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“When I Left Earth”: The Simple Childhood Trauma of “Guardians of the Galaxy”

This Saturday, to mark the release of Captain Marvel, I will be discussing Guardians of the Galaxy on The 250, the weekly podcast that I co-host discussing the IMDb’s Top 250 Movies of All-Time. However, I had some thoughts on the film that I wanted to jot down first.

Twenty-one films in, there is a solid argument to be made that Guardians of the Galaxy ranks among the very best of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Variety has consistently ranked Guardians of the Galaxy the best film in the shared universe on its own frequently updated list. According to Rotten Tomatoes, the film is ranked joint sixth (but on the fourth tier) of Marvel movies in terms of review aggregation. On a list that included non-Marvel-Studios-properties, MetaCritic ranked the film as the fifth best of the top fifty Marvel films released in the twenty-first century. It landed in the same position on a similar list compiled by Peter Bradshaw for The Guardian. It ranked second on the list compiled by The Independent. Although such a metric is hardly absolute and academic, it is also one of the longest-enduring Marvel films on the Internet Movie Database‘s top 250 movies of all-time.

Similarly, the film endures in popular culture. It is arguably one of the most influential blockbusters of the past decade. It was notably the first film to have its soundtrack top the Billboard album charts without an original song on it. Although directors like Martin Scorsese and Richard Linklater had defined the “jukebox soundtrack”, Guardians of the Galaxy turned it into a standard for blockbuster films. Somewhat ironically, given how James Gunn’s career has since developed, Guardians of the Galaxy is a film that seems like the template for the modern wave of blockbusters like Suicide Squad or even Kong: Skull Island. These are massive tentpole films that consciously wear their weirdness on their sleeve.

At the time, this seemed strange. Guardians of the Galaxy was a fringe property before the film was released, largely unknown to audiences outside of comics. The film does not even adapt the “classic” team line-up, relegating them to a cameo in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2. Instead, the team depicted in Guardians of the Galaxy was drawn from Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning’s well-loved but under-appreciated twenty-first century run. More than that, the film was to be helmed by a director who had developed his trade working at Troma and whose career included oddities like Slither or Super. The star was a supporting actor on a well-liked-but-not-breakout sitcom. The biggest names were voicing a talking raccoon and “his personal houseplant-slash-muscle.”

As such, the film’s status as a breakout hit and cultural phenomenon seems strange. What is it about Guardians of the Galaxy that endures, that elevates it in the popular memory ahead of other superhero films (and other Marvel Studios films) like Captain America: The First Avenger or Ant Man or Doctor Strange? It’s in interesting question to contemplate, particularly when Guardians of the Galaxy comes with so much of the baggage of those middle Marvel Cinematic Universe. Rewatching the film in hindsight, there is a lot of clunky exposition and unnecessary detail, a host of elements that exist to set up other movies (like Avengers: Infinity War) rather than serving this individual film. This is the film that properly introduced Thanos and the Infinity Stones, after all.

It is perhaps to the credit of Guardians of the Galaxy that it works well enough in spite of the demands of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that it is the rare Marvel Studios film that feels entirely sure of itself and its own identity. Despite all this continuity and all of these connections, Guardians of the Galaxy is structured by Gunn and credited co-writer Nicole Perlman as a very simple allegory beneath all the talk of “Celestials” and “the Nova Corps”, between trips to “Xandar” and “Morag.” At its core, Guardians of the Galaxy never loses sight of what it’s actually “about” beneath the trappings of comic book lore and the spectacle of a twenty-first century blockbuster. It is the story of a young boy who responds to a massive trauma by retreating into a world of fantasy.

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My 12 for ’18: “Annihilation” and Creating Something New…

It’s that time of year. I’ll counting down my top twelve films of the year daily on the blog between now and New Year. I’ll also be discussing my top ten on the Scannain podcast. This is number one.

It’s not destroying. It’s making something new.

Rankings can be very revealing. They say a lot, both about wider culture, but also about the person who is making the list and the time at which the list is being made.

The best top tens inevitably reveal something about the time at which they were made. New Year’s Eve is a time for reflection, and a large part of the process of putting together these sorts of end-of-year lists is to reflect upon the year that has been. Any end-of-year top ten (or twelve) inevitably reveals something about how the person making that list experienced the previous twelve months. Whether consciously or not, every such list suggests a time capsule of the year, offering a snapshot of the general mood or even an outline of the zeitgeist.

A lot of the movies included in this list are examined through the lens of 2018, whether in terms of filmmaking, storytelling, or broader cultural concerns. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was a superhero origin for a hyper-literate internet-raised generation. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was a meditation on how quickly and viciously anger can spread. A Quiet Place reflected trends in contemporary horror cinema at literalising the experience of watching a horror film, a “meta” mode of horror.

Annihilation does something very similar. Alex Garland’s adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s novel is a film that is about a strange phenomenon that warps and distorts the biology of anything that comes into contact with it. Those who wander into “the Shimmer” are lost, their sense of direction disturbed and they are promptly confronted with monstrosities that appear to be sewn together from a variety of familiar shapes, often bent and broken in unsettling ways. In this sense, Annihilation feels like a knowing commentary on popular culture in 2018.

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My 12 for ’18: “I, Tonya” and the Post-Truth Biopic

It’s that time of year. I’ll counting down my top twelve films of the year daily on the blog between now and New Year. I’ll also be discussing my top ten on the Scannain podcast. This is number two.

One of the interesting things about being an Irish film critic, as opposed to an American film critic, is that it does make the end-of-year top tens rather… jumbled.

Piracy and social media have done a lot to close the gap between cinematic releases in peak blockbuster season. Movies like Mission: Impossible – Fallout and Avengers: Infinity War tend to be released day-and-date around the world in an effort to prevent bootleg copies and spoilers cutting into those profit margins. The conversation about such films tends to be instantaneous or nigh-instantaneous, as it is with even off-season blockbusters like Mary Poppins Returns or Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

In contrast, awards fare is still staggered. The “big” and “populist” awards fare films tend to synchronise releases across the globe; A Star is Born, First Man, Bohemian Rhapsody, Widows. However, the smaller and more eccentric films end up staggered across the New Year. So although I have seen If Beale Street Could Talk, ViceStan and Ollie and The Favourite, they are not eligible for this end of year countdown.

In contrast, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and I, Tonya both make the countdown of my favourite releases of 2018, despite the fact that the bulk of the conversation around them (and the bulk of their cultural context) was anchored in 2017. It is something that seems strange, even as I go through my end of year list, feeling like I’ve arrived late enough to the party that I might as well just order breakfast.

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My 12 for ’18: Seeing It Again for the First Time in “First Man”

It’s that time of year. I’ll counting down my top twelve films of the year daily on the blog between now and New Year. I’ll also be discussing my top ten on the Scannain podcast. This is number three.

It is difficult to separate First Man from the cultural war around it.

There is always at least one piece of awards fare that generates a storm in the proverbial teacup, often around hot-button political issues. La La Land was the most contentious Best Picture nominee of its awards cycle, generating heated debate around issues of identity and cultural appropriation. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was the most controversial film the following year, most notably around its treatment of race and the portrayal of racism within local police departments.

First Man seems increasingly unlikely to secure a Best Picture nomination. This is likely in part due to its underwhelming box office performance, but also down to the toxic debate that has unfolded around it. It seems strange that the people so angry at First Man would be fine with the likely nomination of Green Book or Bohemian Rhapsody in its stead, but that is another debate entirely. First Man was a film that was everything (and nothing) to everybody (and nobody), a seemingly impossible feat.

First Man notably had too few flags for Marco Rubio. First Man also notably had too many flags for Richard Brody. First Man had too little patriotism for Buzz Aldrin. First Man had too much patriotism for Slate film writer Mark Joseph Stern. This is a remarkable and notable accomplishment of itself. At a point when the world seems divided on absolutely everything, First Man seemed to unite both sides of the political spectrum in outrage. That is one giant leap, after all.

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My 12 for ’18: “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” & Doing This One Last Time

It’s that time of year. I’ll counting down my top twelve films of the year daily on the blog between now and New Year. I’ll also be discussing my top ten on the Scannain podcast. This is number four.

“Alright, let’s do this. One. Last. Time.”

There were few cinematic experiences this year as joyous as Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. I first saw it at a preview screening, surrounded by children of all ages. This was entirely appropriate. After all, Into the Spider-Verse is a movie that connects immediately and emotionally to any audience member’s inner child. Like many of the best modern family films, it understand the wonder and awe with which children see the world. It also understands the intelligence with which children process information, something adults often overlook.

A lot has been written about the fantastic animation employed in making Into the Spider-Verse. The technique is revolutionary and jaw-dropping; everything from the use of Ben Day dots to the shading using red and green to create an uncanny depth perception to the blurring of various styles for characters like “Spider-Man Noir” or “Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham.” It is no surprise that Sony are attempting to copyright the animation process, to render it proprietary. The film would make a good case for its place on the list based on animation alone.

However, what has been less discussed in terms of Into the Spider-Verse is the actual storytelling. Part of this is obviously visual, and reflected in all of the praise that the animation is receiving. However, a lot of this is in the scripting and the structuring of the film. Into the Spider-Verse is a revolutionary film in a technical sense, a breathtaking cinematic accomplishment bursting at the seams with a remarkable visual imagination. It is also a story that understands how such stories are told. It also understands that the audience understands how such stories are told.

Into the Spider-Verse is a thoroughly modern superhero film, a narrative that is consciously designed for a contemporary audience that have been trained to process information in a more dynamic and exciting way. Even beyond its long overdue acknowledgement that “anybody can wear the mask”, Into the Spider-Verse is very much a film for 2018.

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My 12 for ’18: “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” & All This Anger, Man

It’s that time of year. I’ll counting down my top twelve films of the year daily on the blog between now and New Year. I’ll also be discussing my top ten on the Scannain podcast. This is number five.

All this anger, man. Penelope said to me the other day: it just begets greater anger, you know? And it’s true.

Everybody is angry.

The modern era has been defined as an “age of anger.” Anger has been demonstrated to travel faster through social networks than other emotions like love or joy. Studies suggest that Americans are particularly angry, with almost seventy percent of the country angry over the direction of the nation. Anger and resentment are calculated to be among the largest factors in the election of Donald Trump, and the passing of the Brexit referendum.

Of course, not all anger is created equal. Some anger is justified, perhaps even by centuries of oppression and systemic violence. Some anger is useful, in that it motivates grassroots activism that works towards a constructive good. Indeed, there is an argument that short control releases of anger might actually be healthy in the long term, something of a venting mechanism to prevent things from escalating to the point of an explosion.

If anything is clear, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is not about that kind of anger. It is about the combustible, explosive kind.

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My 12 for ’18: “Sorry to Bother You” & Getting Used to the Problem

It’s that time of year. I’ll counting down my top twelve films of the year daily on the blog between now and New Year. I’ll also be discussing my top ten on the Scannain podcast. This is number six.

“If you get shown a problem, but don’t see a way you can have control over it, you just decide to get used to the problem.”

2018 and 2017 were chaotic years.

It is almost impossible to fully process everything that has happened. Even just the headlines seem insane. The President of the United States is under investigation. There may be a tape that exists of that man being urinated upon by Russian prostitutes. Children are being locked in cages. Meanwhile, Britain is leaving the United Kingdom. Part of that is down to a campaign organised in consultation with a celebrity hypnotist. Prominent British politicians have threatened to recreate the Great Famine in order to create negotiating leverage.

All of this is just the headlines. It is possible to miss the smaller-scale insanity that is taking place around the fringes of the news. A Republican congressional candidate who is a “devotee” of “Bigfoot erotica.” The Secretary of Housing and Urban Development suggesting that slaves were really “immigrants.” The high volume of democratically elected doctors with frankly insane ideas about medicine. Elon Musk labelled a heroic cave-diver a “paedophile” for rejected his crazy plan involving a submarine. The world is a topsy-turvy place, and nothing makes any real sense.

With that in mind, Sorry to Bother You is one of the movies that perfectly encapsulates the texture and feel of the current moment.

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