Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 : Humour, Spectacle and Humans

Guardians OF The Galaxy Vol. 2

It’s getting more and more difficult to imagine a time when sci-fi was seriously uncool. Not just slightly still uncool as it is to be obsessed with it, but in the it was something to be kept hidden from the world. It’s very ironic that of all the places that could have become synonymous with nerd culture, the stereotype that grew was in the basement. Even now as its exposed in the light of mainstream culture, with Hollywood’s biggest actors signing themselves up to play aliens and goblins and all sorts, it still retains some of its outsider, underground status. The biggest tentpole film of the year comes from an obscure run of Marvel comics which would have remained hidden in basements if it had not been resurrected.

Movies can often reflect the times you live in as well as the culture it came from. The ironic, sarcastic, self-deprecating and misaligned heroes of the first film, Guardians of the Galaxy (2014, Dir. James Gunn) are very much a reflection of today. It’s difficult to imagine Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and the Joker bickering like children at the dinner table, clever remarks and funny one liners matched only by characters trying to explain their unspoken romance with references to Cheers, a live-action US sitcom from the 80s. We carry our cultures with us, and in 30 years a new generation will understand these techniques even less. And while its impossible to say that any one person was responsible for what was in this film, it’s important to note its mix and remix of timeless themes and time specific aspects (songs, jokes) is what makes this series work.

One of the brutal facts involved in this sequel’s judgement is the fact that people are already in on the jokes this time. A large unspoken part of why people talk about the law of diminishing returns when it comes to returning to a franchise or story is because the director can’t get away with as much as when he’s introducing the world for the first time. This is why the jokes maybe fall a little flatter this time, why as I sat in the cinema I could predict a few of the one-liners a couple of seconds before they land. Humour always lands hardest when the balanced scales between the audience and the director/joke-teller are weighted heavily towards the latter. When you’ve already got a whole film’s worth of previous material in your memory, the film has to stretch much harder to ring laughs out of an audience who have, to put it bluntly, seen it all before.

That’s not to completely let Vol. 2 completely off the hook though. A style needs to constantly evolve to remain fresh and interesting. The first time you hear a joke its funny. The second time round its less so. A couple more times and it becomes downright aggravating. Even being ironic gets annoying, and Vol. 2 suffers from a constant struggle of trying to undercut itself in an attempt to balance its humour with drama. Honestly on multiple occasions I was trying to decipher whether a scene was meant to be serious or a soon to be joke, and only with the help of its dramatic orchestral score (not its 70s/80s jams) can you actually orient yourself and figure out whether a scene’s meant to be funny or not. It’s sad I guess that the film is being crushed under the weight of its own previous success, much like Joss Whedon experienced with his Avengers Assemble (2012)/Avengers:Age of Ultron (2015) projects. Lightning can’t strike in the same place twice.

So what’s left? Well there’s a serious amount of spectacle going on here. This is really the highest level of money in filmmaking, and as a result no expense is spared. The world is as fully realised as can be, the relentlessly good CGI covering for any of the practical sets and worlds built, all of which no detail or expense is spared. Really the set pieces in this film remind me of video games and their boss fights, worlds which simply up until now would be too inhumanly expensive to even attempt recreating on film. It’s strength also lies in its ability to actually have colour, to make it more of a fantasy and pull itself away from the brown-grey colour palette of “gritty realism”. It’s world feels tangible at time, and as a result a lot of its more technical parts can rely on tried and tested classic methods to get its point across, when its production design is doing most of the work for it. You won’t find any experimental editing or cinematography here, but then if you’re looking for that you’ve come to the wrong film.

So while its humour takes a beating and its spectacle is only a backdrop, what holds it in place? Well I found it in its core, the same place which made the first one catalyse so well; it’s characters. The film really stretches its legs in this department, and manages to keep its spectacle playing second fiddle to the character’s and their relationships. It’s coincidental that in a film where it’s villain is literally a giant brain, its primary concern and what keeps it focused is what goes on in the heart. From its ramshackle family dynamics, ranging from the explosive to the intimate,both of which don’t feel mawkish or cringe at all, to the introduction of a character who is an empath (can feel other people’s feelings) Mantis (Pom Klementieff). In all of the monumental CGI spectacle, Vol. 2 never loses sight of the grounding it desperately needs in just what these character’s feel, about themselves and about each other.

The messed up ensemble family dynamic was and always has been Guardians strongest pillar to stand on, and credit to James Gunn for managing to stay mostly on that track. I always rated the first installment of this series as the best thing to come out of the MCU, since it’s the film that’s least concerned with the “super” part of superheroes. As this film shows, it’s difficult to care about gods unless they’re human. I mean, its shiny aspects of irony and nostalgia and flashy soundtrack may stick out more, but it’s the very human heart which keeps the film from completely disintegrating into a very colorful vibrant mess. It’s strange watching it, because the film itself seems pulled in so many different directions it can be disorienting and overwhelming at times; family drama, heady concept film, mindless popcorn fodder, cheesy 80s mining of nostalgia, operatic violence and low-brow brutish humour. It really is a reflection of the times we live, of remix culture, the obsession with the 80s (which I’m still not on board with). witty bantering and CGI dream worlds.

I’m not saying its a perfect film. But it’s a film that reminds me why I go to the cinema. It was a film I got lost in, both ironically and un-ironically. Even in its weaker moments, its something to enjoy, cinema which does its best to make its audience actually enjoy themselves. It’s power lies in its ability to not take itself too seriously, and while not everything lands, does it really matter? Like your family, not every moment with them is the best or worst in your world. The point is that they’re there around you, their presence and their personalities more than enough comfort in what would otherwise be the empty black void of space.

-Alex

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 : Humour, Spectacle and Humans

“The Child and The Toybox”: Captain America: Civil War

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As I perhaps rather meanly remarked to my sister who took me to see it, “It’s the best Avengers film yet.”

Let’s not mince any words here. No matter what is said, what is discussed or who says it, Captain America: Civil War will be a commercial and most likely critical success. 13 films in, even with the constant tinkering and refinement, there’s simply too much production investment and formulaic story-telling for any Marvel film to be anything less than average. The biggest shock at this point would be if no one went to see a Marvel movie, and it was also terrible. So with that out-of-the-way, its time to actually look under the hood and see what’s going on in here.

I’m no huge fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (the two exceptions being Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man), and I was certainly no fan of the previous film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  The faux politicking, the plodding and hammy plot combined with essentially the least colorful (metaphorically) characters in the Marvel Universe (really most of the film is about guys in muted blue/greys fighting each other) did nothing to convince me of the apparent excellence of it.

This film, Civil War however is arguably the best “straight” film to have come out of the MCU. When I say straight I mean a film primarily dedicated to “action-adventure” not “action-comedy” as say Guardians or Ant-Man is. It’s plot and thematic elements are interesting enough (even though they’re the same themes found in Batman vs. Superman, which all seem to stem from Alan Moore’s Watchmen). The battle between oversight versus individual liberty is a question which can be answered pretty easily (Hint: It’s don’t let any one person have the unlimited authority to do anything they think is right), but is still fun enough to ground a movie, and give cause to the supposed “civil war”. Luckily, since the politics involved are all rather creaky, when it exhausts and abandons this train of thought (as a rated BBFC 12 superhero must do if it ever tries to ask a serious question), it falls back on the familiar ground of personal vengeance and murdered parents, something I can only describe as “The Batman” mode of storytelling. It’s the right move in comparison to The Winter Soldier, which carried its flaky politics all the way through to its flabby and weak ending (hardcore fascism is defeated by dissolving any oversight, rather than say just having an Internal Affairs department.) It’s a cliché, but that’s okay, because there are far worse things to use in films than well-known truths or devices.

So thematically, it carries easily the greatest gravitas on any Marvel film to date, simply because it turns over the one rock that all superheroes and vigilantes awkwardly face, “why do you get to act above the law and get off scott free causing collateral deaths?”. But really it all seems to be used as a way to get everyone to go globetrotting and fight each other but not really because they’re all friends. A Civil War this is not. This is essentially two friends falling out in high school, and asking their friends to take sides. The big climactic fight scene can only be explained through an allegory I am making up right now.

THE CHILD AND THE TOYBOX

The real set piece of the film, the meat of the dish so to speak, is the [spoiler] scene where Team Captain America fights Team Tony Stark. They’re fighting each other essentially with the training wheels on. Neither party wants to hurt the other, Captain America is trying to chase the real villain, Iron Man is trying to stop Captain America because he doesn’t know who the real villain is and thinks its Bucky/The Winter Soldier. So the people who like Iron Man try to stop the people who like Captain America.

When I was a child, I had many a number of toys. Superheroes, film characters, wrestlers, animals, my sister’s toys, it didn’t matter. We just had a toy box. So when I pulled toys out to play with, often I would make them fight each other. Toys from all different fictional worlds, it didn’t matter, they would all just have a big bust up. They would fight and kick and punch and slam together, rocketing around the room as they had the greatest fight ever. A good visual reference might be this old video I saw a very long time ago.

And so it went. But the thing that would happen, when I would launch my toys at each other, was that eventually they would break. And suddenly it wasn’t so much fun, because real damage had occurred to a toy I owned.

That’s essentially the mechanic every Marvel film indulges in, but this one takes it too its logical extreme. Except for the last part. All the cool characters gather to have a fight, and they all have an extremely compelling and fun to watch fight. It’s the visual externalisation of that childhood fantasy of watching all your favourite characters battle it out to see who will be the winner. Of course, like any childhood fantasy, it tells realism to promptly fuck off in the name of entertainment, and this is perhaps why the film works so well. Because its entertaining and as a result, fun. It’s witty without being incessant (the Avengers films spring to mind), it’s humour is honest and to a degree innocent, and just like a childhood fantasy, its damage is limited to essentially the least favourite character.

Don Cheadle’s (who is the second addition to the list of “Why are all the best people playing bit parts”, the first being Paul Rudd as Ant-Man in this film) character, War Machine, takes a tumble and by the end of the film we see him in physical therapy trying to learn how to walk again. The real issue of course, is that no real harm can come to the main players of this entire franchise, which is only growing increasingly larger. Each film they batter down cardboard villains whilst jeopardising the main players, and transferring the actual consequences onto foils. This is exactly the same problem that Avengers: Age Of Ultron had. Quicksilver, who is introduced in the film before promptly being killed off, is meant to be the emotional stand up, the one who reminds everyone that these superheroes exist in a real world where their actions matter. And that’s also the large thrust of Civil War. Tony Stark is upset because the events of AoU lay heavy on his shoulders, while a woman explains that a building falling on her boy during the climactic fight in AoU is somehow directly the fault of Iron Man himself, asking who will “avenge his death”.

Hell the entire villain of this film, easily the best villain Marvel films have had (while also reminding me very much of the much better villain of the Sony Marvel production X-Men 2, William Stryker) is a direct consequence of the actions of the previous consequence-less romp. His family was killed by the city drop in AoU (God just keeping up with all these happenings is exhausting).

What I’m saying is the film seems to be aware of its own dissonance, it is a film exploring the consequences of superheroes, by having them essentially have another consequence-less romp through the globe. It almost works as a self-reflexive inner retreat, as if their violence and actions suddenly become okay or just less problematic if they decide to fight each other instead of other people. That way at least they’re not directly hurting anyone (even if they destroy millions of pounds worth of property). I think in essence, the film is caught between the child mind, and the adult mind. When Tony Stark and Captain America engage in the final fight, it seems inevitable that one will kill the other, just by going too far. In fact I did think that had occurred at one point, as Captain America digs his shield into the machine that keeps Iron Man’s heart going. But no, Captain America leaves and Iron Man doesn’t chase him and they become kind of friends by the end.

There’s no toys really breaking, just a relentless thrashing of child-like play fighting that has been going on now for 13 movies. And that’s entertaining, but its incomplete. We can’t stay in paradise forever. Sooner or later, someone has to wedge some truth into this increasingly schizophrenic superhero medium, it’s only getting increasingly maddening to see. This purgatory of relentless stake raising combined with lack of meaning, forever deeming the superheroes to constantly question if the world needs them, only to face a foe they have to defeat at the expense of one person/1000 persons/a city/a planet/who knows what else, which then leads to everyone decrying them and then rinse repeat.There’s no progress, it’s the definition of insanity.

You could argue that I’ve gone down the rabbit hole too far, that I’m over-analysing what is essentially a kid’s movie, but it’s not! It’s about personal responsibility and societal oversight and the conflict of personal vendettas against law-abiding actions and government conspiracies and my god it’s not exactly a Saturday Morning Cartoon here. This is heavy stuff, so I can try to switch my childhood passive consumptive brain on, but my adult brain can’t stop prodding me awake. It’s just crazy.

Then again, so is watching 10+ people in crazy costumes pummel the crap out of each other. But it sure is fun.

Anyway in short Paul Rudd is the best thing about this movie and everyone should go watch Ant-Man.

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– Alex

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“The Child and The Toybox”: Captain America: Civil War