Guardians of the Galaxy–Review

Source: Wikipedia

It’s become sort of a hallmark of the Marvel Studios films to toggle back and forth between using original material and incorporating wholesale storylines from the comics canon. Barring the S.H.I.E.L.D.-heavy connection, Captain America: The Winter Soldier was basically a straight version of the Winter Soldier’s introductory storyline. Iron Man is essentially a feature-length version of the character’s updated origin from the “Extremis” story by Warren Ellis and Adi Granov.

With Guardians of the Galaxy, things are different. Here, writer-director James Gunn–rewriting an earlier script by Nicole Perlman–is taking the incarnation of the team put together by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning in the past few years and giving them a wholly original story to play around in. There’s backstory, sure, but the specifics are brand new.

After a heart-rending prologue in which a young Peter Quill (Wyatt Oleff) loses his mother to cancer and is then abducted by a group of alien thieves called the Ravagers, the present day of the film finds an adult Quill, going by the name “Star-Lord” (Chris Pratt), sashaying and sliding his way across an abandoned alien temple to ’70s music from a Walkman while retrieving a mysterious orb on behalf of his boss/surrogate dad, Yondu (Michael Rooker) so it can be sold for a heavy price. However, he’s accosted by Korath the Pursuer (Djimon Hounsou), who tries to steal the orb from him for his boss, the fanatical Kree warlord Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace).

Quill escapes and tries to sell the orb directly to the buyer on the planet Xandar, home of the Nova Corps. The buyer refuses once he learns that Ronan–who’s threatening to destroy Xandar despite a Kree-Xandarian peace treaty–wants it and Quill winds up being pursued by Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who’s been loaned out to Ronan, along with Nebula (Karen Gillan) as muscle by her adopted father Thanos the “Mad Titan”(Josh Brolin, going uncredited). Gamora, Quill and bounty hunters Rocket Racoon (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel)–who try to capture Quill for the huge bounty Yondu has placed on his head for muscling him out of his share of the orb–all wind up being thrown in jail by the Nova Corps.

There, they run into Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), a morose musclebound giant who dreams of killing Ronan as vengeance for his murdered family. The group reluctantly bands together and breaks out, with Gamora–wanting to break away from the grip of Thanos and Ronan–leading them in a plan to sell the orb to someone else and split the money 5 ways. Of course, things go wrong.

What follows is perhaps one of the best movies of the year. It’s definitely in the top tier of Marvel Studios films–stronger, I’d dare to say, than The Avengers, if not quite as great as Winter Soldier–as well as being one of the best sci-fi/action movies of recent vintage.

It’s a funny thing. Despite coming from a superhero studio, this really isn’t a superhero movie. What it is is perhaps the best example of post-Star Wars SF filmmaking yet. The world and tech is lived in; big, crazy concepts are introduced and mostly brushed aside. In short, it’s easygoing and loose, something that a lot of blockbusters miss.

Key to the film’s joyful, groovy atmosphere is the cast, particularly Pratt. The Lego Movie might’ve been the first sign, but this film proves that without a doubt, he is a goddamn movie star. He’s charismatic, he’s goofy and he can shift to serious when it calls for it. In short, it’s like watching Firefly, but if the cast was one person. Trust me when I say that his work alone sells this movie.

However, he’s not the only draw, cast-wise. Everyone involved does outstanding work, from Pace’s over-the-top villainy as Ronan (which straight up nails the bombast of the character’s original appearances) to the soulful melancholy of Bautista as Drax. Also, all one needs to do is look at any given fight scene with Drax to wonder just why a major movie studio put a pro wrestler in its space movie.

Rocket and Groot, of course, are the big draws and they deliver on all fronts. Cooper–who provided the voice and was filmed gesticulating by the animators for reference, while the role of Rocket on-set was played by Gunn’s brother Sean–nails the wiseass tone of Rocket. And as the vocab-impaired Groot, Diesel turns in what is without a doubt his best performance since The Iron Giant. I’m not ashamed to say that I gasped and nearly cried at his big emotional moment; Diesel is that good.

Unfortunately, as they tend to be in this kind of movie, the women are sidelined. Saldana and Gillan are both great here, don’t get me wrong. But they get the shaft at points and it’s rather annoying, particularly with Nebula; I could sense that there was something we were missing and it kinda stank.

Now I’m not familiar with Gunn’s other work–although Super has been in my Netflix queue for a good long while–but as far as mainstream debuts go, this is a winner. I wrote on Twitter earlier after seeing this movie today that the little kids who see this today will be the George Lucas of tomorrow, creating whole new worlds out of cloth.

Reflecting on that, it seems like James Gunn was one of those kids. This was a long shot for a lot of reasons; the fact that millions upon millions of people now know who the Kree, the Celestials and Rocket Racoon are is mind-blowing. Folks: see this movie. You won’t regret it because there’s very little to regret.

In closing, let me just say that if you’ve already seen this movie and loved it like I do, please consider donating to the ongoing medical expenses and care of Bill Mantlo, the writer who co-created Rocket Racoon in the ’80s. Mantlo, a beloved comics writer, was in a near-fatal hit-and-run accident in 1992 and now requires round-the-clock help in an assisted living facility. You can find out more about his condition here; please consider donating a buck or two his way. Thank you.

 

 

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Of Marvel Movies and Their Creators

Okay, so I think we’re all aware of the two big news stories this week, but in case you haven’t heard, the long-awaited, much-speculated-about Guardians of the Galaxy film finally got its official movie trailer this week.

Yeah, this movie’s gonna be amazing. But what’s equally amazing and wonderful to me is how many people have been discovering and sharing the story of what happened to team member Rocket Racoon’s creator, writer Bill Mantlo.

Mantlo got in on the ground floor of the fan-turned-pro incursion into comics in the 1970s, quickly becoming famous for his ability to consistently write fill-in stories on any given title and eventually became one of Marvel’s most famous, prolific writers. But because of a head injury brought about by a hit-and-run in 1992, Mantlo has been living with severe disability and has been shunted through the underbelly of the American health care system ever since. You can read more about that here.

As that article mentions, because he created characters like Rocket Racoon and White Tiger before an incentive program was implemented allowing creators of characters to get proceeds from merchandise, Mantlo and his family–who serve as his legal representatives and caretakers–won’t see a dime from the millions of dollars Guardians will no doubt make when it comes out in August.

This is yet another example of what an insightful article at the Escapist yesterday pointed out: comics creators, who over the decades have gone from being creatives just looking for work to fans specifically looking to work in the medium, have been and still are consistently underpaid and mistreated, even as their publishers continue to make millions of dollars from their work. For someone who’s had as much terrible stuff happen to him as Mantlo has, that means everyone may know who you are, but that won’t help you whatsoever.

In an age where fans can easily access a colorist’s profile on deviantART and Transformers writer James Roberts regularly holds court via Twitter, this sort of thing should be swept under the rug and a new paradigm created. But until that happens, Mantlo, and people like him, need your help. You can learn how to donate to Mantlo’s care here.

Moving on to the other big news of the week–the revealed cast for the new Fantastic Four films–I’m reminded of the many, repeated attempts by the family of the great Jack Kirby to get some restitution for Marvel’s terrible mistreatment of such a great talent. Of course, one could make the claim that, as with Mantlo, since Kirby was work-for-hire, his heirs aren’t entitled to compensation. But given how iconic these characters are, dispensation must be made. Justice must be done.

If you’d like to help out other creators, the best resources possible are the Hero Intiative, which helps creators who have fallen on hard times, and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, which ensures First Amendment protection to all parts of the comics medium.

Yes, I know this is a PSA, but guys, this stuff is important. Before there were superhero movies, there were superhero comics, and before that, there were people. People with ideas that couldn’t be contained and chose to express those ideas through words and art. Thank you.

Refle-X-ions

tumblr_mu1y5rrdVi1r0x04do1_r2_1280-630x393 (Russell Dauterman, via ComicsAlliance)

So on Monday, I did a special post because a piece of mine about All-New X-Men went up on the website Drunk On Comics, where I’ll now be a regular contributor.

Because of length reasons, I didn’t really get into just how much this book and its creative team changed my mind about the X-Men. As such, I’d like to do so here.

To me, as I fell in love with comics and superhero comics specifically throughout my adolescence, the X-Men were always a blockade. I’ve always said that I like when superhero stories have a bit of soap opera feel to them–that’s a BIG part of why I love ’60s-’70s Marvel so much–but such a term has good and bad connotations. For me, the X-Men seem to come down on the bad side.

Ever since Chris Claremont and a revolving door of artists revitalized the X-Men in the ’70s, basically making the book one long, long-running story, the franchise has only blown up in both number of books and number of stories since. The downside to all this is that it created what many like to point out as a  problem with superhero comics as a whole: a continuity so complicated and dense that it’s impossible to find any clear entry points (the fact that many stories involve time travel doesn’t help either). Instead, Marvel has to go out of their way to make sure that certain event storylines–or the aftermaths thereof–are accessible to casual readers or people who read the event.

That’s not to say I didn’t read an X-stories before All-New X-Men. I remember reading a volume of Wolverine stories when I was younger, and In high school, I read what I call the “Vulcan Trilogy” of stories, where writer Ed Brubaker and artist Trevor Hairsine, among others, created the character of Vulcan, the long-lost younger brother of Cyclops who was raised a slave by aliens, escaped and wound up participating in a secret chapter in the events of Giant-Size X-Men #1— which brought characters like Wolverine and Nightcrawler into the fold and basically made the X-Men famous–which eventually made him go crazy. As an interconnected story of space opera and secret revelations went, I enjoyed it a lot…but I still had to look up some history for proper context.

I had a more stand-alone experience when I found Volume 4 of the Marvel Essentials series of X-Men collections in a discount bin at my local comic shop for $7. This also starts out as space opera, beginning with the team out in space fighting the alien Brood, but it goes on to have things like fights with the sewer-dwelling Morlocks, Storm growing a mohawk after bonding with a baby space whale only to see it die and the legendary “God Loves, Man Kills,” which was one of the major inspirations for X2. Yeah, it was a chunk of a larger story, but it began and ended completely enough that I didn’t feel completely confused or shortshrifted.

All-New X-Men made me feel the same way. Here’s a story–this time in the aftermath of last year’s requisite sales-generating-but-short-on-story summer crossover Avengers Vs. X-Men which spins out of everything that’s happened to the Marvel Mutants since 2005 or so–but  one that feels like not just fallout from the Big Thing, but also a big game-changer that introduces a new status quo (past versions of the five original X-Men arriving in the present, FYI, in case you didn’t read my review) while still delivering completely coherent storytelling on its own.

Depressingly, that thing’s uncommon in terms of superhero stories, but as long as we get examples that shine like this, I’ll take it. As I said in the Drunk On Comics piece, I’ll be keeping up with this book…and I may or may not have started watching the ’90s X-Cartoon from the beginning. In short, I’ve turned my thinking around on characters I thought I’d never like. Life’s funny that way.

Top 5 Comics of 2012

Hey folks, how was your Christmas? Mine was great! I got to see my new baby cousin, the first season of Homeland, and over $100 in Barnes & Noble gift cards!

Speaking of books, if you’ve been following here for a while, you’ve probably noticed by now that I like comics. A LOT.

But rather than try and count down my top 5 comic book issues of the year (because that would be really hard and several people are much better suited than I for such work), I figured I’d just list my top 5 favorite ongoing series. OK? OK, here we go…

#5–Superman/Superman Family Adventures

In talking with a friend about Superman recently, I mentioned that DC policy thus far has been to rotate the creative team every six issues, which equals out to the length of one storyline generally.

“So, basically, ” he said, “it’s an anthology?”

I said yes at the time but now I think it’s more like each arc is an episode of a TV show: each team is telling their one largely self-contained story (the current crossover being the exception), with their own style, while still contributing to one vision. It’s not always the most interesting or captivating book, but it’s entertaining and has got plenty of shots of Supes fighting the good fight, which I like.

Family Adventures, while having that whole episodic feel– each issue is self-contained, but there’s obviously some big plan being cooked up by Lex Luthor–is still a bit of an anomaly. I honestly never thought I’d be buying a kids comic, let alone one drawn and written by the dudes behind the famously-drawn-in-crayon Tiny Titans series, but when I saw the buzz it was getting, I had to check it out.

Man, is this book fun. Clean drawing, simple yet brilliant stories, really fun tweaks on the Superman mythos, like, say, Otis from Superman: The Movie becoming the Parasite…this book is great. Check it out for sure.

#4–Action Comics

Because it’s written by famed author Grant Morrison–best known for turning out the incandescently amazing All-Star Superman and being incredibly damn weird–Action Comics had the biggest hype arguably of anything going into DC’s New 52 relaunch because people were wondering which version of Morrison would show up. Well, with one issue left to go in his stated 16-issue run, I’d say by and large it’s been the one who can turn out amazing; at his best, Morrison writes high-concept stories that still feel understandable to the neophyte while celebrating the love of the longtime fan. Although the run hasn’t always been perfect (a head-scratching two-part story with the Legion of Super-Heroes comes to mind), it’s always been intriguing and the backup stories by Sholly Fisch have done a great job filling out the world and its inhabitants. This run will no doubt be discussed by comic book scholars for years to come.

#3–Captain America

If you had told me I’d be reading a Marvel book in 2012, even with the roller-coaster of awesome that was The Avengers, I’d have laughed. See, by and large, here’s how the storytelling policies of Marvel and DC Comics work. DC tries to make stories about gods (Superman, Wonder Woman) and god-like humans (Batman, Green Lantern) very simple and straightforward; Marvel, on the other hand, tries to make stories about simple humans with powers (Spider-Man, Wolverine, etc.) as complex and interconnected as possible.

Laugh at DC all you want for having rebooted 3 times in the past few decades, but they understood that their continuity had gotten too complicated for layfolk to understand; Marvel, on the other hand, has a “sliding timescale” policy similar to the newspaper comics comic books sprung from: i.e. the stories are always set in the present, but everything that has happened to their characters, unless stated, has always happened, creating a giant web of context that’s darn near impossible to navigate.

So why do I like the new Captain America so much then? Because it takes place outside of that web. In the first issue, Steve Rogers, investigating an abandoned subway line that’s mysteriously begun operating again for S.H.I.E.L.D., boards the train–which turns out to be full of monsters–and is whisked away due to another dimension, escapes his captor, the fanatic Armim Zola, and with a genetically engineered baby of Zola’s design, wanders the alien landscape trying to figure out a way home and how to survive. So yeah, it’s The Road but with spandex, basically.

John Romita, Jr’s art is well suited to the surreality of “Dimension Z” as it’s called, as well as the flashbacks to Rogers’ ’20s Bronx childhood that Rick Remender’s scripts call for. Speaking of Remender, while I’ve never read anything of his before, this is great: his pacing and the way he constructs his scenes are great; only 2 issues in and I’m already reeling from a cliffhanger that cries out to be delivered in a splash page, but isn’t. Instead, it’s a wide panel at the bottom of the page. It’ll cost you only $7 to pick all 2 issues of this up and I’d heartily recommend it.

#2–Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye

I’ve been a fan of Transformers since I was eight but I’d been holding off on diving full-throttle into the current comics because of the strange way they were published but this series allowed me to dive in with full force. The great thing about this book is that, like Captain America, it’s largely set apart from the rest of what’s going on.

Here’s the setup: the war between the Autobots and the Decepticons is over, with the two sides back on Cybertron trying to rebuild their damaged planet. Meanwhile, Rodimus–the guy in the middle there–has gone off  with several other Autobots to try and find the fabled Knights of Cybertron–the first inhabitants of the planet who were sent off on a mission of piece eons and eons ago, fyi–and persuade them to come back. But shortly after takeoff, they accidentally go through a wormhole and wind up roaming the galaxy all by themselves. Of course, it only gets crazier from there…

Key to the series is the astonishing artwork of Alex Milne for sure but the real star is the script power of James Roberts. Although everyone who works in comics nowadays is a fan-turned-pro, Roberts is particularly special: a founding member of the huge Transformers UK fanfiction community, Roberts eventually wrote Eugenesis, a novel-length fanfic that actually has astonishing literary skill behind it, believe it or not, and sunk about 1000 pounds of his own money into putting it into print. Eventually, when IDW Publishing had picked up the license, he was tapped to write a few stories here and there and then given full control of this book. What makes his writing work for me is that he imbues all these characters–some new, some established characters–with enough personality and charm that they stand on their own, even if you aren’t familiar with them. As somebody not familiar with the ’80s Transformers continuity, this is a big help for me and I look forward to this book every month.

But there’s one I look forward to even more…

#1–Saga

I had heard of writer Brian K. Vaughn (Y: The Last Man for Vertigo and Runaways for Marvel) and artist Fiona Staples (Marvel’s T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents) but I had never read anything by them until I saw the first issue of this science fiction series for $1.99. I picked it up as an impulse purchase, but one look at the terrific worldbuilding and gorgeous gorgeous artwork and I was hooked. Just look at this stuff:

If her art doesn’t get nominated for anything big next comics award season, I’ll hate everything.

At its heart, this is a star-crossed lovers story. Marko–the ram-horned guy–and Alana–short-haired chick who, although you can’t really see it, has wings–are soldiers on different sides of a bitter interstellar war. Alana hails from the technologically-advanced planet of Landfall, while Marko comes from the magic-using people of the planet’s moon Wreath: the two planets have been in endless conflict but when Alana, a prison guard, and Marko, a prisoner, fall in love, bust out and have a baby named Hazel (who narrates the series as an adult), the war gets a new focus. In addition to their own peoples hunting for them, they also have bounty hunters on their trail and Prince Robot IV from the Robot Empire following them. So yeah, pretty tense yet typical stuff. But Vaughn’s terrific scripts and Staples’ amazing art make this stand out from the rest.

The series only has 8 issues right now because it started in March and, after the first story arc, the book took a 2-month break to allow the two to rest and for Staples to get ahead on artwork. But the first trade collection is out now and it’s only for $10 so you have no excuse, people. Check it out.

Well, that was fun. Given my update schedule, I won’t post another one of these until after New Year’s Eve, but hey, I know y’all won’t mind.