut & watching Rocket Raccoon operate his homemade weaponry gives me the same thrill I caught watching primates operate automatic machine guns in 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

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I could probably prattle on about how my favorite two MCU entries so far, Guardians of the Galaxy & Captain America: The First Avenger, thrive on their own strengths by distancing themselves from the rest of the franchise, but I don’t believe that best captures what makes Guardians so special. Honestly, the film’s own mixtape gimmick is a better access point to understanding its wide appeal. A mix of crowd-pleasing songs like “I Want You Back” & Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” and offbeat essentials like “Cherry Bomb” & “Moonage Daydream“, the film’s mixtape soundtrack mirrors its larger mashup of action comedy marketability & cult film tendencies. In retrospect the marriage of James Gunn’s mean nerd exuberance & the MCU’s action comedy accessibility is a match made in blockbuster heaven. It delights me to no end that you can actually purchase a copy of Star Lord’s beloved mixtape cassette. That piece of comic book movie ephemera actually seems more to the heart of the film’s appeal than a Rocket Raccoon figurine or even a Blu-ray copy of the film could ever be.

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Boomer: Last time we were here, I mentioned how much Captain America: Winter Soldier reminded me of Star Trek VI and how that only made me love the former all the more. I have to admit that I was one of the naysayers with little hope for Guardians. By the time it came out, I was sick to death of the endless stream of advertisements for the movie; in every commercial break and before every YouTube there was a clip of Chris Pratt slowly flipping off John C. Reilly. But what I found when I saw the film was that I actually loved it, but mostly because it was the closest I felt we would ever come to having a Farscape feature.

The parallels don’t track perfectly, but they are obvious. We have the wise-cracking American thrust into an interstellar society made up of various societies and factions (Peter Quill/John Crichton), who has a relationship with a woman who was taken at birth and trained to be a deadly soldier and assassin (Gamora/Aeryn Sun). They’re joined by a large warrior with ritual scarrification and tattoos (Drax/D’Argo), a pint-sized wiseass (Rocket Racoon/Rygel), and a living plant (Groot/Zhaan). Farscape’s premiere episode even involves a prison break in which many of the main characters escape captivity, and both ragtag crews eventually find themselves drawn into the greater war going on around them in spite of their individual desires to simply overcome the traumas of their past. Both Drax and D’Argo have lost their wife and child (although D’Argo’s son is still alive, albeit enslaved), and both Gamora and Aeryn slowly warm to the human crewmate that helps them feel closer to their (in)humanity. The sequence in which the titular Guardians visit a mining colony inside of a once-living giant is even reminiscent of the episode in which the crew of Moya find a mining colony inside of the budong, an ancient spacefaring being of humongous proportions.

For the most part, the similarities end there, however. Although Groot and Zhaan are both plant people, the former lacks the metaphysical wisdom and spirituality of the latter. Although Rocket is full of himself, he lacks the imperial pomposity of the dethroned Rygel. Still, once can’t help but feel that Guardians is a spiritual sequel to Farscape, and that greatly contributes to my enjoyment of the film. I have to admit, however, that this rewatch wasn’t the thrill ride that I remembered fro my first few viewings. Guardians is undoubtedly the coolest of the MCU flicks so far, but the repetition of the jokes from the film in the real world has stolen some of the luster from their enjoyment. There’s still a lot to enjoy here, but Guardians doesn’t hold the endless rewatchability for me that Winter Soldier does, despite being much more fun than the comparably dour Captain America sequel. It was a smart move on Marvel’s part to follow up a somber MCU installment with a film that was exhilarating in a different way and for different reasons, but Guardians has a problem that the other films don’t have.Whereas the previous ensemble in The Avengers had the luxury of multiple individual films to flesh out the members of the team (minus the characters who were supporting players in previous installments, with Hawkeye never being fully realized as a character until Age of Ultron), Guardians has the unenviable task of introducing all five of its mains as well as their world and the ramifications thereof in a very short amount of time. The script is excellent in that the film doesn’t feel overloaded, but reflection upon the movie does lead to some questions that feel unanswered. We know that the Kree and the Xandarians have recently reached a peace accord, but what was their relationship beforehand? Are many of the Kree fanatics like Ronan, or is he an outlier, and, if so, why does Nova Prime have such difficulty getting the Kree ambassador(?) that she contacts late in the film to make a political statement decrying Ronan? And why wouldn’t the Kree condemn a terrorist anyway? This scene and others blow past so quickly that viewers may not realize just how much information is needed, but scenes like this have a way of niggling the subconscious.

Still, Guardians is a lot of fun. When I first saw it in theatres, I would have given it five stars, but time and distance have made me a bit more critical of it. Maybe I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind this time around, but the film just doesn’t have the magic for me that it did in 2014.

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Lagniappe

Brandon: It’s impossible to talk about Guardians‘ likability without addressing the absurd strength of its cast. Besides the appeal of Chris Pratt’s affable bro humor & “pelvic sorcery”, watching James Gunn regulars like Michael Rooker & Lloyd Kaufman appear among Hollywood heavyweights like Benicio Del Toro & Josh Brolin is a strange delight. Goofball comedic actor John C. Reilly interacting with Glenn Close is equally enjoyable as novelty. Bradley Cooper appears as a CG raccoon wearing people clothes. Vin Diesel outs himself as a huge D&D-oriented nerd as a talking tree. Bautista & the much-hated (among cinephiles, anyway) comic book prankster Howard the Duck both make a massive impact, which combine to make it feel as if this film were aimed to please my own particular nerdy obsessions: bad movies & pro wrestling.

The only complaint I might have about Guardians‘ insanely stacked cast of always welcome faces is the way it largely wastes the eternally-underutilized Lee Pace. I enjoyed Pace’s turn as impossibly cruel Ronan the Accuser more than I did the first time around but I do still think it was a huge mistake to cover up his luscious eyebrows with the alien makeup. Those might be the most handsome eyebrows in Hollywood. They deserve to run free.

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Boomer: For anyone reading this who is still mourning the loss of Farscape, I recommend current sci-fi series Dark Matter. It has fewer obvious commonalities with Farscape than Guardians, but its tone is the closest thing to Farscape’s that I’ve been able to find in a long time, even if it lacks the older series’s humor.

When joking in our earlier review about the fact that the Ninth Doctor appeared in Thor 2 and that the Tenth Doctor had played the villain of Jessica Jones, I had completely forgotten about the fact that Karen Gillam, who played the Eleventh Doctor’s companion Amy Pond, played Nebula in this film. There’s also the fact that Tobey Jones, who portrayed a nightmare version of the Doctor a few years back in “Amy’s Choice,” portrayed the evil Doctor Zola in both Cap flicks. Were it not that Jenna Coleman (who portrayed Clara Oswald, companion to the Eleventh and Twelfth Doctors) played a minor role in Captain America, all the Doctor Who alums who have thus far appeared in the MCU would have portrayed villains.

Regarding how the film plays into the larger mythos of the franchise, the plot elements from Guardians have largely only been important in how they affect Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Just as one of the main characters on the program was revealed to be a Hydra mole near the end of the first season, the second season featured major developments in the form of the revelation of the existence of the Inhumans and that another member of the squad was one such being. The Inhumans, for those who understandably gave up on Agents early on, are a subspecies of humanity who possess abnormal physiological traits as the result of a Kree genetic engineering campaign in Earth’s distant past. It’s also an easy way for the MCU to introduce large numbers of super-powered individuals despite not having the right to use the term “mutant,” what with the rights to the X-Men franchise still tied up at Fox. For those of you playing along at home, there is also a planned Inhumans film slated for release in 2019.

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Combined S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Rating for Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

fourhalfstar

-Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.

Joy (2015)

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fourstar

Has the David O. Russell hype train already crashed & burned? It wasn’t until 2012’s commercially-palatable mental health rom-com/drama Silver Linings Playbook that the director started to get his dues as a weirdo auteur, despite putting out quality work as far back as 1994’s uncomfortable black comedy Spanking the Monkey. Two Jennifer Lawrence collaborations later & critical consensus already feels like it’s turning on him, aiming to brush him off as a hack. It’s a total shame too. I understand, to a point, the complaints that Russell’s American Hustle resembled Scorsese’s Goodfellas a little too closely, but if you’re going to pay homage to something, why not make it one of the greatest films ever made? The complaints about his more-recent film, Joy, are a little more confounding to me. In some ways Russell is merely keeping the Goodfellas vibes rolling into the next picture & continuing his somewhat easy collaborations with Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and Robert DeNiro in a film that might be a little too Hallmarkish for the hard-to-please, but if that’s all you see going on in Joy, you’re missing out on the much stranger big picture. It feels like Russell is really working out some half-formed new ideas here & watching him reach for that new, unexplored territory is fascinating stuff, making for the best film I think he’s made in years.

Expectation might be to blame for what turned a lot of audiences off from Joy. Based on the advertising, I know a lot of folks expected an organized crime flick about a mob wife, not the deranged biopic about the woman who invented the Miracle Mop that was delivered. Even more so, I believe that audiences expected a lighthearted drama from the guy who made Silver Linings Playbook. Instead, Joy finds Russell exploring the same weirdo impulses that lead him to making I Huckabees, an absurdist comedy that might be the very definition of “not for everyone”. Personally, I love Huckabees. It’s my favorite thing thing Russell’s ever done. Joy is certainly not as eccentric or as deliberately off-putting as Huckabees can be, but it does establish a delirious rhythm & nearly all-white visual palette that hits on the same anything-can-happen tone Huckabees delivered. By the time Joy delves into immersive soap opera & QVC imagery, the film has already established a dream-like sense of self-logic that makes the whole thing feel natural, despite television’s sterilized otherworldliness. Also like Huckabees, Joy plays its humor completely straight, with only the slightest hint of quirk prompting you to treat it like a comedy. The soap opera camp & Isabella Rossellini’s over-the-top performance in Joy were some of the funniest moments I had witnessed in the theater in all of 2015, but for some reason the audience I was with met them with more exasperated “That’s just ridiculous” comments instead of genuine laughter.

I, for one, welcome David O. Russell’s return to not-for-everyone cinema. The problem is that Joy might not have gone far enough in its Huckabees-esque absurdity. There is an admitted Hallmark/Lifetime-esque quality to the film that compels it to hammer every point home, to tie a bow on every resolved conflict. The dialogue indulges in some wholesome cheese in lines like “In America, the ordinary meets the extraordinary”, [from a young Joy playing happily-ever-after-type games] “I don’t need a prince”, and [from an adult Joy to her young daughter] “Don’t take any guff from anybody.” Worse yet is a completely unnecessary narrator who constantly reminds us that Joy is a “matriarch” or that she & her ex-husband are “the best married couple in America.” That aspect of Joy seems to be at war with the film’s strangest impulses, such as introducing a soap opera character who “came back as a ghost with even greater power”, including an extended cameo in which Melissa Rivers (all-too convincingly) portrays her recently-departed mother, and saddling its protagonist with a family so unbearably awful that you could easily forgive her for burning the house down with them all locked inside.

I would like to say with confidence that this contrast between the absurd & the maudlin was entirely intentional, that Russell was merely trying to reflect the mundane trashiness of his subject’s QVC/Miracle Mop subject. The truth is, though, that I have no idea. Joy is an odd compromise of things I loved & things I could’ve done without. The dream-like quality of the rhythm is fascinating, but the narration knocks its ambition down a peg. It’s Russell’s most experimental film in a decade, but it borrows heavily from not only Scorsese, but also from Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (in one particular scene, I could swear that Elliott Smith’s “Needle in the Hay” would play at any second). Isabella Rossellini’s monologue about “The 4 Questions of Financial Worthiness” was one of 2015’s funniest moments to me, but the humor is played so dryly it doesn’t seem to register with half its audience. If nothing else, what’s clear when you consider all of these self-contradicting qualities as a whole is that David O. Russell has made something oddly idiosyncratic here that can be a joy to watch if you can get on its dual arty & maudlin wavelengths. That’s good enough for me.

-Brandon Ledet

Serena (2015)

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onehalfstar

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Serena is a masterclass in piss-poor editing. On paper, it’s baffling that a prestige costume drama featuring two of Hollywood’s currently best-selling acts, Jennifer Lawrence & Bradley Cooper, would skip a wide theatrical release and go straight to VOD. On film, it’s entirely understandable. Drowning under an endless flood of inept editing choices is the raw material for a potentially great movie that’s gasping for air, but never allowed to surface. Alternately, Serena is also just a few cuts away from being a brilliantly funny camp classic, but it’s not even allowed to be enjoyable as a terrible film. It’s downright fascinating how frustrating this movie can be. It’s rare that a Hollywood film is released this unpolished and . . . off, but that doesn’t help the fact that it’s not even entertaining as a total disaster.

On the side of the film’s fight for legitimacy there’s an oddly old-fashioned big studio classic feel to the whole affair. Having two of Hollywood’s biggest stars struggle to negotiate their romantic & professional dynamic in an ancient, treacherous locale feels like the exact kind of movie that would’ve been made by every major studio 50 to 80 years ago and it’s charming to return to that familiar Old Hollywood vibe. This is a world where brassy women assert their power with lines like “I didn’t come to Carolina to do needlepoint,” in traditionally male arenas occupied by lumberjack types with perma-stubble & prison tattoos. Cooper & Lawrence aren’t gruff enough to believably sell the dangerous frontiersman developer and his half-feral wife routine, but their natural charisma and the effortlessly pleasant nature of costume dramas in general makes me want to root for the movie to turn out well. If the pacing had the good sense to slow down and let any of these elements breathe it really could’ve been something. That is not what happened.

There is so much more arguing for the movie to go in the camp classic direction. We’re introduced to Jennifer Lawrence’s titular Serena as she’s galloping on a horse in slow motion, a horrendously tender acoustic guitar plucking away in the background. The music doesn’t improve from there, with its slow, sappy, meaningless musings poisoning nearly every moment. The emptily symbolic animal imagery doesn’t stop there either. Bradley Cooper’s character spends the entire film on a laughably maudlin, metaphorical panther hunt and Lawrence finds empty metaphors of her own in the repetitive scenes where she trains an eagle to hunt the snakes that have been biting Cooper’s workers. The animal imagery, like nearly everything else in play, is almost always followed by blunt interjections of Cooper & Lawrence fucking, as if the film were edited by a half-awake Russ Meyer on cough syrup. Immediately after we meet Serena on the horse she’s squirming under the sheets and she comes out of an abrupt montage a married woman. The same The Room-esque sex interruptions occur after her eagle kills its first snake and after she hits on her husband’s investors at a ball in yet another scene that goes nowhere (except back to the bedroom). The images in these montages all feel like placeholders for longer scenes to be added later, a task that no one ever got around to. Oddly enough, the one image afforded the most room to breathe is the most disturbing one of all, a vigorous bathtub fingering that I’m likely to never forget thanks to Cooper’s intense, empty stare. In time, that bathtub moment might be the only image from this film I remember all, both because it’s so uncomfortable and because the other contenders are way too brief to make a lasting impression.

The scale really is tipped for Serena to reach a camp classic status, but it just never gets there. Besides the sex & animals, there’s also an evil, jealous, homosexual henchmen and a mystic, murderous woodsman who has “visions” that both feel like odd caricatures out of a different, thankfully bygone era. Also, any credibility Serena’s struggle to assert herself professionally adds to the plot is severely undercut by her gradual transformation from a confident woman to a murderous Lifetime Movie sociopath in the wild, like a knife-wielding Nell. I promise that sounds so much more fun than the film allows it to be and just as the characters are prone to fast, flat mumbling, so is the film’s editing. Each scene in Serena bleeds into the next in a way that makes no particular moment feel any more or less significant than the one preceding it. A hand being chopped off feels just as important as miscarriage or a blood transfusion or a town hall meeting. It’s all fast, flat mumbling here.

I truly believe someone could recut Serena‘s raw footage into something worthwhile, (starting by pulling brief images out of the endless montages to allow them room to breathe and scrapping the entire awful soundtrack wholesale) and come out the other end with a polished finished project that would have audiences counterintuitively rooting for Cooper & Lawrence to chop down thousands of trees as well as impregnate & murder their employees. It’s entirely possible. It’d be even easier to cut it into an over-the-top melodrama ripe with Lawrence going full, feral Mommy Dearest on the frontier folk. It’s almost there. In Serena’s fight for either legitimacy or camp, it was decidedly much closer to camp, but thoroughly disappointing as either. If nothing else, if someone wanted to learn how not to edit a film’s separate parts together into a cohesive whole, this would be a great place to start.

-Brandon Ledet