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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. You can listen to the podcast here.

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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The X-Files – Hungry (Review)

This November, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the seventh season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Harsh Realm.

Hungry is an underrated episode of The X-Files.

Although it was the third episode of the season to air, it was actually the first episode produced, allowing David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson to ease themselves back into the demanding shooting schedule. As with Vince Gilligan’s script for Unusual Suspects, the idea was to write an episode that required as little of Mulder and Scully as possible. However, rather than building Hungry around an established member (or members) of the supporting cast, Gilligan decides to introduce a new character and make them the focus of the episode.

"I am sharkboy, hear me roar..."

“I am sharkboy, hear me roar…”

Hungry is not quite as experimental as X-Cops, but there is something deliciously subversive about telling a “monster of the week” story from the perspective of the monster. Gilligan is arguably building upon the work done by David Amann in Terms of Endearment, but Hungry is very much its own story. It pushes Mulder and Scully to the very edge of the narrative in a way that distorts many of the underlying assumptions about what The X-Files is and how it is supposed to work.

Hungry is proof that The X-Files still has legitimately great stories in it, even if the seventh season has a decidedly funereal atmosphere.

Brains...

Brains…

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Season 3 (Review)

Next year, Star Trek is fifty years old. We have some special stuff planned for that, but – in the meantime – we’re reviewing all of Star Trek: Enterprise this year as something of a prequel to that anniversary. This August, we’re doing the third season. Check back daily for the latest review.

The third season of Star Trek: Enterprise is a mess.

It is very clearly the work of a production team still figuring out how to plot long-form stories and struggling with the logistical difficulties of mapping out a single narrative across what was originally planned as a twenty-six episode season. There are extended periods where narrative momentum stalls; there are key moments where it seems like the show has no idea where it wants to go next. It seems like the production team never sat down in the gap before production began to figure out what story they wanted to tell, and ended up improvising.

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However, it is also a bold and ambitious piece of television. It demonstrates an energy and excitement that had been lacking from the Star Trek franchise since Star Trek: Deep Space Nine went off the air. It is a season of television that doesn’t always work, but that is to be expected when the production team are trying something new. The failures of the first two seasons of the show often stemmed from a lack of ambition on the part of the production team; the failures in the third season are rooted in a surplus of ambition. It is hard to find them too objectionable.

The Xindi arc doesn’t always work as well as it might, but it works more than often enough to excuse the clumsy missteps along the way. There is something compelling and dynamic about a Star Trek show that is willing to push itself so far outside its own comfort zone. There is a spirit of adventure to the third season of Enterprise that had been sorely lacking from the first two seasons of the show. The biggest disappointment is that it took the show this long to find that confidence and that adventurousness.

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Star Trek: Enterprise – The Forgotten (Review)

Next year, Star Trek is fifty years old. We have some special stuff planned for that, but – in the meantime – we’re reviewing all of Star Trek: Enterprise this year as something of a prequel to that anniversary. This August, we’re doing the third season. Check back daily for the latest review.

The Forgotten opens with a funeral service.

It is nominally a service for the eighteen people who died in the Xindi attack. (The total was given as seventeen in Damage, but it is possible that Archer is counting the death of Fuller from Anomaly or that another crew member died in the interim from their wounds.) It is a nice illustration of just how strongly the final stretch of the third season embraces serialisation, with the episode’s teaser serving as a coda to the events of the previous two episodes. It is a nice, small touch that sets the mood for the episode ahead.

Funeral for a friend...

Funeral for a friend…

However, it also seems like a very self-aware sequence. Archer is nominally talking about the death of eighteen characters, but he might as well be talking about the looming death of this iteration of the Star Trek franchise, or of the death of innocence that featured in Damage. “We’re in bad shape, I can’t deny that,” Archer tells his crew. He could just as easily be talking about the show, which seemed practically under siege at this point. “But we’re still in one piece. Enterprise is a tough ship. She took more than anyone could ask her to and then some.”

In many ways, the beating that the Enterprise took in Azati Prime reflects the beating that Star Trek: Enterprise had taken over its three year run: from a fandom hostile to the idea of a prequel and unsatisfied with an overly familiar storytelling structure; from a network that had changed hands during the first season of the show; from an eager Hollywood press that could smell blood in the water that had been ripely aged eighteen years; even from former allies like Majel Barrett, William Shatner and Ronald D. Moore.

Tripping over his emotional state...

Tripping over his emotional state…

The Forgotten is a story that is very consciously symbolic and metaphorical. It is also something of an oddity. In a way, it feels like a more successful version of what the show attempted with Harbinger, offering a light character-driven story falling between two bigger beats in the larger plot arc. With its fixation on sex and violence, Harbinger was goofy and pulpy in equal measure. In contrast, The Forgotten is an episode that is morose and sombre. It is an episode that very clearly articulates where the third season is going – and where it always has been going.

If Damage was a show about how Star Trek could easily get lost in a grim and gritty War on Terror metaphor, The Forgotten reveals that the third season was never about rationalisation or justification. The Forgotten is a show about how the Star Trek franchise needed to find a way back to its more traditional values.

A massive breach...

A massive breach…

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Similitude (Review)

Next year, Star Trek is fifty years old. We have some special stuff planned for that, but – in the meantime – we’re reviewing all of Star Trek: Enterprise this year as something of a prequel to that anniversary. This August, we’re doing the third season. Check back daily for the latest review.

It is hard to talk about Similitude without talking about Manny Coto.

It is quite easy to get distracted from the episode itself, which is a sublimely moving piece of working with skilled direction from LeVar Burton and a beautiful central performance from Connor Trinneer. More than that, Similitude is very much pure Star Trek. It is a metaphor about the human condition, wrapped up in a morality play fashioned from some admittedly questionable science-fiction. This good old-fashioned allegorical science-fiction in a style that really works, capitalising on the status quo of the third season of Star Trek: Enterprise to tell a moving story.

Send in the clones...

Send in the clones…

And, yet, despite all that, this is the point at which Manny Coto arrives. Much like it is impossible to talk about The Bonding without talking about Ronald D. Moore, it is impossible to talk about Similitude without talking about Manny Coto. Coto arrived on the show fresh from Odyssey 5, and quickly made himself invaluable and essential. While his scripts were quite hit-and-miss on an episode-by-episode basis, Coto demonstrated an aptitude for producing television in general and Star Trek in particular.

Indeed, Coto managed to climb the franchise rungs faster than any producer and writer since Michael Piller in the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Piller had found himself running the show after Michael Wagner suddenly decided to step down only a few episodes into the season. Coto had a bit longer to get the lay of the land; he would have half of the third season to establish himself before being placed in charge of the writers’ room for the start of the show’s fourth year when Brannon Braga stepped back into a more supervisory role.

Genetically engineered engineer...

Genetically engineered engineer…

A number of factors helped to establish Coto as an almost mythical figure in Star Trek lore. The dramatic change in tone and style into the fourth year, which catered to a core group of Star Trek fans – including Coto himself – surely helped. The fact that Coto was succeeding Brannon Braga probably helped establish his credibility as well – a vocal section of fandom has complete disdain for Braga’s style. Despite the fact that Coto was only in charge for twenty-four episode, he made a surprisingly enduring contribution to the franchise as a whole.

Hindsight seems to suggest that Similitude was almost prophetic; it is the story of incredible growth and development over an incredibly short amount of time, making a deep and lasting impression.

Designer baby...

Designer baby…

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The X-Files – The Unnatural (Review)

This July, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the sixth season of The X-Files and the third (and final) season of Millennium.

Let me get this straight: a free-spirited alien fell in love with baseball and ran away from the other non-fun-having aliens and made himself black, because that would prevent him from getting to the majors where his unspeakable secret might be discovered by an intrusive press and public and you’re also implying that…

You certainly have a knack for turning chicken salad into chicken spit.

– Fox Mulder and Arthur Dales discuss the merits of The Unnatural

Swing and a hit...

Swing and a hit…

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Judgment (Review)

Next year, Star Trek is fifty years old. We have some special stuff planned for that, but – in the meantime – we’re reviewing all of Star Trek: Enterprise this year as something of a prequel to that anniversary. This April, we’re doing the second season. Check back daily for the latest review.

Judgment is the first episode of Star Trek to do something interesting with the Klingons since Tacking Into the Wind, almost four years earlier.

After all, it never seemed like Star Trek: Enterprise had any real idea what to do with the Klingons. The show had made use of Klingons in Broken Bow, Unexpected, Sleeping Dogs and Marauders – but none of these episodes seemed particularly interested in telling a story about Klingons. Enterprise seemed primarily interested in the Klingons as a connection to the franchise’s long and distinguished history. After all, Klingons are almost as iconic a part of Star Trek as Spock; working a few bumpy-headed warriors into your script was a nice way of acknowledging the Star Trek legacy.

Trial of the twenty-second century...

Trial of the twenty-second century…

Certainly, Enterprise was not interested in committing to the same Klingon world-building in which Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had revelled. There are a lot of reasons for this. Over ten seasons, writer Ronald D. Moore had probably said just about everything that needed to be said about the Klingons; trying to say something new or interesting without his input was certainly daunting. More than that, Enterprise had committed itself quite firmly to episodic storytelling in its first two years; even the Andorians and Vulcans were still barely developed.

So David A. Goodman’s script for Judgment is ambitious, particularly in light of the spectacular failure of his (heavily re-written) work on Precious Cargo. Constructing an episode that might easily be misread as a rehash of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country was a pretty bold choice, particularly given the problems that the show had endured while trying to construct an homage to Elaan of Troyius and The Perfect Mate. On paper, Judgment is an assignment that could easily explode spectacularly. It might not be as crazy a gambit as A Night in Sickbay, but it is a story with lofty objectives.

The court has spoken.

The court has spoken.

With so much of the second season feeling like it is running on auto-pilot, the energy and enthusiasm of Judgment is infectious. Singularity, Vanishing Point, Canamar and The Crossing felt like they were constructed using blueprints of what a Star Trek episode should look like. It is refreshing to watch an episode of Enterprise that seems genuinely excited to playing with these particular toys. In that sense, Judgment sets the mood for the final stretch of the season – despite duds like Horizon and Bounty, the final run of episodes feels like a band playing an encore for a show on the cusp of monumental change.

Although not facing the same threat of cancellation that loomed at the end of the third and fourth seasons, the second season of Enterprise feels like the last gasp of a particular model of Star Trek production, one no longer as viable as it once had been. Starting with Judgment, the show seems to acknowledge that things are going to have to change dramatically and soon; however, there is a clear attempt to bid this particular iteration of Star Trek a fond farewell. As such, any and all references to The Undiscovered Country feel entirely appropriate.

“Don’t wait for the translation! Answer me now!”

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