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daredevil-posterFull disclosure this was not supposed to be my introductory piece to the Maniacal Geek. No, actually when I reached out to Sam a week ago and told her that I was itching to write something again I had pitched two completely different ideas. The first a wonderful piece about Flash and its importance to the DC television universe, and second a prediction on the fate of the Jedi Order sans George Lucas. I may very well end up finishing those two stories but something happened in the last few days that changed the game and I feel compelled to write about.

When Marvel and Netflix announced their partnership I admittedly did not think much of it. I have read Daredevil comics, and I know of all the other characters and parts that were suggested, but to be honest I have never been much of a fan and I feared that budgetary and production limitations would make these properties as second class to the MCU as they have often found themselves in the comics. So when Friday rolled around, and I sat working from home, I found that my excitement to watch Daredevil had more to do with the lack of anything compelling on Hulu than a real need to see how it turned out. Bottom line if you stop reading now know this… Daredevil is 13 compelling episodes of cinema with a grit and reality that hide its flaws and highlights the fact that film and TV can now match the world building of comic books. I will not give you a play by play of the series, for that you will need to watch yourself, but here are my reasons why Daredevil just moved to the top of my “television” superhero properties.

1. Cinema Not Television

The first thing I realized as I started to watch Daredevil is that my concerns about budget and production where needless. Daredevil and Hell’s Kitchen are as real and as well defined as any television series about a guy with superpowers has ever come close to being. Showrunner Stephen S. DeKnight has been on record as calling the Wire a source of influence and Wilson Fisk himself Vincent D’Onofrio said that it felt like making a movie, well they are both right. Daredevil exhibits a focus in its storytelling and character development that I would expect from a 2 hour film rather than a 13 episode series. Additionally the fight sequences are beautifully done not only highlighting the individual styles and attitudes of the characters, but walking a line of violence that puts my parent radar on alert while keeping me on the edge of my seat. MARVEL'S DAREDEVIL

While I have binged watched shows before, I have never begun one that was intended to be binged watched. You feel it with Daredevil and it works. The story is meant to be told in large chunks and even the progression of time in the episodes reflects this approach. Events are compacted to help you feel like you are living the predicament of the characters and this is reinforced with the acting. The pacing for some of the B stories is not always perfect, but tell me one film where they always are? Most importantly, even with its radically different tone and storytelling, it still belongs in the MCU. Daredevil never feels misguided or second class and its characters are as compelling as everything we have seen in phase 1 and 2 so far.

2. Genuine Not Gritty

As a DC fan I hate when I hear that they are trying to be more “gritty.” That word makes my skin crawl as I feel it has become synonymous with overacting and gratuitous violence. Daredevil has neither, in fact it has a genuine feel to it that had me thinking more about Breaking Bad than Arrow. Both hero and villain find themselves fighting for the same thing, and walking similar lines. The faint difference that puts them on opposite sides is their willingness to kill another human being. Note that this is important as one finds his willingness forced upon him as a child while the other faces an active choice that he is constantly on the edge of making. This compiled with what I feel is an Emmy worthy performance by D’Onofrio, makes Fisk often the most compelling character on screen. Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock does a great job, though he suffers by comparison to the powerful acting around him. Murdock’s often thin relationship with his faith and questions of his own sanity and worth easily run the risk of being too much and too direct with the “Devil” aspect. But Cox’s conversations with Peter McRobbie’s Father Lantom are well written and well performed, and that is where Cox really shines. Matt_and_Father_Lantom

Along with D’Onofrio, every time Vondie Curtis-Hall (Ben Urich) is on screen I am immediately drawn in. Rosario Dawson (Claire Temple a.k.a. Night Nurse) and Toby Leonard Moore (James Wesley) are limited by either screen time or role respectively, but you do not notice it. Both of their performances are spot on and Wesley’s one liners are timely and well delivered. I can go on and on about the cast but I will wrap it up with the three show regulars: Charlie Cox is a compelling Matt Murdock, though his Daredevil persona suffers from the lack of personality that comes from a darker story. That is not to say it is good, but while Daredevil holds up to most of the other parts of the MCU, this is the one place where a moodier story makes for a slightly less dynamic hero. Deborah Ann Woll has already proven to make the most out of a limited role with her time on True Blood, but her take on the innocent victim with a dark past of Karen Page is not only well executed, but actually has me excited to watch her fall from grace as the story continues. Lastly, I will admit I was concerned about how Elden Henson as Foggy Nelson would do. Would his natural ease and nerdy charm stand up to the dark undertones and rest of the grizzled cast. Not only does he have his own serious moments, but he somehow finds a way to maintain his likeability while never becoming the comic relief.

3. World Building

Daredevil is not the Avengers and it is certainly not Guardians of the Galaxy. It does not have time for any of that light hearted fair or banter. Its characters can rarely be described as heroes, and are more what we would deem heroic everyday folks. Hell it is not even remotely recognizable to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, but in all of that the MCU just become so much richer than it has been until this point. Don’t get me wrong, I have loved the MCU so far (I think I have seen Guardian’s going on 15 times), but nothing has described the impact and everyday lives of the people in this world like Daredevil does. Daredevil reminds us that when Hulk throws someone into a building there are repercussions. There are people and children that have now grown up in this MCU and heroes and villains are just a fact of life. How would that change how we function as a society? What would our lives look like in this new era?Matt _Murdock

Most importantly even though it brings color to the MCU picture, it also holds its own. Being the gateway to an entire new world of storytelling that the Netflix productions will be charged with. Sure there is a part of me that now wants to see the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen throw it down with Spider-Man and Captain America, but if it never happens I will be completely OK. Daredevil does not need it nor does the rest of the MCU. Daredevil’s sole responsibility to the MCU is to open the door for characters and heroes that are not the Avengers. That do not play whims to galactic trans-dimensional villains, or to alien hoards, or super science. It is to show that even in a world where a guy with a hammer can call lightning at will and SHIELD spends money like it’s going out of style, people still have to struggle to keep the lights on and have clean running water. I only hope that as we get into the more super-natural story telling of Iron Fist, and ultimately the Defenders, that the realism and grounded nature of Daredevil does not get lost. If Marvel has earned anything so far it is my confidence that it will be just fine.

Marvel and Netflix have yet to confirm a second season, but I have no fear (see what I did there) that it will happen. I expect these Netflix series will be a little more Doctor Who in frequency than most shows, but that is   . Mainly because if they keep being this good, I will just watch them over and over again until the new stuff finally hits the internet.

Let me know your thoughts and predictions below and as always thanks for reading. JP

If you’re a fan of comic books, Deadpool, Ryan Reynolds, or even – gasp – a fan of all three at the same time, then you’re probably aware that the Deadpool movie, long in production limbo and only recently started filming, will receive an R rating. This is good news and as is befitting of the Merc with the Mouth, the team bringing him to the big screen (for realz this time!) announced the rating victory in the only way that made sense.deadpool footage

Some of you might be wondering why it’s so important that Deadpool has an R rating. Even Mario Lopez points out in the video why having a PG-13 rating would benefit the movie; franchise, sequels, toys, etc. But what it really boils down to is authenticity. Wade Wilson, aka Deadpool, isn’t a PG-13 character, he’s an R character. His world is full of graphic violence, ambiguous ethics, and some pretty choice language. Yes, he’s funny, irreverent, and breaks the fourth wall, but a lot of that is used as a stark contrast to the awful things he says and does. Emphasizing one aspect over the other kind of misses the point.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, a little background, yes? Yes.

Deadpool has been kicking around Hollywood since about 2004 when New Line Cinemas tried to produce a film with writer/director David S. Goyer, who you may remember from such films as The Dark Knight Trilogy, Man of Steel, and Blade, helming the project and Ryan Reynolds starring as the titular character. This was around the same time as Blade: Trinity (2004), which Goyer wrote, produced, and directed and Reynolds starred in alongside Wesley Snipes and Jessica Biel. Goyer apparently lost interest, but 20th Century Fox picked up the film rights and put a spinoff into production as a potential followup to X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) where Reynolds was cast as Wade Wilson/Deadpool.

Sort of.

that-deadpool-movie-we-were-all-excited-about-will-be-pg-13While X-Men Origins: Wolverine was a box office success, it was a critical failure and didn’t sit right with many fans of the X-Men universe, the comics or the film series. Regardless of its prequel status and the inflated cast of mutant cameos, one of the more egregious errors was the treatment of Deadpool to the point where most fans don’t even consider the character on screen to be the same as the one they found in the pages of Marvel comics. To be fair, none of the X-Men movies have stuck to the comic book canon completely, but Origins seemed to be checking off a list of names to use without any thought put into motivations, personality, or anything else that would make a character compelling. Reynolds does, however, have one of the best scenes in the film and his sarcastic, snarky attitude resonated with fans of Deadpool. The movie may not have gotten it right, but Reynolds did.

Since then it’s been an ongoing battle to get Deadpool his own movie with Reynolds being the character’s biggest champion and cheerleader. So it was to everyone’s delight when the film was given the official green light in 2014, not long after the test footage for the film was leaked, with a scheduled release date of February 12, 2016. The timing of the film’s production and release within the context of the current landscape of superhero and comic book franchises, however, is what makes Deadpool‘s rating so important.9df2a3cce7aae4167e8461ac7ab22c9d

Deadpool‘s status as a viable property emerged during the first wave of successful Marvel films of the late 90s and early 2000s. Basically, it was post Blade (1998), X-Men (2000), and Spider-Man (2002) but somewhat preceded the concept of a shared cinematic universe propelled by Iron Man (2006) on down to The Avengers (2012). Yes, the X-Men films had an internal continuity (sort of) but aside from being based on Marvel characters, the film rights under 20th Century Fox left any possibility of a crossover with Marvel Studios off the table. In the wake of Marvel’s billion-dollar franchise of films, pretty much every studio has tried or is attempting to copy their model. One of the more consistent elements of the Marvel films, and most superhero films in general, has been a PG-13 rating.

ryan reynoldsThe PG-13 rating is a studio’s dream for franchise films. It allows for the broadest range of audience demographics while still maintaining a level of action, violence, salty language, and sexual innuendo that we’ve collectively accepted as appropriate for children to see with their parents and teens to see on their own. Adults, obviously, are always welcome. From a marketing standpoint, kids and teens are the target audience because, as we all know, studios are looking to make bank on merchandise. One need only look at the plethora of Marvel Cinematic Universe toys and the children gravitating towards them to understand why Marvel Studios hasn’t let any of their films break the PG-13 barrier. Not that it’s handicapped the movies at all, but then again we’re not dealing with characters who occupy an R-rated world.

Comic books published by the big two of Marvel and DC currently maintain an unofficial PG-13 rating, though your mileage may vary on whether or not that’s true depending on the subject matter. Either way, both companies have imprints, MAX and Vertigo respectively, meant to handle mature content for readers and the MAX books regularly featured characters like Wolverine, the Punisher, and Deadpool in stories that went beyond acceptable levels of violence, language, and bloody satisfaction. But these are also the stories many fans of the characters latched on to before Hollywood got a hold of them. Wolverine and the Punisher were products of a lax Comics Code and the ultra-violence of the 80s and early 90s and Deadpool was an inspired copy of DC’s Deathstroke. These are not characters who regularly cuddle bunnies and sing show tunes. Well, Deadpool would, but he’d probably be murdering a guy to death while doing it. The point is when adapting characters like Wolverine and the Punisher to the big screen, there’s a reason why Fox continues to produce the exploits of deadool_vs_deathstroke_by_luizhd-d7546h6PG-13 Logan, in X-Men or solo films, while Frank Castle’s two rated R theatrical releases have become cult classics.

Given everything that’s occurred since the initial interest in Deadpool, one would think Reynolds, director Tim Miller, the writers, and producers would attempt to go the safest and seemingly most profitable route. But I think it goes back to what I mentioned earlier. This is about authenticity, bringing the real Deadpool to the big screen. There might be some thoughts of sequels or a franchise, but I guarantee that what’s really at the forefront of the filmmakers’ minds is making the best damn Deadpool movie they can, which means getting a hard R rating so they can at least say they made their Deadpool.

And really, a rated R movie for a Marvel character isn’t a huge stretch at this moment in time. Marvel Studios is about to release their Daredevil series on Netflix, which has no standardized ratings to speak of, and from all accounts it sounds like the series could be Marvel’s grittiest venture to date. Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, and Iron Fist are slated to follow but no one’s talking “franchise” just yet. This is as much Marvel experimenting with how far they can go deadpool-ryan-reynolds-450x244with their “street level” heroes as it is building their live action universe. Yes, Deadpool is owned by Fox, but he’s also part of a growing trend of studios exploring comic book properties beyond broad spectrum demographics. Dark Horse’s Powers has already premiered on Play Station, Valiant has started the process of developing a shared cinematic universe with their properties, and Image Comics darlings Kelly Sue DeConnick and Matt Fraction will be developing several of their works from the publisher for television. There may be blockbuster superhero films, but niche audiences are also proving to be just as lucrative.

And I’m sure Deadpool would appreciate that.

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The urge to name this Love in the Time of Wonder Woman was so strong, but I resisted the impulse. While there was an ease with which the rejected article title came, it didn’t quite capture everything I wanted to cover in talking about the 35 issue run of Wonder Woman. In the three years since the New 52 launched, the creative team of writer Brian Azzarello, artists Cliff Chiang, Tony Akins, Goran Sudzuka, colorist Matthew Wilson, and letterer Jared K. Fletcher crafted a new origin for DC Comics’ first female superhero, one steeped in the old mythology of the Greek Pantheon but intent on forging ahead to create a new mythology with Wonder Woman leading the way.

For the record, though, if you’re looking for a place that will at least consider making references to the works of Gabriel García Márquez….Bam. This girl.

Moving on.

As, presumably, the introduction for new readers via the “soft reboot” of the New 52, the creative team were faced with the task of making Diana’s story within her corner of the DC Universe fantastical, entertaining, and above all else relatable. In order to do so, Azzarello and Chiang dove into the core tenants of Wonder Woman’s character as established by her creator, William Moulton Marston, and used those elements to build a story around two essential questions: Who is Wonder Woman and what does she stand for? The answer lies in the simplest yet most complex word, love. From love springs a multitude of emotions – mercy, compassion, tolerance, anger, rage, and forgiveness – all of which hinder and guide Wonder Woman in her personal journey of discovery, a journey she doesn’t make alone. Though love ends up being the answer, how Diana frames her revelations is within the context of family; her biological family of gods and demigods as well as the family she builds with her friends and rebuilds amongst the Amazons. The consequences of such a framework, however, brings about the destruction of Marston’s “paradise”, but I think that was Azzarello’s intention all along. In lieu of paradise, of some perceived utopia, Azzarello posits that family and community should be the goal and only by understanding and submitting to love can such a goal be accomplished.

wonder-woman1-interiorBefore we go any further, and because this article will mostly be addressing Wonder Woman from a writing and thematic perspective, I wanted to talk about Cliff Chiang’s artwork on the book. Of all the redesigns in the New 52, Chiang’s Wonder Woman continues to be my favorite and is definitely in my top five versions. Chiang manages to capture the Amazon in Diana – tall, athletic, broad shoulders – making us believe that this is a woman who’s trained her whole life as a warrior. Her athletic aesthetics, however, don’t come at the cost of her femininity. Diana is gorgeous but Chiang deftly keeps away from sexualizing not just Diana but most of the book’s female characters.

The modern, or ancient, redesigns of the Greek Pantheon are probably my favorite aspect of the book from an artistic hermes-5Astandpoint. Instead of keeping to the stereotypical depiction of the Greek gods, Chiang makes them the embodiment of their particular territory or job. Hermes the Messenger has the visage of a humanoid bird, Artemis the goddess of the hunt and the moon glows brightly while sporting antlers, looking like a marble statue, and Poseidon, lord of the seas, is a gigantic fish-like creature, a great and powerful reflection of his domain. My favorite design is probably Strife. Though her only otherworldly aspect is her purple skin, Strife looks exactly like her name. The shaved head, heavy makeup, and slashed form-fitting dress give readers an immediate sense of unease, that anything involving her will lead to trouble. Wonder Woman is definitely one of the most beautiful books from DC. It’s vibrant and bursting with energy and color thanks to Chiang and colorist Matthew Wilson.

Okay, back to the rest of the article.

The origin of Diana of Themyscira is often one of the first elements tackled when a new creative team takes over the book or DC feels like rebooting. Unlike Krypton blowing up or Thomas and Martha Wayne being killed in Crime Alley, Wonder Woman’s backstory of being molded from clay and entering “Man’s World” has gone through several iterations since she first appeared in 1941. Because of this malleability, Wonder Woman tends to embody the attitudes of women within the modern world – wonder-woman-6depending on who’s writing – but each retelling and reinterpretation is hit or miss depending on a number of factors, one of the most prominent being the socio-political climate. When Diana lost her powers in the 1960s in order to make her seem more like the modern day woman it was met with scorn from feminists like Gloria Steinem who accused the creative team of taking the most powerful female superhero and stripping her of her powers. The intention may have been to make Wonder Woman relevant to the modern readership, the change was inspired by Diana Rigg’s Emma Peel in The Avengers television show, but the response proved that, like Superman, Wonder Woman’s core audience of female readers looked to her as an ideal, something to strive for and emulate.

William Moulton Marston addressed this need for an iconic hero for women and girls in the 1943 issue of The American Scholar, writing:

Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power. Not wanting to be girls, they don’t want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving as good women are. Women’s strong qualities have become despised because of their weakness. The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.

Marston very much believed that the new world order would eventually be run by women and used Wonder Woman as “psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should…rule the world”. Unlike the violent tendencies of men and boys, girls and women had a greater emotional capacity that, he believed, made them stronger and better leaders. Wonder Woman was a figurehead for them to rally behind, a Pygmalion creation meant to embody all that women were capable of. Making Diana the princess of the Amazons who inhabited Paradise Island solidified Marston’s vision of a utopian culture of peace and prosperity run entirely by women. By venturing out into “Man’s World”, Wonder Woman brought those sensibilities captain-sensation-35with her as she fought Nazis and enemies on the home front, teaching and showing girls that violence wasn’t the only option but should more forceful actions need to be taken they were strong enough to break the chains or ropes that bound them. For all of the bondage imagery shown in Marston’s run, there were plenty of metaphors to be gleaned regardless of what “Dr.” Wertham thought.

Since Marston, the depiction of Paradise Island, later named Themyscira in the 1987 relaunch, and the Amazons have gone through as many changes as Wonder Woman. While Marston envisioned utopia with an all-female society, the exploration of Amazonian culture is a fascinating aspect of the Wonder Woman canon since the environment she grows up in acts as a reflection of the character. Some writers have utilized it beautifully (The Circle from Gail Simone, Terry Dodson, and Rachel Dodson) and others not so much (Amazons Attack! from Will Pfeifer and Pete Woods). How much Diana embraces or fights against her Amazonian upbringing is no different than how any person might face their heritage and family. And it’s here where Azzarello’s stamp on Wonder Woman takes a sharp turn for better or for worse.

strifeThe two most controversial aspects of Azzarello’s reboot were the changes made to Diana’s origin and the Amazons. In the New 52, Diana was no longer molded from clay and blessed with life from the gods. Instead it was revealed that she was the biological daughter of Hippolyta and Zeus, making her a demigod. After finding her mother turned to stone and her sister Amazons turned into snakes as punishment from Hera, Diana becomes immersed in her godly family of half brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts. In the process, she receives one final revelation about the Amazons: to continue populating the island with female warriors, the Amazons took over ships with men on board, had sex with them, kept the daughters and gave the sons to Hephaestus.

Many a critic and Wonder Woman fan cried foul on this change in particular since Azzarello essentially turned the Amazons into rapists. I’m not here to argue that point because it’s a valid one, but I think I understand why Azzarello made the changes. Again, Marston saw an all-female society as utopia, it’s why he named the home of the Amazons Paradise Island. But anyone who’s studied the concept of utopia knows that it’s never an achievable form of society despite what the creator desires. There are plenty of historical examples and it’s rare that fiction ever depicts a utopian society as anything less than sinister. Azzarello is yet another author in this category. Prior to the discovery of Themyscira’s repopulation program, Azzarello laid the foundation that all was not well on Paradise Island. Wonder Woman was already living in London, away from the island, and her return with Zola and Hermes, plus the appearance of Strife, brings out the underlying antagonism of some of the Amazons towards Diana. Referring to her as “clay” in a derogatory manner, it’s clear that peace, tranquility, and love aren’t always present.

Azzarello is no stranger to tackling the darker side of comic book characters. Some of his best works for DC are Joker, Lex Luthor: Man of Steel, and Superman: For Tomorrow, all of which highlighted essential aspects of the characters from Azzarello’s point of view. With Wonder Woman, Azzarello is arguing that Marston’s utopia is fallible and a myth in its own right. An all-female society is no less effective than an all-male society. The Amazons are, after all, still human. By distancing themselves from “Man’s World” they’ve lost their hold on an inclusive community. This is what makes Wonder Woman so WW-30dessential. She’s the bridge between the Amazons and the outside world, but only through taking the journey of coming to terms with her own identity and what it means to be Wonder Woman, a demigod, the God of War, and the new Queen of the Amazons, does she possess the wisdom to rebuild her family on Themyscira. She cannot separate these worlds any more than she can separate her identity. They’re all parts of a whole and by melding them she’s made stronger. It’s why she pleads with her sister Amazons to accept their brothers and protect Zola and her baby against the First Born’s army. They will be stronger as a whole, as a family, and it is simply the right thing to do.

LoveThroughout Azzarello and Chiang’s run, love is shown to be the root of Diana’s decisions and at the center of the conflict between her and the First Born. In their final confrontation, Diana ties it all together from a thematic perspective when she tells the First Born that his demand for love and power will never result in victory because he doesn’t understand that love is about submission. There have been several instances in the book where Diana was put into a position of submission – marrying Hades, tricking Artemis into “winning” a fight, the First Born’s proposal – but none of them were made out of an actual act of love. Compare this to what Diana has personally done out of genuine feelings of love; protecting Zola and her baby, forgiving a mortal Hera, helping Hades learn to love himself, and reuniting her sister and brother Amazons. She shows compassion, mercy, and forgiveness towards others because, at her core, her love for all living things is infinite. Fittingly, her last act in the final issue is an actual submissive plea to Athena to spare Zola’s life. By submitting to love and appealing to Wisdom, Wonder Woman shows us her true heroism.

I know I’m not the only one who has strong feelings towards Azzarello and Chiang’s run on the book, but I feel it’s been consistently one of the strongest coming out of DC and I’m sad to see the creative team go. There’s certainly plenty to unpack within those 35 issues, but this is just a portion of what I’ve taken away from it. But I’m interested to know what other people think.

Just, ya know, be civil. We’re all friends here.

Meet-The-Guardians-of-the-Galaxy

Even by comic book standards Guardians of the Galaxy is an obscure property. Not that Iron Man, Thor, or Captain America were household names like Superman, Batman, or Wonder Woman, but at least people were somewhat aware of the characters whether through comics, cartoons, or embarrassing early 90s movies. Hulk was probably the most well-known amongst the Avengers and even he suffered through two middling movies. Given the success of The Avengers, Marvel could’ve easily picked any number of heroes to launch within their Phase 2, so why Guardians of the Galaxy? Why take the risk on a group no one, not even some die-hard Marvel readers, was aware of with a cast of characters that included a gun-toting raccoon and a sentient tree with a limited vocabulary? I could give you a long explanation about how Guardians fits into the overall mega-event Marvel’s leading towards with Thanos and the Infinity Gauntlet storyline from the comics, but in simplistic terms? They could, so they did.

Okay, yes, there’s more to it than that but from the get-go there’s been an attitude surrounding Guardians of the Galaxy, one of “Yeah, Guardians of the Galaxy. Trust us. We got this.” And as moviegoers, we collectively consented to the idea. Marvel had earned enough goodwill that we believed in their vision. The result is yet another blockbuster to keep Marvel on its unprecedented streak of solidly entertaining superhero movies. No two Marvel movies have been entirely alike save for a through line of tone and world building. Thor took us into the realm of fantasy, Captain America gave us a World War 2 era film as well as an action-packed spy thriller, and The Avengers gave us the ultimate team-up. Guardians, however, is straight sci-fi adventure that expands the Marvel Cinematic Universe across the galaxy. Director James Gunn infuses Guardians with his snarky, rebellious attitude coming out of his experience with indie and Troma films, but also rises to the challenge of delivering his first big budget, special effects laden homage to the sci-fi genre.

guardians-of-the-galaxy-posterPeter Quill (Chris Pratt), aka Star-Lord, having spent most of his life in space after being abducted from Earth in 1988, unknowingly stumbles upon a highly valued orb that contains one of the infamous infinity stones. Seeking the orb is Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) who sends Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the adopted daughter of Thanos (Josh Brolin), to retrieve the orb so that Ronan can get revenge on the planet Xandar despite a peace treaty between Xandar, home to the Nova Corps, and Ronan’s people, the Kree. Quill is also pursued by bounty hunters Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voice of Vin Diesel) after his boss Yondu (Michael Rooker) puts a price on his head for going rogue. When the four end up in prison, they gain another ally in Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), who seeks revenge on Ronan for the death of his family. Seeing that they share a common enemy, and a desire to continue living, the five band together to thwart Ronan and save the galaxy.

From the moment the first trailer dropped and the first poster circulated around the internet, the marketing campaign for Guardians was unabashedly cocky in its presentation of a team formed from a rag-tag group of outlaws, assassins, thieves, and thugs. It was a choice reflective not just of James Gunn’s style but also the journey towards heroism made by the team. The Guardians aren’t necessarily brought together through nobility of purpose. They’re outcasts, misfits, and loners. They’ve all suffered loss because of the hand dealt to them by the universe, but in finding each other they have a reason to care about something bigger than themselves. Gunn and his co-writer, Nicole Perlman, manage to get this across via cinematic tribute; starting the film with Star-Lord, alone on a planet, retrieving an artifact a la Raiders of the Lost Ark and progressing the narrative the through a visual spectacle invoking Star Wars until the team is truly formed in a shot straight-up lifted from The Right Stuff. Through it all the movie maintains a lighthearted tone, but isn’t afraid to go for the gut-wrenching darkness needed to delve into the backstories of the main characters. It’s the humor, however, that sustains the movie. That and a soundtrack that acts as a time capsule of 60s and 70s pop music sure to make even the surliest fanboy tap his feet. Hell, I’ve had just about every song stuck in my head for days after seeing the film.Guardians-of-the-Galaxy-Rocket-Raccoon

For an ensemble piece like this you couldn’t ask for a better cast. Pratt truly solidifies his status as a leading man, channeling every roguish character imaginable into a ball of charm and overconfidence that would make Han Solo nod in approval. Saldana makes being a deadly assassin look easy; kicking ass and taking names without breaking a sweat, yet still managing to exude some of Gamora’s vulnerability despite the cold exterior. Bautista is surprisingly good as Drax. I don’t know anything about his career as a wrestler, but whatever limited acting skills he has never made it on-screen. Drax’s inability to understand metaphors actually worked to Bautista’s advantage, giving him some of the funnier lines in the film. And though they weren’t present for filming, Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel turn in wonderfully nuanced performances as Rocket and Groot respectively. These were the two characters everyone worried about in terms of audience acceptance, but the special effects team knocked it out of the park with the two bounty hunters. They were textured and expressive, making us believe, from the moment we see them, that they belong in this world. Cooper’s Rocket is a damaged soul, the only one of his kind and his rage and sorrow are played straight during several unexpected moments. But he’s right up there going snark for snark with Quill. Rocket easily steals the movie with his one-liners and overall awesomeness. Oddly enough, Diesel delivers as Groot. He only has three words to work with, but Diesel manages to make each reading different, showing that inflection, spacing, and emotion can make three words seem like a paragraph.

Star-LordAs an ensemble, the Guardians are the epitome of a Marvel family. Their clashing personalities work off each other as they fight and bicker over just about everything. Scenes between just the five characters are the strongest in the film. The timing is perfect and Gunn seems to take great delight in throwing the typical clichés in our faces with a well placed one-liner. The main characters are bolstered by a strong supporting cast including Glenn Close, John C. Reilly , Peter Serafinowicz, Djimon Hounsou, Karen Gillan, Benicio Del Toro, Michael Rooker, and cameos from Nathan Fillion, Rob Zombie, Seth Green, and Troma director/producer Lloyd Kaufman. Gunn even includes a nice little role for his brother, Sean Gunn, who was the body actor for Rocket during filming. It’s an amazing cadre of actors assembled and shows the pull Gunn and Marvel has for getting quality talent. Even the smallest roles could potentially lead to bigger things in the future.

So with all the praise I’ve been doling out, there are a few problems that most Marvel movie aficionados will see unfold. For one, Ronan the Accuser’s motivation is about as surface level as any Marvel villain. He wants to destroy Xandar because EVIL! and that’s as far as it really goes for him. His myopic goal ultimately aids the Guardians in stopping him because he does little else to prove himself as a formidable villain other than throw Drax around and yell at Thanos. Maybe if we’d seen him destroy a planet that wasn’t Xandar to show exactly how powerful he’s become with the infinity stone and the failed attempt to stop him by the Guardians. Their failure than motivates them to make sure Xandar doesn’t meet the same fate. Something like that. It doesn’t help that the complex backstories of each character only get brief enough mentionsRonan-the-Accuser-in-Guardians-of-the-Galaxy for the needs of exposition. Quill has the biggest arc of the movie in order to ground the audience, but it means Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and Groot’s stories need to be put on the back burner. To the movie’s credit, though, they give us just enough background to give certain scenes the proper emotional weight. Rocket’s drunken outburst about being a monster feels genuine given what we’ve seen and know about him and Gamora’s anger at Thanos for being turned into an assassin is palpable.

Overall, the movie is well paced but there are times where it feels like scenes were inexplicably cut that were needed to make the transitions within the story smoother. Characters just happen to have vital information or show up at the right time out of plot convenience rather than a more organic flow. Yondu and the Ravagers happen to end up on Knowhere at the same time as things go awry with The Collector and Ronan shows up upon Drax’s drunken request because…reasons? It serves the purpose of making the stakes higher and giving us a kickass chase sequence, but how we arrive from point A to point B is a bit hazy. The fight between Gamora and Nebula (Karen Gillan) also exemplifies the need for better characterization and editing. The whole sequence feels like it was supposed to be longer – the trailers at least indicated this was so – since Gamora and Nebula’s sibling rivalry drives the savagery of the fight. Guardians-of-the-Galaxy-GamoraUnfortunately the editing makes it much shorter, which could also be the result of underutilizing Nebula as a character. Though she appears badass and definitely carries plenty of attitude, Nebula becomes more of an obstacle for Gamora and their fight lacks the emotional impact it should between the “daughters” of Thanos. Hopefully there’s a director’s cut that will get released because I’d love to see what Gunn’s complete vision was for the movie.

The problems, however, shouldn’t dissuade you from seeing the film. Like I said, they’re typical of Marvel movies, but there’s definitely an opening for further characterization and storytelling now that the team/family has been formed. If anything, Guardians of the Galaxy shows how a team-up movie can be made without the building block process of individual films Marvel has relied upon in the past. Not only does this open up more possibilities for other Marvel movies, but shines a light of hope on certain other comic book team movies coming out in a couple of years.

Until then, go see Guardians of the Galaxy. I’m more than twelve percent certain you’ll enjoy it.

As The Cowsills sang:

Gimme a head with hair, long beautiful hair. Shining, gleaming, streaming flaxen waxen..

 

Something I’ve noticed recently is the use of hair as a story-telling element for women and girls, especially in animation. This is nothing new. Hair has always been linked, one way or another, to societal position, marital status, and even rebellion, but in the visual format of film, television, and animation, hair has become the most visceral way of showing a person’s state of mind. The most recent example of this is a pivotal moment in Disney’s Frozen (2013) where Elsa, the Snow Queen, finally lets go of her repression and literally lets her hair down as she sings about embracing her true self.

No longer in the tight braid of suppression, Elsa now has a mussed up, slightly sexier braid, to say nothing of the dress she magically creates for herself with her ice-tailoring powers. The point is that this is supposed to be the moment Elsa completely comes into her own and it’s entirely linked to her hair. The minute that braid comes down, the audience immediately understands what’s just happened even if they’re not paying attention to the lyrics of the song. It’s a visual representation of Elsa’s state of mind that anyone can deduce.

Elsa, in this regard, actually has a lot in common with Merida from Brave (2012). Much of the movie’s early advertisements centered around how different Merida looked from other Disney princesses with her wild, curly red hair. The film even uses her hair to emphasize her rebellious spirit when Merida’s father, King Fergus, stands in as his daughter for a bit of role-playing to help his wife try to find an angle of communication. The king, in his best high-pitched voice proclaims, “I don’t want to get married, I want to stay single and let my hair flow in the wind as I ride through the glen firing arrows into the sunset.” Merida’s hair is linked to her desire for freedom from the responsibilities of marriage and being a princess. When she’s tied into her dress and her hair is stuffed into a wimple before her three suitors begin the series of games meant to win her as a bride, we’re meant to sympathize with her and her unwinnable situation. But when this happens…

It’s meant to be a moment of shock for the characters within the movie, but a triumphant moment for the audience and their attachment to Merida. The reveal of Merida’s unruly hair is an act of defiance, a statement of her intentions to be her own person by shooting for her own hand. Her feminist visualization goes even further when she breaks the stitching of her dress to give herself the proper freedom of movement to shoot her arrows, but her wild hair is the first and most obvious “moment” where Merida makes her intentions clear. The entire scene screams “METAPHOR!” but it sets the tone for Merida as a character and drives the central plot of the movie, more or less.

Disney actually uses hair in many of their animated movies as a means of visually depicting how the audience should perceive their female characters. This starts happening more during the Disney Renaissance since Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora don’t have any hair-related incidents as visual cues tied to their character development. The closest would probably be after Cinderella’s step-sisters tear her dress apart and her hair is disheveled only to be done up regally when the Fairy Godmother provides her with a new outfit. It doesn’t do much for Cinderella as a person, but it shows what a state of mess she’s in before her wish is granted and she’s off to the ball.

Hair becomes a prominent feature starting with The Little Mermaid (1989) when the animation department showed off their skills at depicting hair underwater through the long, red locks of Ariel. Her hair practically has a will of its own as it shifts and falls with the current or Ariel’s movements, emphasizing her rebellious and youthful spirit in contrast to her six older sisters who either have their hair cut shorter or done up in a ponytail or bun. In Beauty and the Beast (1991), Belle’s hair continually transforms from the bookish, yet youthful ponytail to her hair worn down as she matures in her love for the Beast or when she’s in peril. A constant tick is Belle pushing a stray lock of hair away from her face, which always seems to coincide with a major revelation she has. In Aladdin (1992), Jasmine wears her hair in a hanging, segmented ponytail, yet her only major hair change comes when Jafar makes her a slave-girl, using the higher ponytail to symbolize her change in status.

Disney doesn’t entirely have a monopoly on hair as visual signifier. The other contender would be Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005-2008) and The Legend of Korra (2012-present). In both shows, hair is used to signify the mental state and/or maturity of three characters specifically. Katara, over the course of three seasons (though only a year has passed in the world), transitions from her pulled back and braided hair on a near regular basis to consistently having it free flowing. In the first season, we only see it down when she means serious business and displays her mastery of waterbending, but in the later seasons it becomes a sign of her character growth and maturity. There are similarities in Legend of Korra in regards to the titular character. Korra, because of her athletic training, keeps her hair up, but in both the first and second season finales, when she has to fully display her skills as the Avatar, her hair always manages to come undun. By having her hair wild and free, it shows that Korra is equally as unrestrained.

The award for hair as linked to mental stability goes to Azula in Avatar: The Last Airbender. When we first meet Azula, she goes through a near perfect firebending routine, marred only by a single strand of hair out of place. The intensity with which Azula stares at the errant hair tells you everything you need to know about her. Her bullying and perfectionism come to a head when, devoid of all friends and allies, she awaits her crowing as the Fire Lord and breaks down in the process. Believing everyone is against her or trying to kill her, Azula tries to do her own hair, but messes it up. Her solution to the problem of such uncooperative hair is to frantically cut it. From there on out, she wears her hair down, uneven and disheveled. Her madness is solidified when she faces Zuko in Agni Kai. Her very movements become disturbing and erratic, made all the more so by her uncharacteristically free-flowing hair giving her a demonic presence as she attacks Zuko and Katara with uncontrolled glee.

Azula cutting her hair, however, does bring up an interesting contrast when it comes to Disney and its female leads. In most of their movies, the hair of each Disney princess has only changed in terms of how they wear it. There are two princesses, though one actually isn’t a princess but gets lumped into the category anyway, who have significant moments tied to their hair because it gets cut. It’s not as psychologically damaging, but important to their character’s nonetheless. The first is Mulan (1998). In order to take her father’s place in the Chinese army, Mulan needs to pass as a boy, leading to a very well done scene in which she cuts her long hair and takes her father’s armor, sword, horse, and summons. It’s a significant moment for Mulan not just as a woman, but as a woman in China. The men of China also have hair long enough to put in a topknot, so Mulan cutting her hair is more of a symbolic gesture, removing her duties as a daughter to assume the duties of a son to maintain the honor of her family. Though the Disney merchandise continues to depict her with the long hair she sports in the beginning of the first film, Mulan keeps her hair shorter even in the direct-to-DVD sequel, showing that her femininity and her prowess as a warrior lies in more than just her hair.

The second princess to have a significant hair cut is Rapunzel. In Tangled (2010), Rapunzel’s magical hair is attached to her freedom, though she doesn’t realize this until the climax of the film. Stolen away by Mother Gothel to continue rejuvenating her looks, Rapunzel’s hair cannot be cut or it will lose it’s magical properties. Though Gothel assumes the role of a parental figure, her primary focus is retaining her youth. To ensure that Rapunzel and her hair are never discovered, she warps the girl’s perception of the outside world as a means of keeping her in the tower. Her hair makes Rapunzel Gothel’s unwitting prisoner. When Flynn, who’s dying of stab wound, cuts her hair, he frees her from Gothel and her imprisonment at the cost of his own life. But this is a Disney movie, so you know that doesn’t stick for very long, right? Either way, when Rapunzel’s hair is cut, she’s finally free to be her own person and pursue her new dream. In many ways, it’s similar to real life.

Outside of animated movies, when a woman gets her hair cut, it’s an emotional ordeal that signifies transition or sacrifice. When Jo sells her hair in Little Women (1994) to pay for her mother’s train ticket or when Lt. Jordan O’Neill shaves her head to show her commitment to the Navy SEALS in G.I. Jane (1997), these are moments that show how far these women are willing to go to help others or to help themselves. Then there are instances like Sabrina’s maidenly and naive maturation into a sophisticated and worldly woman in Sabrina (1995) or Rebecca Warner changing from the timid farm girl into a “mature” college student in Son in Law (1993) that are emphasized through their hair going from long to short. Seems like the 90s were really into hair as metaphor.

If you’d like a more recent example of a live action movie hair transition, look no further than the upcoming Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier. Black Widow/Natasha Romanov (Scarlett Johansson), in three movies, has gone through three different hairstyles. In Iron Man 2 (2010), she had the long, curly sexy hair that was about as functional as her role in the movie. In The Avengers (2012), she had a wavy, short cut that showed her no nonsense, yet still feminine approach to being a spy and soldier. And in Cap 2, she now has shoulder length, straight hair. Character maturity or a typical Hollywood change up? You decide.

batman_superman_logo_by_balsavor-d3lkxihSince the announcement of Superman/Batman or Superman vs. Batman, or whatever you want to call it for now, at San Diego Comic-Con in July, the movie has been hounded by rumors and speculation from the moment two of the most iconic symbols in comic book history joined on screen. Following the buzz and excitement of SDCC, Warner Bros. announced, and director Zack Snyder confirmed, that Ben Affleck would be playing a world-weary and more experienced Dark Knight in contrast to Henry Cavill’s newly minted Superman. While the “World’s Finest” pairing seemed to be enough to get us excited at the prospects of an actual DC Cinematic Universe coming together, the rumor mill continues to be in full swing with the ongoing speculation that the Superman/Batman movie, slated to be released in 2015, will also feature the third member of the DC Comics Trinity, Wonder Woman.

WB has yet to confirm the rumors, but a casting call plus a variety of actresses reading for the filmmakers who fit the description of said casting call, continue to fuel the idea that Wonder Woman will appear in the movie. There’s also a separate casting call for “Bruce Wayne’s love interest” that overlaps description-wise, leading many to believe that they’re one and the same. We could very well see Batman and Wonder Woman dating. Yay? But, again, all of this is simply rumor and speculation. Nothing’s been confirmed. Selina Kyle could be the “love interest” for all we know or it could be a made up character like Rachel Dawes in The Dark Knight Trilogy. The Wonder Woman rumors persist, however, because 1) fans have been clamoring for a Wonder Woman movie since the idea of a shared cinematic universe entered our collective lexicon and 2) because Warner Bros. CEO Kevin Tsujihara stated very clearly that Wonder Woman needed to be “on the big screen or TV.” All of these rumors and news pieces have coalesced into a shared reality in which the announcement is all but inevitable that Wonder Woman will stand alongside Superman and Batman.

But in what capacity?

I am Wonder WomanThe rumors of how substantial Wonder Woman’s appearance in Superman/Batman could be range from cameo to quasi-supporting role, none of which is set in stone because we know absolutely nothing at this point. With nothing confirmed, we’re all at liberty to speculate on what an appearance by Wonder Woman in the movie means for the character and the DC Cinematic Universe. Personally, if it’s only a cameo, I’d rather they left her out.

Put the pitch forks down and quell your cries of, “But, Sam, you’re the one who’s been screaming the loudest about Wonder Woman! Isn’t this what you want?” Do I want Wonder Woman featured in a movie? Yes, but I want her featured in her own movie or, at the very least, as a major player in an ensemble cast. One of the biggest problems with the way in which Warner Bros. has been approaching their DC properties is they’ve been trying to play catch-up to Marvel Studios. Prior to the release of Man of Steel, Warner Bros. had all but sealed the deal on making Justice League immediately after so they’d have a contender for Avengers 2: Age of Ultron. Wisely, they nixed the idea in favor of a gradual approach, taking half a page from Marvel’s book by confirming Superman/Batman with The Flash possibly coming to the big screen in 2016 followed by Justice League in 2017. We being the fan base that we are immediately noticed the absence of a Wonder Woman movie despite her being the third most recognizable character of the Justice League and, again, one-third of DC’s Trinity. So the rumors of her “appearing” in Superman/Batman are slightly problematic given the purpose of cameos in superhero movies.

Allow me to explain.Hawkeye2-avengers

Marvel has become famous, or infamous, for their end credit stingers either acting as the lead-in to the next Marvel Studio film or to give the audience a brief teaser of what’s to come. Nick Fury showing up at the end of Iron Man is an example of the former, Thanos appearing at the end of The Avengers is the latter. Then there are the in-film cameos used as a way to connect the films within the same universe or establish a character for the briefest of moments in order to justify their presence in an up-coming film. Nick Fury at the end of Captain America, Tony Stark in The Incredible Hulk, and Clint Barton/Hawkeye in Thor being the best examples. Notice that these cameos are short. Only a scene before the plot of the movie resumes or, in Nick Fury’s case in Captain America, ends. It’s a shout-out, but it isn’t substantial. Is this really what we want for Wonder Woman? What does a cameo in Superman/Batman serve except for us to go, “Hey, that’s Wonder Woman!” before the plot of the movie moves along without her?

Now I know what you’re going to say next, “But, Sam, they’re probably just trying to establish her in the universe. It’s a set-up for her movie.” If that was confirmed on any level, then I would be right there with you. I would be okay with a cameo from Wonder Woman in Superman/Batman if that meant the next movie was Wonder Woman. I want to be very clear on that. Unfortunately, Warner Bros. has been dragging their feet for so long about the very notion of Wonder Woman having a tv show or movie that I’m not holding out any hope for such a gift. Unless I see a statement issued from Warner Bros. along the lines of, “Oh, yeah, Wonder Woman is totes getting her own movie after Bats vs. Supes!” (and I want it worded just like that), I’m not giving them the benefit of the doubt. A Wonder Woman cameo has to mean something because, unlike Hawkeye at Marvel, Wonder Woman is a bigger deal in terms of DC’s pantheon.

Nightwing-1There’s also been a rumor circulating that Dick Grayson/Nightwing will have a cameo in Superman/Batman, complete with an actor already rumored to be up for the role, which, I’m not gonna lie, actually makes more sense. Considering we’ll now have a 40-something Batman in operation, it’s not out of the question that he’d have taken on a sidekick at some point who’s, as of the movie’s timeline, in his early twenties operating on his own. In this case, Dick Grayson is the equivalent of Hawkeye. By including him (if he’s even in the movie), it only serves to set him up for the inevitable Batman solo movie Affleck will helm in the future. It establishes a character that will require minimal explanation later on. Nightwing is an A-lister by comic book standards, but he isn’t integral to the initial foundation of the DC Cinematic Universe. Wonder Woman is essential to the DC Cinematic Universe. I very much see Nightwing going the way of Hawkeye, though probably with a more favorable outcome. Hawkeye appeared briefly in Thor, got a slightly bigger supporting role (though not by much) in The Avengers, but he’s all but disappeared from Marvel’s Phase II except for his role in Avengers 2. Nightwing will, at best, reach a featured supporting status as the movies progress, but he may be a long way off from a movie of his own.

I see you’re all pointing to Black Widow, Agent Coulson, and Nick Fury. Okay, let’s look at how Marvel has treated these characters who’ve gotten larger roles in the context of Marvel’s Phase I movies. Natasha Romanov/Black Widow was shoehorned into Iron Man 2 in a quasi-supporting role to justify her existence in The Avengers. She’s now playing second fiddle to Captain America in Captain America 2: The Winter Solider but there are no plans in place, as of yet, for a Black Widow movie. Agent Phil Coulson has always been a supporting player in the grand scheme of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but his role has only grown by small jumps due to the need for a consistent presence representing S.H.I.E.L.D. and the character’s popularity. Now he’s the leader of an ensemble cast on a network television show. Make of that what you will. Nick Fury, like Coulson, has always been a supporting role. He’s a catalyst and antagonistic presence for many of the heroes, certainly, but the closest we’re getting to a Nick Fury movie is the one made for television starring David Hasselhoff from 1998. For now, at least.

To be fair, this is how Marvel has been going about treating their supporting characters. It is in no way a sign that Warner Bros. will go the same route, but it serves as a reminder that even supporting characters with larger roles don’t necessarily get their due. If Wonder Woman gets a cameo, then the next time she’ll most likely appear is in The Justice League, meaning she’ll have to fight for screen time with at least four other heroes and a villain. We can only hope that she’d get a movie after that, but does that do the character any favors? Why would you needlessly have to build up interest in a character people are already interested in? You know who didn’t have to get cameos or supporting roles in order to get their own movie? Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor, and Captain America.Trinity of DC

Let’s say, though, for the sake of argument, that Wonder Woman is not only in Superman/Batman, but she also plays a supporting role in the movie. I would hope it’s not just as “Batman’s girlfriend”, but that’s a whole other issue for another day. Why not go ahead and slap the Wonder Woman symbol on top of Superman and Batman? We know who Superman is because of Man of Steel and there isn’t a goddamm person on the planet who doesn’t know who the goddamm Batman is by now. All Ben Affleck has to do is show up. This clears up a lot of room to bring Wonder Woman into the fold without shortchanging anyone. She’s sharing the spotlight with Superman and Batman, but she’s also a major player, making The Justice League movie less about introducing the leftover heroes and more about diving into the plot. It also gives Wonder Woman enough screen time with other heroes that audiences would be chomping at the bit to see her in a solo film.

This is all speculation and, if I’m honest, wishful thinking. I was of two minds about writing this article mostly because even to me it feels like I’m either contradicting myself or coming across as someone who’ll never be satisfied with anything Warner Bros. does with the character. I want the DC Cinematic Universe to flourish like Marvel. I want a Justice League movie and a Justice League Dark movie, hell I’ve been pushing for a Fourth World movie since they put Justice League and Darkseid back on the table. But there needs to be a solid foundation and Wonder Woman is a part of that. For me, a cameo just isn’t going to do her justice.