MCU Retrospective: Guardians of the Galaxy

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. And now, for something completely different.

80/100

There’s a scene from the beginning of Guardians of the Galaxy where Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill introduces himself as “Star-Lord” with all the seriousness and self-importance in the world, and he is promptly met with a violent, “Who?delivered courtesy of Korath the Pursuer (Djimon Hounsou).

That about sums up the reaction that many confused Marvel fans had when the first trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy was revealed, introducing us to an entirely new team comprised of that goofy dude from Parks and Recreation, a green lady named Gamora (Zoe Saldana), former WWE wrestler Dave Bautista playing someone called Drax the Destroyer, an honest-to-god raccoon (Bradley Cooper) named after a Beatles song, and a talking tree dubbed Groot (Vin Diesel). Who?

No one knew who these guys were. Even Iron Man, certainly far from the most famous of Marvel superheroes, had some name recognition, and Captain America, Hulk, and Thor were all Marvel staples. The Guardians of the Galaxy, though, not so much. This was Marvel’s first nonsequel since Captain America: The First Avenger? Marvel’s cultural importance had certainly grown, and coming off the heels of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it was coasting on public goodwill, but here was its first true post-Avengers test: introduce a bunch of new characters that no one knows anything about and hope the film is good enough to strengthen brand loyalty rather than frighten casual fans away. It was risky: even the Thor films had elements of familiarity, setting much of the story on Earth and making some of our denizens main characters, but this was a movie set almost entirely in space about a bunch of nobodies directed by a guy who cut his teeth in horror-comedies. Even with the support of the Marvel brand behind them, Guardians’ success was far from assured; in fact, it was such a bizarre premise that Amanda Seyfried turned down the role of Gamora due to concerns over the talking raccoon and his tree buddy, thinking the movie might bomb. Would this be the first real MCU flop?

Luckily for Marvel, James Gunn ended up making one of its strongest films to date; it was a completely different tone from The Winter Soldier, which had arrived several months prior, but, like that movie, Guardians proved that Marvel wasn’t afraid to adapt and reinvent their wheel (not the wheel, just their wheel—at the end of the day, it’s still a Marvel film first and foremost) to stay fresh in the eyes of their fans. Winter Soldier went gritty, Guardians went goofy, and it paid off in spades.

Guardians’ opening scenes perfectly set the stage for that triumph, exhibiting the blend of heart and humor that courses through the film: we start with a young Peter Quill (here played by Wyatt Oleff) running away from a hospital after his cancer-ridden mother (Laura Haddock) dies. It’s a shocking opening, setting a much more somber mood than Marvel goes for and maybe even eliciting a few tears, despite the brevity of the scene. 26 years and an alien abduction later, an adult Quill goes to investigate an abandoned planet, the rain pelting down around him as he scopes out the harsh landscape.

And then, amidst this gloom and doom, something marvelous (ha) happens: Peter starts up his Walkman, “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone starts to sound, and our hero begins to dance his way through these dank, vermin-filled ruins. In an instant, the movie has transformed; any tears that might have gathered vanish, replaced instead by a broad grin. It’s a brilliant juxtaposition, one that perfectly establishes the tone of the movie and introduces us to our hapless hero. Though he won’t speak for another two minutes or so, it’s already hard as hell not to like Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill. 

Read More of Anna’s Ongoing Marvel Retrospective Series Here

Quill isn’t our only hero, though. When he brings a mysterious orb to sell through a broker, he attracts the attention of some nefarious people, including Quill’s pseudo-foster father Yondu (Michael Rooker), who is tempted to let his Ravagers eat Quill as payback for stealing the orb; Gamora, who happens to be the adopted daughter of Thanos (Josh Brolin, in his first MCU appearance), and through him works for Kree warlord Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace); Rocket Raccoon, a raccoon bounty hunter with a penchant for stealing prosthetics; and Groot, a talking tree who only ever says, “I am Groot.” The latter three all try to hunt down Quill—Gamora by herself and Rocket with Groot—but end up being apprehended by the Nova Corps, the planet Xandar’s police force. 

(Specifically, they are apprehended by John C. Reilly as Rhomann Dey, whose boss, Nova Prime, is played by Glenn Close. The door is open for a return from those two, provided they didn’t get annihilated when Thanos destroyed Xandar before Infinity War; Reilly and Close are two of the most well-known and well-regarded actors the MCU has collected, and they’re relegated to glorified cameos here. It’s actually kind of funny, watching these A-listers take a backseat to a sitcom actor.)

Our ragtag bunch get sent to the Kyln, a galactic prison, where they encounter Drax. Drax is hell-bent on destroying Ronan, who killed Drax’s entire family; this means destroying Gamora, too, until she reveals that she intends to give the orb not to Ronan, who will use it to unleash destruction on Xandar, but to the Collector, Taneleer Tivan (Benicio del Toro), and wants to use the money she will get to flee from her father and the destruction he plans to sow. The five prisoners then stage a delightfully clever prison break, retrieve the orb, and set about getting the reward.

As it turns out, that orb is actually the Power Stones, one of six Infinity Stones (which, of course, have no plot relevance whatsoever), and after it blows up the Collector’s collection and ends up in Ronan’s hands, our heroes reluctantly go off to stop Ronan and save the galaxy. (“What has the galaxy ever done for you? Why would you want to save it?” Rocket demands, unwilling to go suicidal to defeat Ronan. “Because I’m one of the idiots who lives in it!” Quill retorts.)

The plot proceeds largely as expected. There’s a big bad guy, they have to defeat him, blah blah blah. Ronan himself is a fairly underwhelming villain, motivated only by vengeance and bloodshed, though Lee Pace clearly had a good time hamming it up in increasingly absurd ways (also, I believe his is the only nude butt we have seen in the MCU). Add Pace to the list of underutilized actors who play bland villains in Marvel films, I guess. 

Yet, despite the rote plot, Guardians soars. Its humor consistently lands, its characters exude charm. It, like Winter Soldier, is a breath of fresh air in the MCU, but it, unlike the very serious Winter Soldier, approaches its strange source material with a sense of glee. Its heroes are reluctant, they’re selfish, and they are definitely, definitely weirder than any of the other Marvel heroes we’ve seen before (even the guy who flies around with a hammer), and James Gunn uses these oddballs to wring out some of the best comedy of the MCU. (If this sounds eerily similar to James Gunn’s 2021 The Suicide Squad, well, you’d be right. The guy likes his found families full of mean misfits.)

Of course, it’s hard to mention the success of Guardians without pointing to its soundtrack. From “Come and Get Your Love” to “Cherry Bomb” to “O-o-h Child” (especially to “O-o-h Child” and the corresponding dance-off), each song injects Guardians with a healthy dose of joy or sentimentality. Not only are the songs perfectly timed, they have plot relevance, too—while not always quite diegetic, each needle drop comes from a mixtape Quill’s mother had given to him, giving them an extra emotional resonance. Awesome Mix Vol. 1 is full of so many earworms that it reached the top of the Billboard 200 chart, the first time a soundtrack consisting only of previously released songs had secured the number one spot, and it even became certified platinum. Baby Groot dancing to “I Want You Back” took the Internet by storm, and suddenly decades-old songs were back in the collective consciousness; the soundtrack indelibly shaped the movie, and while moviegoers fondly think back on AC/DC in the Iron Man films, or recall the excellent use of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” in Thor: Ragnarok, Awesome Mix Vol. 1 was a runaway success on an entirely different level, and it helped Guardians be one, too.

Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t a perfect film: its villain is nothing to write home about, and some performers (namely Zoe Saldana as Gamora and especially Karen Gillan as Nebula) take until Vol. 2 to settle into their (prosthetic, colorful) skin, but it’s so fun to watch that these criticisms become mere quibbles. It’s not just fun and games though—Guardians also sticks the landing on the more emotional beats, such as Groot’s tear-jerking (at least for this writer) sacrifice, and the moment when Peter finally takes his mother’s hand. 

Gunn has a knack for finding the heart under the rough surface; when he was (stupidly) fired for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 for decades old (but admittedly tasteless) joke tweets about rape and pedophilia (unearthed only after Pizzagate conspiracist Mike Cernovich sicced his followers on Gunn after Gunn took a dig at him), Gunn’s brother Sean (who plays Kraglin and provides the motion capture for Rocket) took to Instagram and said, “I’ve heard my brother say many times that when Quill rallies the team with ‘this is our chance to give a shit’—to care—that it’s the pep talk he himself needed to hear. It’s part of what made working on the Guardians movies such a rewarding experience for the cast. We managed to find ourselves involved in a big-budget superhero movie that was, at its core, deeply personal. That’s a gift. And that’s why it’s good… So I guess my hope is that fans continue to watch and appreciate the Guardians movies, not despite the fact that the filmmaker used to be kind of a jackass, but because of it. They are, after all, movies about discovering your best self. Working on those movies made my brother a better person, and they made me one too.”

Gunn was eventually rehired after he apologized and the cast rallied around him (though not before he was scooped up by DC to helm The Suicide Squad), but his brother’s post exhibits why Guardians was so successful. It’s superheroes flying around in space and blowing stuff up, sure, but there’s more to it than that: it’s a self-admitted “bunch of jackasses,” fallible and frustrating, finding family and above all working towards redemption, as Gunn did—and as we all do at some point or another. 

It’s really too bad that Marvel follows up these two back-to-back triumphs with… well. You know. (Or if you don’t, you’ll find out.)

Groundwork: Marvel has no big master plan; rather, they plant seeds wherever they can in the hopes that some of them might one day germinate. None of these were planned from day one, lest the whole ship sink, but the seeds germinated nonetheless:

  • This is probably the biggest info dump we get about Infinity Stones (and the longest appearance of Thanos!) until Avengers: Infinity War.
  • Yondu was right: Quill’s father is a jackass, as we will find out in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
  • When Rocket is being processed at the Kyln, “Lylla” is listed as one of his two associates (the other being Groot). In the comics, Lylla is Rocket’s otter soulmate, and seeing as Vol. 3 will have a heavy focus on Rocket, there have been rumors flying about her presence in the film.
  • Ronan and Korath both appear in Captain Marvel, which was a fun way to bring back two talented actors who didn’t get enough to do in this film. They don’t get enough to do in Captain Marvel, either, but it was a nice try.
  • There are a bunch of things in the Collector’s collection, including Howard the Duck (Seth Green), Cosmo the Spacedog, a Chitauri (one of the aliens from The Avengers), and a Dark Elf (from Thor: The Dark World).
  • Hey, you know, those Kree guys show up in Agents of S.H.I.E.LD.! Bet you thought I couldn’t find a way to connect it this time around, but I did.

Anna’s Favorite Scene: I mean, it’s gotta be “We are Groot,” right? That or the exquisite opening ten or so minutes. (Drax calling Gamora “this green whore” gets third place.)

MCU Ranking: 1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 2. Guardians of the Galaxy, 3. The Avengers, 4. Captain America: The First Avenger, 5. Iron Man 3, 6. Iron Man, 7. Thor, 8. Thor: The Dark World, 9. Iron Man 2, 10. The Incredible Hulk

Guardians of the Galaxy Trailer

Guardians of the Galaxy is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is streaming on Disney+.

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.

Cruella

Written by Alexander Reams

89/100

Cruella is the latest film from critical darling Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, I,Tonya, and Fright Night). The film follows a young Cruella de Vil as she attempts to leave her young life of crime and enter the London fashion scene. All the while discovering revelations about her past with her companions Horace (Paul Walter Hauser) and Jasper (Joel Fry). 

Emma Stone took this iconic character and truly made it her own. She delivers a nuanced, extravagant, and heartwrenching performance in the film. Her performance has already been compared to Joaquin Phoenix’s in 2019’s Joker, and rightfully so. The main difference for me is that Stone is far superior in her role than Phoenix was. She exudes joy and menace at the same time. 

With this film being about fashion, you would expect that the costume and production design are nothing short of brilliant, and you would be right. Jenny Beavan and Fiona Crombie do excellent work as the costume and production designers for the film, fully immersing the viewer in 1970’s London. Gillespie brings back his usual editor, Tatiana S. Riegel, to edit the film. She does a marvelous job, knowing just when to let the shot continue and when to do quicker cuts. Nicolas Karakatsanis returns to work with Gilespie after their collaboration with 2017’s I, Tonya. His tracking shots are very frenetic and beautiful. 

My issues are very few with the film but still issues. One scene in particular that sticks out was either lit very poorly which made it look like a green screen, or the VFX was done very poorly, but either way it just does not look right and sticks out like a sore thumb. Despite that the film still has so much going for it. Emma Stone’s performance, Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser being comedic revelations, the editing and cinematography, and Gillespie’s direction. All of this made for a very fun time that is well worth a watch.

Cruella Trailer

Cruella is currently playing in Theaters and on Disney+ with a 29.99 surcharge.

You can connect with Alexander on his social media profiles: Instagram, Letterboxd, and Twitter. Or see more of his work on his website.

2021 Broadcast Critics Choice Awards Preview

Written by Alexander Reams

In recent years, the Critics Choice awards have been a great predictor on what will not only be nominated at the Oscars, but what might win. This year the awards are being given out almost a whole month before the Oscar nominations even come out, on the flipside, voting begins this Friday (March 5), two days later, the Critics Choice Awards happen, which could help the winners and the nominees that have fallen behind in the guilds and other respective awards shows.

BEST PICTURE
– Da 5 Bloods
– Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
– Mank
– Minari
– News of the World
– Nomadland
– One Night in Miami…
– Promising Young Woman
– Sound of Metal
– The Trial of the Chicago 7

After the (somewhat) surprise win for Nomadland at the Golden Globes, I think that win secured its win for the Critics Choice Awards this Sunday, the only other film I think that could challenge it would be The Trial of the Chicago 7 or Mank.

BEST DIRECTOR
– Lee Isaac Chung: Minari
– Emerald Fennell: Promising Young Woman
– David Fincher: Mank
– Spike Lee: Da 5 Bloods
– Regina King: One Night in Miami…
– Aaron Sorkin: The Trial of the Chicago 7
– Chloé Zhao: Nomadland

The Critics Choice awards have historically split Best Director and Best Picture, so if Nomadland wins Best Picture, then I think David Fincher will win for Mank, and vice versa. Also, quick rant, why is Emerald Fennell even being considered for this category, her direction is the entire reason I believe Promising Young Woman is a mediocre film. Either way, she’s nominated so that should show that she is in the running for Best Director, for some reason.

BEST ACTOR
– Ben Affleck: The Way Back
– Riz Ahmed: Sound of Metal
– Chadwick Boseman: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
– Tom Hanks: News of the World
– Anthony Hopkins: The Father
– Delroy Lindo: Da 5 Bloods
– Gary Oldman: Mank
– Steven Yeun: Minari

I think we all have the same winner in mind, Chadwick Boseman, he has been the runaway winner the entire awards season thus far. On the flipside, Riz Ahmed has been the critical darling, so he is definitely one to watch for.

BEST ACTRESS
– Viola Davis: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
– Andra Day: The United States vs. Billie Holiday
– Sidney Flanigan: Never Rarely Sometimes Always
– Vanessa Kirby: Pieces of a Woman
– Frances McDormand: Nomadland
– Carey Mulligan: Promising Young Woman
– Zendaya: Malcolm & Marie

The Best Actress race is still a little tied up between Frances McDormand, Vanessa Kirby, and Carey Mulligan, I believe that Mulligan will take it, as she has always been a critical darling.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
– Chadwick Boseman: Da 5 Bloods
– Sacha Baron Cohen: The Trial of the Chicago 7
– Daniel Kaluuya: Judas and the Black Messiah
– Bill Murray: On the Rocks
– Leslie Odom, Jr.: One Night in Miami
– Paul Raci: Sound of Metal

I think with Daniel Kaluuya suddenly emerging as the freight train frontrunner for the Oscar will undoubtedly be taking the award home. The only other competitor is Sacha Baron Cohen, but even he might be too far behind to take home the award.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
– Maria Bakalova: Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
– Ellen Burstyn: Pieces of a Woman
– Glenn Close: Hillbilly Elegy
– Olivia Colman: The Father
– Amanda Seyfried: Mank
– Yuh-Jung Youn: Minari

This season’s Best Supporting Actress race has been a very complicated one, but Glenn Close is who I think will be taking it home as a career win. Possibly Yuh-Jung Youn for her role in Minari, but in America she is relatively unknown and this is an American critics group, I’d lean towards Close in my predictions.

BEST YOUNG ACTOR/ACTRESS
– Ryder Allen: Palmer
– Ibrahima Gueye: The Life Ahead
– Alan Kim: Minari
– Talia Ryder: Never Rarely Sometimes Always
– Caoilinn Springall: The Midnight Sky
– Helena Zengel: News of the World

Helena Zengel has been getting a lot of acclaim for her role in News of the World, and will most likely take home the win. Her only competition is Alan Kim, who also has been getting a lot of acclaim for Minari.

BEST ACTING ENSEMBLE
– Da 5 Bloods
– Judas and the Black Messiah
– Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
– Minari
– One Night in Miami
– The Trial of the Chicago 7

The Trial of the Chicago 7 has one of the best casts of the year, and all of them give fantastic performances as an ensemble, and will undoubtedly win the award.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
– Lee Isaac Chung: Minari
– Emerald Fennell: Promising Young Woman
– Jack Fincher: Mank
– Eliza Hittman: Never Rarely Sometimes Always
– Darius Marder & Abraham Marder: Sound of Metal
– Aaron Sorkin: The Trial of the Chicago 7

The original screenplay award is very tied up, but Aaron Sorkin just got a huge boost from his Golden Globes win, which I think will put him ahead of Promising Young Woman and Mank.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
– Paul Greengrass & Luke Davies: News of the World
– Christopher Hampton and Florian Zeller: The Father
– Kemp Powers: One Night in Miami
– Jon Raymond & Kelly Reichardt: First Cow
– Ruben Santiago-Hudson: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
– Chloé Zhao: Nomadland

Nomadland has one of the best screenplays of the year, and will most likely be taking the award home, the only competition being One Night in Miami….

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
– Christopher Blauvelt: First Cow
– Erik Messerschmidt: Mank
– Lachlan Milne: Minari
– Joshua James Richards: Nomadland
– Newton Thomas Sigel: Da 5 Bloods
– Hoyte Van Hoytema: Tenet
– Dariusz Wolski: News of the World

While Joshua James Richards crafted some beautiful cinematography for Nomadland, you cannot ignore Erik Messerschmidt’s work in Mank, his gorgeous B&W cinematography of 1930s Hollywood I think will bring home the win for him.

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
– Cristina Casali, Charlotte Dirickx: The Personal History of David Copperfield
– David Crank, Elizabeth Keenan: News of the World
– Nathan Crowley, Kathy Lucas: Tenet
– Donald Graham Burt, Jan Pascale: Mank
– Kave Quinn, Stella Fox: Emma
– Mark Ricker, Karen O’Hara & Diana Stoughton: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Mank has some of the best sets of the year and most likely will easily take home this win.

BEST EDITING
– Alan Baumgarten: The Trial of the Chicago 7
– Kirk Baxter: Mank
– Jennifer Lame: Tenet
– Yorgos Lamprinos: The Father
– Mikkel E. G. Nielsen: Sound of Metal
– Chloé Zhao: Nomadland

The Trial of the Chicago 7 has the flashiest editing, and it’s only competition is Tenet, but Chicago 7 will probably be taking home the win.

BEST COSTUME DESIGN
– Alexandra Byrne: Emma
– Bina Daigeler: Mulan
– Suzie Harman & Robert Worley: The Personal History of David Copperfield
– Ann Roth: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
– Nancy Steiner: Promising Young Woman
– Trish Summerville: Mank

Mank or Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom will be taking it as critics groups love a good period piece and they have the most lavish costume design.

BEST HAIR AND MAKEUP
– Emma
– Hillbilly Elegy
– Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
– Mank
– Promising Young Woman
– The United States vs. Billie Holiday

Most likely Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom will be taking this for transforming Viola Davis as the titular character.

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
– Greyhound
– The Invisible Man
– Mank
– The Midnight Sky
– Mulan
– Tenet
– Wonder Woman 1984

The Midnight Sky or Tenet will be taking this one, no contest.

BEST COMEDY
– Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
– The Forty-Year-Old Version
– The King of Staten Island
– On the Rocks
– Palm Springs
– The Prom

Most likely Borat, will be taking this one because of the politics, but I’d love to see On the Rocks or Palm Springs win.

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
– Another Round
– Collective
– La Llorona
– The Life Ahead
– Minari
– Two of Us

Another Round has run away with this award, plain and simple, and I am definitely okay with that.

BEST SONG
– Everybody Cries: The Outpost
– Fight for You: Judas and the Black Messiah
– Husavik (My Home Town): Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
– Io sì (Seen): The Life Ahead
– Speak Now: One Night in Miami
– Tigress & Tweed: The United States vs. Billie Holiday

Let’s just say if One Night in Miami… doesn’t take it, I will be shocked.

BEST SCORE
– Alexandre Desplat: The Midnight Sky
– Ludwig Göransson: Tenet
– James Newton Howard: News of the World
– Emile Mosseri: Minari
– Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross: Mank
– Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, and Jon Batiste: Soul

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are ruling awards season with their scores for Mank and Soul. I think they will most likely win for Soul, however I would love to see Göransson win for his career best work in Tenet.

You can connect with Alexander on his social media profiles: Instagram, Letterboxd, and Twitter.

Episode 91: Raindance 2020 / He Dreams of Giants / A Dim Valley / Nafi’s Father

“Well, I really want to encourage a kind of fantasy, a kind of magic. I love the term magic realism, whoever invented it – I do actually like it because it says certain things. It’s about expanding how you see the world. I think we live in an age where we’re just hammered, hammered to think this is what the world is. Television’s saying, everything’s saying ‘That’s the world.’ And it’s not the world. The world is a million possible things.”

Terry Gilliam

Links: Apple Podcasts | Castbox | Google Podcasts | LibSyn | Spotify | Stitcher | YouTube

This week on Drink in the Movies Michael & Taylor discuss their First Impressions of Hillbilly Elegy & Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and the Raindance 2020 Titles: He Dreams of Giants, A Dim Valley, and Nafi’s Father.

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At this time there are no streaming links for titles this episode

He Dreams of Giants, A Dim Valley, and Nafi’s Father are currently seeking distribution and awaiting a formal release date announcement.

You can read Taylor’s review of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom here