Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Revisited

(Welcome to Road to Infinity War, a new series where we revisit the first 18 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask “How did we get here?” In this edition: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 beautifully blends sci-fi craziness with an examination of anger, pain, and cycles of abuse.)

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is oodles of fun, but it spends its first few scenes articulating a thoughtful mission statement. Its prologue, set 34 years in the past, features a budding romance later revealed to have twisted implications, but the love on display is still real. Following this comes the Guardians’ raucous reintroduction in present day, a battle against an inter-dimensional beast in a scene bursting with visual slepndour. Its out-of-this-world action however, is backgrounded and out of focus. The spotlight instead falls on a joyous Baby Groot, dancing his way through the scene as the other Guardians – Star Lord, Drax, Gamora and Rocket – take turns caring for him as if he were their child. When the Guardians collect their reward for this battle, they stand in contrast to the gilded Sovereign, a homogenous people genetically engineered to be perfect, but a people to whom slights and insults are unforgivable. The Guardians, on the other hand, are a group of broken characters from wildly different origins, but in their case, redemption isn’t off the table.

In short, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is about the complicated relationships we rarely confront. It’s told against a backdrop of action and space-opera, but its focus is on a family of imperfect beings, searching for catharsis while helping one another other find some form of redemption. It may very well be Marvel’s most mature film, zeroing in on the emotional complexities of abuse carried forward into adulthood. But it also solidifies the Studio’s new political direction, acting as the first in a trilogy of films (along with Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther) whose narrative is adjacent to colonial history.

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doctor strange revisited

(Welcome to Road to Infinity War, a new series where we revisit the first 18 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask “How did we get here?” In this edition: Marvel Studios enters bold new territory with Doctor Strange.)

In August of 2014, as Doctor Strange was being written and as Marvel was figuring out where to film it in 15 months time, the studio underwent a significant restructuring. Kevin Feige would no longer answer to Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter, a notoriously fickle penny pincher and blockade to diversity, nor would Marvel Studios be subject to the Marvel Creative Committee, whose hellish process of studio-notes was a source of contention behind the scenes. Instead, Feige began answering directly to filmmaker-friendly Disney Charmian Alan Horn. Not long after, Marvel announced films like Black Panther and Captain Marvel and directors like Ryan Coogler (Creed) and Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows) after only having had white men be the major focus on either side of the camera.

The message was clear. This was a whole new Marvel, and slowly but surely, the work began to reflect it.

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captain america civil war revisited

(Welcome to Road to Infinity War, a new series where we revisit the first 18 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask “How did we get here?” In this edition: Captain America; Civil War pays off years of build-up with a painful bang.)

The Marvel Cinematic Universe seems to re-invent itself every couple of years. From big, fun crossover action to space-set family soap opera, it’s been laying track one way or another for the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War, but a decade of narrative investment can’t be achieved without a feeling of genuine loss. This year’s culmination re-introduces us to the scattered Avengers, a family at its most discordant after tearing itself apart.

And while no Avengers lost their lives in Captain America: Civil War, the team as a whole may have lost its sense of identity. It’s a film where the long-term personal and political narratives boil over, conflicting with one another for reasons both idealistic and petty, and by the end of it, the Avengers implode. It’s a difficult watch at times, even and especially two years later when debates about military intervention rage on. And while it may seem like folly to view a film from 2016 strictly through a lens of America’s 2018 bombing of Syria, this particular real-world intervention isn’t something new. It’s part of a long-standing and long-intervening military apparatus that makes a film like Captain America: Civil War relevant in the first place.

The Avengers’ legacy is America’s legacy. And it’s mighty complicated.

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ant-man revisited

(Welcome to Road to Infinity War, a new series where we revisit the first 18 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask “How did we get here?” In this edition: Ant-Man is sometimes muddled, but charm and style go a long way.)

While “superhero fatigue” is by no means a cultural phenomenon – Avengers: Infinity War could topple Star Wars: The Force Awakens at the opening weekend box office – it’s most certainly experienced on an individual basis. The bloated Avengers: Age of Ultron, for instance, may not have been everybody’s cup of tea despite being one of this writer’s favourites. Which is perhaps why Marvel Studios, in order to end its run of “Phase 2” films in 2015, decided on a smaller, more intimate project in the vein of a studio comedy.

Ant-Man would’ve been very different under director Edgar Wright, who left the project over creative differences in 2013, but that hypothetical scenario assumes there would’ve been an Edgar Wright Ant-Man at all – that is, once The Avengers swept the globe and the Marvel Creative Committee under Ike Perlmutter was still intact. The Marvel Studios of 2015 was a different beast from the Marvel Studios of 2003 (when Wright first got involved), and while it’s nice to imagine what could have been, Peyton Reed of Yes Man and Bring It On did an ample job with a film that, for better or worse, seems more in his wheelhouse than Wright’s. (Side note: the visual flourishes people seem to think are Wright’s are likely Reed’s doing, though the film feels like the product of conflicting rewrites).

That said, it does make us ponder whether going smaller and more personal in theory is really more artistically sound when the decisions still feel like they’ve had their edges sanded down. Like the character leading it, it’s tough for Ant-Man to be truly good when forces beyond its control seem to hold it back at every turn.

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avengers age of ultron revisited

(Welcome to Road to Infinity War, a new series where we revisit the first 18 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask “How did we get here?” In this edition: Avengers: Age of Ultron takes a long, hard look at gods, monsters, and the humans in-between.)

How often do we ask ourselves why we created God and the Devil? We’ve been questioning our own existence for thousands of years – where we came from and what we’ll leave behind – so to have those ideas pumped into a $300 million superhero sequel, albeit to varying degrees of success, is something of note.

We’re well into Marvel being the biggest thing in popular culture with Avengers: Infinity War, but the questions asked by Joss Whedon’s medial crossover are of particular interest when it comes to the Avengers’ iconography. By 2015, our entertainment landscape had become dominated by the violent Übermensch in a visage of childlike fantasy, and it warranted artistic introspection.

Avengers: Age of Ultron is not some Watchmen-esque deconstruction; then again, neither was the 2009 Watchmen movie, which took straight from the pages of the 1986 comic series rather than drawing from the culture around it. Age of Ultron on the other hand came out a mere two years after the destruction debate post-Man of Steel, which focused largely on civilian causalities. Whether as response to the new tenor of superhero conversation or as a means to set up Captain America: Civil War (or both; the intent isn’t mutually exclusive), Age of Ultron places similar debates in its crosshairs, first by making its characters’ top priority the protection of civilians, and then by exploring the ways in which they ought to go about it. The film forces the Avengers to contend with their in-world legacy as a means to explore their fictional legacy on-screen.

It’s a narrative nexus, building on what came before while setting up Marvel’s future, as it attempts to define that very nexus for each of its characters. A mirror to our modern pantheon.

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(Welcome to Road to Infinity War, a new series where we revisit the first 18 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask “How did we get here?” In this edition: Guardians of the Galaxy gets weird, and it’s spectacular.)

Flashback, Comic Con 2012. Marvel Studios head honcho Kevin Feige announces development on Guardians of the Galaxy, to which even seasoned Marvel readers respond: “Wait… Who?” Flashback, Comic Con 2013. Marvel plays the first public footage from the new James Gunn joint to a crowd who had no idea what to expect. I would know. I was there, buzzing with bewildered excitement. And from the moment we got a glimpse of this thing – a sizzle reel not dissimilar from the film’s first trailer – we knew we were in for something special. Flash forward, April 2018. The Guardians’ upcoming team-up with the Avengers is currently outselling the last seven Marvel movies combined.

Gunn’s superhero space-opera existed independently of the rest of the Marvel Universe (unless you count post-credit scenes, which I do not) and it seemed to exist independently from most sci-fi films in general. Equal parts grimy and bursting with colour, it felt like bright new world that had been used and lived in by ingrates not unlike ourselves. From an idyllic, multi-species utopia led by Marvel’s Nova Corps, to a floating space-penitentiary with alien inmates of all stripes, even to a mining colony within the severed head of an ancient Celestial, the film departed from its relatively grounded predecessors and marked Marvel Studios going full-Marvel Comics. While Asgard in Thor featured a familiar regality, Guardians of the Galaxy represented a major step out into the larger Marvel cosmos, starting off on Earth before ending up in far-flung corners of an unfamiliar universe – though not without the right characters to guide us through it.

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captain america the winter soldier revisited

(Welcome to Road to Infinity War, a new series where we revisit the first 18 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask “How did we get here?” In this edition: Marvel Studios finally finds the perfect blend of character and politics in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.)

Nine films into its now 18 entries, the Marvel Cinematic Universe found its groove in a major way. The series’ prior imbalance was owed to both occasionally muddled character arcs and often-incoherent worldviews, capturing the superficial texture of post-9/11 geopolitics without anything more significant. That superficiality has been a sticking point on the “Road to Infinity War” even for some of the series’ very best entries because of how their political backdrop has been contextualized. It’s always treated as key thematic focus rather than mere allusion, even though it often only amounts to the latter.

As you may have read in this series of articles, much of Marvel’s political outlook is lip-service to prop up their heroes so their journeys can relate to their immediate antagonists, and their immediate antagonists alone. The result is at the very least a partial thematic void, even when the characters work. The MCU lacked, for the most part, any substantial use of the American “war on terror” which lies constantly in its peripheries.

That is, until Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

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Thor The Dark World Revisited

(Welcome to Road to Infinity War, a new series where we revisit the first 18 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask “How did we get here?” In this edition: Thor: The Dark World defines Marvel’s “villain problem” and doesn’t do much else.)

Thor: The Dark World plays like Marvel’s first truly troubled production. The rush to get the ball rolling on the space-set sequel saw the exit of Thor director Kenneth Branagh, after which Patty Jenkins was hired but departed soon after, citing creative differences. It was for the best; Jenkins would go on to direct Wonder Woman for DC, which is arguably The Dark World’s only lasting impact on the superhero genre. It’s a messy film sprinkled with bits of fun, aiming to take Thor on a universe-spanning adventure on a larger scale than before.

But the film’s existence is nearly antithetical to the Marvel formula regardless of how much it depends on its tone, replacing interesting character beats with overwrought plotting and exposition. And while it manages to deliver a romp of a third act, it commits perhaps the one shared-universe cardinal sin: its main character ends up right where he began, and goes nowhere in between.

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(Welcome to Road to Infinity War, a new series where we revisit the first 18 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask “How did we get here?” In this edition: Iron Man 3 brings a personal new style to the MCU, even as it stumbles in the homestretch.)

Marvel needed to prove exactly one thing after The Avengers, and that was the possibility of different kinds of stories. While Guardians of the Galaxy would go on to be the biggest post-Avengers (“Phase 2”) departure, it was Tony Stark’s first solo adventure after the Battle of New York that answered the question on everyone’s mind: “What comes next?” Would Marvel be able to come close to rivalling its superhero team-up spectacle?

Well, no. It most certainly wouldn’t, but it also didn’t have to. Iron Man 3 is nothing like its crossover predecessor. In fact, it barely has anything in common with Jon Favreau’s Iron Man and Iron Man 2, but what it does have, despite featuring another vaguely defined character arc, is a unique sense of identity.

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(Welcome to Road to Infinity War, a new series where we revisit the first 18 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask “How did we get here?” In this edition: The Avengers is a big party of a movie…and a party that may have changed studio movies forever.)

The Avengers is the quintessential blockbuster experience. No film before or since has resulted in the kind of global celebration that followed in May of 2012, something even its second sequel Avengers: Infinity War may or may not be able to top despite bringing together twice as many franchises. Only time will tell, but time has been kind to Marvel’s first culmination, and not without good reason.

It’s a film that changed the way movies were made and watched, impacting everything from industry goals to the mainstreaming of “nerd culture” and fandom. Its lasting legacy isn’t just the sprawling Marvel Cinematic Universe, which drops its nineteenth entry into theatres soon (not to mention its seventeenth seasons of television, if you’re a complete-is)t. The mark left by the MCU can be felt in almost every other studio’s failed shared-universe franchises, from Sony’s The Amazing Spider-Man spinoffs, to Paramount’s shared film/television Terminator-verse, to Universal’s The Mummy-led Monsters series, and of course, to Warner Bros.’ own superhero crossover world, which all but fizzled out with Justice League.

And while the failures of its imitators are hardly cause for celebration, it stands to reason that Marvel was far ahead of the curve even before its purchase by Disney. Kevin Feige & co. have been doing it right before anyone else was doing it at all. The proof is in the pudding, and the pudding set to perfection at one very specific moment…

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