Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Karen Gillan, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio del Toro. Directed by James Gunn.

guardians1Peter Quill is an Earthling space pirate. He’s kind of a daring, smart-alecky, play-by-his-own-rules kind of guy, like a poor man’s Han Solo, and when he double-crosses the pirate he works with, a bunch of people with a severe interest in the orb he’s recovered come at him from multiple directions. He finds himself in a space prison, where he joins up with a sexy green assassin, a giant muscular thug, a raccoon-looking bounty hunter, and a tree-like thing named Groot. Although each has a selfish interest at heart, the group cautiously agrees to cooperate for the safety of the galaxy when they realize what the orb can do if it falls into the wrong hands.

guardians2It’s a fun, funny movie with creative action sequences, great dialogue, interesting characters, and a cool soundtrack. I enjoyed most of the film and laughed aloud multiple times, appreciating the funny details and silly verbal back-and-forth. There’s even some pretty nice emotional heft in a few places.

Strangely, there’s just not much more to say beyond that. Nothing in the film really asks to be thought much about, and all of the tension exists within the context of the immediate danger characters find themselves in. Unlike the Thor-Loki and Magneto-Xavier relationships, which deal with strained loyalties, or the darkly introspective Wolverine and Hulk characters whose difficult battles are with themselves, the characters here—as likeable as they are—don’t give us a lot to chew on. Guardians of the Galaxy is a really entertaining film that doesn’t stick around much the morning after you’ve seen it.

(small spoiler in this paragraph only)
I have to say that as much as I appreciate the concept of the infinity stones existing across storylines and bringing the separate series together for group films like The Avengers and Civil War, the stones themselves are becoming extremely tired as a device.

I look forward to the sequel, but I really kind of wish the plan was to keep this as a separate series without crossing into other Marvel series.

7/10
74/100

Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Claudia Kim, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Elizabeth Olsen, Cobie Smulders, Hayley Atwell, Idris Elba. Written and directed by Joss Whedon.

ultron1The first Avengers movie was a big, noisy mess with too many characters to manage and not enough humanity to plumb. Just about everything I enjoy about the Marvel films was either missing or in short supply, which is probably why I was in no hurry to catch its sequel, Avengers: Age of Ultron. Then I got myself caught up on Captain America, and I was introduced to Scarlet Witch, and this second Avengers movie felt like a gap I wanted to fill.

ultron2Really, what is it about these Avengers films? Do the titles mean that since nobody gets a titular role, the movies can’t spend time developing singular characters? The recent Captain America: Civil War is effectively an Avengers movie (I’m not a comic book reader, so if what I just wrote is a sin against fandom, don’t shoot me), yet there’s pretty good character development of Steve Rogers, Tony Stark, Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Scarlet Witch, so I reject this as necessarily a rule. Except for a pretty great tension with Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanoff in the stay-away-I’m-dangerous vein, and Scarlet Witch’s conflicted side-choosing, writer Joss Whedon seems to have decided his audience doesn’t care about humanizing these heroes. It’s a bad choice.

ultron3The plot’s main conceit, the emergence of an artificial intelligence powered by Loki’s scepter (from the first Avengers movie), is pretty cool, although I could have done without the comic-booky appearance of the villain and his various incarnations. Most of the action is unremarkable, except as it serves to develop characters, but it’s too long to be excused even by that.

This is not to say I didn’t enjoy the movie. I did, in a kind of let-everything-go-and-just-enjoy-the-ride way, which is pretty much what I said about the first Avengers movie. If I hadn’t first seen Captain America: Civil War and come into this one with an interest in Wanda Maximoff’s origins, it wouldn’t have been quite so enjoyable, so I’m giving it a two-point Elizabeth Olsen bump and a surprise one-point Claudia Kim bump.

7/10
70/100

Review: Captain America: Civil War

Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Elizabeth Olsen, and a cast of thousands. Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo.

cacw 1Saving the world sometimes comes with collateral damage, and when the Avengers are involved, turn that “sometimes” into “always.” In Captain America: Civil War, there is huge international backlash when Scarlet Witch unintentionally blows up a building, killing several humanitarian workers, and now the United Nations wants to assume oversight and control over the Avengers. The Avengers are split over the issue: Tony Stark leads one side, while Steve Rogers takes the other.

cacw 2Further description of the plot would only be confusing, but it mostly comes down to The UN wanting to find the Winter Soldier for the assassination of a king, while Rogers tries to get to him first in order to protect him.

(slight spoilers in this paragraph only)
I knew the barest minimum about the plot before going in, and I assumed it was Tony Stark who wanted independence while Steve Rogers accepted governmental oversight. It was a nice surprise to see that it was the other way around, and it’s easy to see what would make each man go against his seeming inclinations. Stark has been his own man for a long time; success in business almost always assumes collateral damage, but when someone humanizes the casualties, he accepts the need for someone else to be in charge. Rogers has been a government weapon, always willing to do his duty, but in this role he has lost his best friend, every one of his contemporaries, and the woman who might have been the love of his life.  As a lifelong questioner of authority, there was never a doubt which side I was hoping the Avengers would take, and it’s actually kind of surprising to see how each of them lines up.

cacw 3The film is loaded with superheroes, and although there are moments where their number is overwhelming, it’s mostly handled well, especially in the big fight scene. There are a few surprise appearances, and they mostly work. There’s a lot of quick humor, too; I laughed aloud multiple times, and I appreciated that even when the Avengers are in the middle of combat against each other, there is mutual respect and affection. There’s a lot of good relationship stuff, too, the stuff that adds nice layers between all the action sequence stuff.

And now I have to say something about Scarlet Witch, played by Elizabeth Olsen. Holy moly. She’s mysterious, dark, tortured, fearsome, and beautiful. My favorite female superhero in films has been Anna Paquin’s Rogue, beginning with the first X-Men film, but here is someone to rival her. I love that she is alternatingly gorgeous and kind of hideous (witchlike, even), with a haunted goth look I can’t take my eyes away from.

I still have a few more of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films to catch up on, but this one is likely right up there with <i>Iron Man</i>, and Captain America is becoming my favorite of the comic book movie superheroes.

7/10
79/100

Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Emily VanCamp, Cobie Smulders, Robert Redford, Samuel L. Jackson, Anthony Mackie. Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo.

winter_soldier_2Steve Rogers is still getting acclimated to his new home, carrying around a notepad in which he writes the names of musicians, movies, politicians, and cultural references as they come up in conversation. It’s a quick reminder of the underlying stress in Rogers’s life. The Rip Van Winkle motif is certainly not new, but it does give Rogers an interesting dimension, and I always appreciate layers in my superhero movies.

In one early scene, after Rogers adds “Troubleman (soundtrack)” to his list, Natasha Romanoff (played by Scarlett Johansson) drives up in a sleek sports car to give him a ride. It’s another layer, this one falling into the plus column, because if Rogers is still dealing with the abrupt ending to his blossoming romance with agent Carter (and he seems to be), a little bit of Black Widow can ease the transition, even if the relationship seems to be platonic.

winter_soldier_3S.H.I.E.L.D. is being attacked by the titular Winter Soldier, a Russian super-tough guy Romanoff is familiar with by reputation, but weird stuff is going on that cannot be explained by this villain. A S.H.I.E.L.D. program similar to the Strategic Defense Initiative of the 1980s (only a lot more badass) is about to launch, but director Nick Fury asks for a delay until he can figure out what’s going on. He warns Rogers to “trust nobody,” which of course puts Rogers in the difficult position of seeing everyone as a potential enemy.

Action sequences are about as good as in the first Captain America film while the overarching plot of S.H.I.E.L.D. vs. Hydra isn’t very interesting, but again, the driving force is really Steve Rogers’s virtuousness, and it’s not just his patriotism, sense of duty, politeness, and desire to serve. He has a way of connecting with people wherever they are, a disarming sense of compassion and comprehension that tells people he’s on their side. This interpersonal talent makes him a quick, accurate judge of character that’s as valuable an asset as his super strength and speed. It makes me eager to see more.

7/10
76/100