Category Archives: The Modern Pantheon

Superhero Armageddon

By the end of Avengers: Infinity War (2018 Disney Marvel; directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo), I felt like I’d been worked over, and one young woman a couple of rows in front of me was bent over in her seat and sobbing (NEWS FLASH! At last report all of the actors in the movie were still alive, attractive, popular, and wealthy). I’ve decided not to review this movie. It has already been reviewed to death, resurrected, and reviewed again. Instead, I will make a short series of smugly insightful comments.

Insightful Comment 1:

It’s all about combinations.

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infinity 9This is both a strength and a weakness. While it is interesting to see characters together in novel combinations, there can also be too many irresistible forces and too many immovable objects.

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Don’t try to understand why anyone is winning at any particular point in time. It’s not about logic. Stuff just happens with spectacular (and sometimes innovative) special effects. In that respect, consider the formula. The team suffers abject defeat, rallies (often with a stirring, inspirational speech), and goes on to a dramatic victory (often with unresolved plot elements to set up future stories). Did anyone really expect this superhero movie to be any different?

Insightful Comment 2:

The bad guys are really bad.

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In particular, Thanos (well played by Josh Brolin) is an interesting, metaphysical villain. Originally conceived by Jim Starlin ( a trippy writer whose name appears in the credits) he is philosophical and mercilessly logical, which brings up another characteristic. He is very principled, albeit with very twisted principles. I like this kind of nuance in a villain. It deepens a story.

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Insightful Comment 3:

There will be a reset. The first installment of a two part storyline in this genre should not be expected to end well for the good guys. If what I have just written is a spoiler for a superhero Armageddon , what else did you expect? Remember the formula, and take into account the number of superheroes and villains. By the way, do we really expect Disney Marvel to slaughter its cash cow and leave it dead?

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Insightful Comment 4:

The outro tells us that you-know-who will be introduced. I look forward to seeing the development of this character.

In summary, this movie kept me absorbed and entertained, and it did pretty much what I expected.

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For now, I’m getting superhero fatigue and am preparing to sign off, but I will definitely be in the theater for the next few installments of the MCU. To paraphrase Jack Black…

This isn’t a review. It’s a tribute!

 

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Getting It Right (4)

This is my final installment concerning Black Panther (2018 Disney Marvel, Directed by Ryan Coogler), and I thought an appropriate summary would be a listing of the scenes which resonated most with me on an emotional level. Unfortunately, they didn’t involve breathless action, so I couldn’t find many pictures.

Both ancestral scenes got to me. I’m at an age where I’ve had to say goodbye to both of my parents, and that kind of experience opens up a whole new world of understanding. Here is a sequence from the first ancestral scene which really pulled me in.

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I probably need to say this for some of my Christian followers. I myself am a Christian, so I don’t subscribe to ancestor worship, transfiguration of humans and animals, or communication with the dead. Neither do I take my fantasy literally. It’s possible to take this scene as a metaphor for what a great many people feel and for what they deal with from their own pasts. Concerning the transition between men and animals, I have used this allegorically in a few of my own stories. It helps in explaining spiritual concepts which are otherwise difficult to visualize. C. S. Lewis did this as well.

I attended Shortridge High School (a. k. a. “The Ridge”), an inner city school with a good academic curriculum in Indianapolis, Indiana. I also did a brief stint as a teacher replacement at an inner city public school, and (as I mentioned previously in this series) I am currently a biology professor at a women’s college. Perhaps all of this is why I almost teared up when I saw the scene in which a team from Wakanda inspires some ghetto children not with  physical prowess, weaponry, or superhero costumes but with scientific achievement. That scene alone was worth the whole movie.

The scene in which the leader of the mountain clan shows compassion on the Black Panther’s family was particularly touching.

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This theme of reconciliation was embodied well by the scene in which Black Panther and Killmonger watch the sun setting over Wakanda (a nice methaphorical touch, by the way). Seeing bitter rivals speaking to each other with civility and a certain amount of social warmth appeals to my Christian ethics.

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I also liked the peacefulness and redemptive quality of the final outro at the end of the credits, but I can’t really describe it for fear of spoiling the enjoyment of those who have yet to see the movie.  Okay, let’s say goodbye to Wakanda (for now). It’s time to make the real world a better place.

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Getting It Right (3)

 

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And… action! Here, I must offer a minor criticism. The action sequences set in dark environments during Black Panther (2018 Disney Marvel, directed by Ryan Coogler) were hard for my older eyes to follow. Some of the still shots from these sequences were iconic, but the flow of the action was choppy in places, probably due to the quick changes of camera angle. This was my major visual frustration.

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Those scenes shot in full light were a different matter. They were easy to follow, impressive, and visually satisfying. This was especially true of the climactic battle scene.

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As for the setting, I liked the blend of rural, mountainous, and urban areas in the kingdom of Wakanda. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, idealism is a major goal in what I consider the best fantasies, and portraying an African nation as technologically advanced was something I don’t believe I’ve seen done in any other movie. I’m a biology professor at a women’s college, so I applaud the positive portrayal of science and technology with role models for women and minorities. Our fantasies encourage us to imagine possibilities, and this should not be exclusively reserved for white males. This also made for a very touching ending which I will mention again next week in my wrap-up.

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So I must say something here. Why would a compassionate, technologically,  advanced, and ethical society use potentially mortal combat as a means of choosing its ruler? This struck me as an inconsistency, but it was good for the storyline.

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One last quibble: What happened to resolve the conflict between the warring factions? Obviously the rightful king was back on his throne, but the interim between the battle and that outcome was not shown. I hope that this gets visited in the sequel, which I hope will be given to the same director.

Well, I’m going to get lazy and let the visuals do more of the talking for now, so check in next week.

Getting It Right (2)

 

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So… how good was Black Panther (2018 Disney Marvel, directed by Ryan Coogler)? It lived up to its hype, which is saying a lot. The cast was typically  impressive for the MCU and included Chadwick Boseman in the title role, Letitia Wright as his delightfully uppity and precocious little sister, Michael B. Jordan as Killmonger,   Lupita Nyongo as the love interest, Danai Gurira, Forest Whitaker as a Wakandan priest/shaman, Daniel Kaluuya, Angela Bassett, Andy Serkis, Martin Freeman, Winston Duke as the king of a different Wakandan clan, and Sterling K. Brown as Killmonger’s father. The length of the previous sentence hints at the tedium of reviewing each fine performance, so I will limit myself to the performances which stood out most for me.

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Obviously, Chadwick Boseman was excellent. I had previously been impressed by his turn in Captain America: The Civil War. I have already mentioned Letitia Wright. Let me explain that I’m a city transplant to a smaller, more rural community. The people sitting nearest me in the theater were white – okay, we were all white – and one said, “She’s my favorite character,” during one of Letitia Wright’s turns on screen. The same goes for me. Lupita Nyongo played a strong counterpart to the Black Panther and complemented his qualities well.  Angela Bassett performed well as a convincingly wise matriarch, and in fact, all of the women were strong. I grew up in a family of strong men and strong women, so it was refreshing for me to see this on the big screen. Neither gender was reduced to being a foil for the other.

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By the way, the costumes (especially for the women) were beautiful, and I heard a spot on NPR where the designer mentioned her use of African fabrics, patterns, and re-imagined traditional styles.

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Not that it isn’t obvious, but I want to call attention to Michael B. Jordan’s portrayal of Killmonger. Marvel has a history of writing nuanced villains with mitigating back stories, and this was a well-written character. The acting made him very affecting, especially during one scene which I will mention in a later post.

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Although he wasn’t on for very long, Sterling K. Brown really impressed me with his acting chops and his screen presence, as did Winston Duke. I first became aware of these fine actors while watching Person of Interest on television. Since then, I have seen each of them in varied roles, and these men can flat out act. Andy Serkis and Martin Freeman were also their consistently good selves.

This movie had other redeeming virtues. My wife mentioned the sense of dignity and honor which pervaded the story and the characters (something which we found lacking for much of Thor: Ragnarok, which came across at times as a pangalactic fart joke despite the fact that I liked the overall film). There were also themes of forgiveness, compassion for one’s adversaries, community, and global responsibility.

I don’t want this post to go on for too long, so I’ll save some more for next week.

Getting It Right (1)

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Credit: Disney Marvel

I have mentioned in a post series titled Recovering Ideals (under the category of Graphic Mythology – black strip on the left) how my friends and I emulated Superman in our play. While looking at some recent talk show videos on Youtube, I really began to understand how important it was for the black community to have the same thing. I saw children and adults alike beaming, proud, and geeky about Black Panther (2018 Disney Marvel, directed by Ryan Coogler) and the fact that it was even made, and it occurred to me that this was very healthy. The Disney Marvel universe has already incorporated positive images of black heroes and superheroes in its films. Take, for example, the following: Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, Anthony Mackie as Falcon, and Idris Elba as Heimdall. But this is the first time we have seen a superhero movie whose primary character is black, whose cast is predominantly black, and whose director is black (not to mention many other production personnel). This makes Black Panther an important pop cultural property for the black community, regardless of who owns the film rights.

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Was the movie historically accurate or revisionist? Were its portrayals realistic and plausible? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. I don’t see accuracy and realism as the purpose of fantasy. It’s about idealism, and the movie delivers on this score. An artistic product which has widespread appeal and which makes positive portrayals of an often stereotyped culture is invaluable, and the same can be said for role-modeling. I keep reminding myself that a majority of blacks in this country, including some people whom I count as friends, are descended from ancestors who did not come here of there own volition. Being white, I know I cannot fully appreciate what effects that has had, and I am reminded of various people and events from history.

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When Jack Johnson was boxing his way through a series of great white hopes, black communities all across America were celebrating. This man, despite his flaws, was shattering the lie of white supremacy.

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FILE — In this Aug. 14, 1936, file photo, Jesse Owens competes in one of the heats of the 200-meter run at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. One of the four Olympic gold medals won by Owens at the 1936 Berlin Games is for sale in an online auction that runs from through Dec. 7. (AP Photo/File)

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Jesse Owens did the same thing at the Berlin Olympics in 1936, prompting Hitler to leave the stadium. I was touched by the fact that Owens was befriended by a German rival.

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Jesse Owens (center left) and Bill Garrett (center right)

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 On a somewhat more personal note, I have previously included the names of Bill Garrett, who broke the color barrier in Big Ten basketball, and Dr. James Roberson, who placed fourth in the Olympic decathlon trials and who was one of only a few blacks admitted to the Indiana University Medical School upon graduating from college. Both of these men were friends of my father from his days at Indiana University. Dr. Roberson’s family  slept in our home, and we  slept in theirs. I have mentioned this in a previous post, Breaking The Color Barrier, under my Graphic Mythology category (black strip on the left).

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Now the Black Panther has been added to the modern pantheon, so … “Long live the king.” Role models, both real and fictional, are important. They were important to me as a child. They are important to me as an adult. As I have aged, I have grown to realize how much I took this for granted and how some demographic groups have felt under-represented.  There have been two recent films which I felt the producers really had to get right. One was Wonder Woman. The other was Black Panther. Okay, I know I should actually get around to reviewing the latter, so I will return to this topic next week.

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Doing It Justice?

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So… the question: Does Justice League do justice to the Justice League? My answer is a resounding “sort of.” Overall, I found the movie entertaining and fun, and that’s the most important part as far as I’m concerned. Let us all remind ourselves that this is make-believe. On the other hand, fantasy can provide us with a different perspective from which to consider reality, and it therefore reflects reality in distorted form. While I think some reviewers have taken this whole business too seriously, it is not necessarily  inappropriate to note our personal disappointments.

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In keeping with what I just said, I will unburden myself. The script was uneven, and the dialogue ranged from good to almost wincingly bad. As an example, some of the lines given to Jason Momoa’s Aquaman character were awkward. When I watched BvS, I was struck by the quality of Gal Gadot’s screen presence as Wonder Woman, but I felt that she was a better actor than some of her lines indicated. Seeing her performance in Wonder Woman confirmed that, and I feel the same way this time around about Jason Momoa. This has me looking hopefully forward to the Aquaman movie.

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The editing was a bit choppy, especially over the first 30-40 minutes. The abrupt scene changes without much setup diminished the impact of some otherwise impressive visuals. This approach works better in the panels of a comic book than it does on the big screen.  I think an additional 15-30 minutes of runtime would have been justified.

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Let me pick a little further. Warner Brothers still needs to work a little on the quality of its characters’ costumes. They have an almost plastic quality at times. Also, the CGI occasionally looked too much like CGI, and this made the action sequences less satisfying for me. Case in point: the visual appearance of Steppenwolf  at times reminded me more of a video game than a major motion picture.  The character, however, was wonderfully voiced by Ciaran Hinds, who has previously  impressed me in some serious dramatic films.

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Had I not seen Wonder Woman, I would have said that Justice League was an improvement for the DCEU. Warner Brothers owns perhaps the most iconic superhero pantheon in comics, but they need to pay more attention to scriptwriting, costuming, and special effects quality if they hope to catch up to the MCU. The cast was stellar and could have been better utilized for the above reasons. Aside from the actors I’ve already mentioned, there were Ben Affleck (Batman), Ezra Miller (The Flash), Ray Fisher (Cyborg), and (no surprise here since it was revealed before the premiere) Henry Cavill (Superman). Add in Amy Adams (Lois Lane), J. K. Simmons (another fine character actor as Commissioner Gordon), and a cameo appearance by Marc McClure (Jimmy Olsen in the 1970s, a frightened policeman this time), and you have an excellent ensemble cast.

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I’ll include the following and fanciful cast poster from daniel-morphens because it includes the Martian Manhunter being played by my brother. I hadn’t thought of it before, but this character would be right up Doug’s alley.

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Everyone who hasn’t seen the movie yet should already know that they’re bringing Superman back. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, but it was my favorite scene in the movie. I thought that they finally got this character right, and his action scenes were truly impressive to my inner child. As for his unveiling/resurrection, the reactions of observers will suffice.

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Thor: Ragnarok – What I Missed (Part 2)

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Something occurred to me after I started writing last week’s post. The fact that I need a second week shows me that the movie had a lot of substance. The right concepts and plot elements were there, but as I wrote last week, I feel that they were covered up (to an extent) by the humor. I realize this is a matter of personal taste, so I won’t belabor the point. Thor: Ragnarok was obviously well-received by fans and critics alike, and I do intend to watch it again.

From this point on, there might be some spoilers for anyone who has not yet seen this film.

Now for the picky part of my critique, which I readily admit arises from my own unrealistic expectations. This is what I missed. First, as I’ve already alluded, I would have liked to see more emphasis placed on the mythological concepts and imagery. The Valkyrie flashback with the winged horses was brief enough that it teased that desire in me, and I had hoped to see more of that kind of scene.

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Secondly, when I heard that the Hulk would be given more dialogue, I envisioned a more nuanced psychological  and emotional study of this character.

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I have posted before that he represents an outsized version of what resides in all of us, and this could have created all kinds of possibilities for his character development.

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I had also hoped the script would show a gradual evolution of his ability to speak coherently. The dramatic potential of such an approach is huge since it would provide a window into the soul of this creature.

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That said, there were still some great ideas which were well executed. I liked every scene with Fenris the wolf, another character lifted out of The Prose Edda by Snori Sturluson. The only problem with his battle with the Hulk is that it was a little difficult to tell how it was resolved.

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The evolution of Heimdall’s character was well done if not entirely consistent with his vocal style from previous movies. It was interesting to see him playing a different role in the story, and I’m glad they didn’t kill him off.

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The climactic battle was typically spectacular for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’ll reserve judgment on turning Thor into the new Odin. That will be depend on how it is approached in future efforts.

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I particularly liked the scene showing the destruction of Asgard by Surtur. It was appropriately epic.

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I liked the redemption themes as well: the relationship of Thor and Loki…

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… the moral awakening of Skurge …

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… the reunion of Odin and his two sons, and the persuasion of Valkyrie as played by Tessa Thompson.  I especially liked the story arc of Valkyrie’s fall, degradation, and ultimate restoration to her former glory. It was a unique treatment of yet another character from Norse mythology.

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And that might be as good a place to end as any.

Thor: Ragnarok – What I Missed (Part 1)

thor 6I had mixed feelings as I sat in my seat waiting for the outro at the end of the credits for Thor: Ragnarok. On the one hand, I was thoroughly entertained for over two hours. On the other, I was disappointed by what I hadn’t seen. I realize that appreciation can be colored by prior expectations, and I really expected a lot out of this movie (maybe too much). I’ll have to see it again to get a more balanced perspective.  I’ll divide my comments into three areas: what I liked, what I didn’t like, and (perhaps most importantly) what I missed.

To begin with, I loved the first part. The opening sequence was visually satisfying, and the dialogue and action were engaging.

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It is in this opening that we meet Surtur, the fire demon who is capably played by Clancy Brown.

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We also meet Skurge, the negligent interim keeper of the Bifrost, as played by Karl Urban.

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The segment with Doctor Strange might have been a bit incongruous, but it was visually effective and very interesting. I am very intrigued by this character.

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The first scene where Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) speak one last time with Odin (Anthony Hopkins) was beautifully done, and I liked seeing Odin portrayed as an old man in normal clothing. The idea of gods among us in the guise of mere mortals resonated with me.

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The set up and reveal of Hela was well-crafted and intriguingly done. She, like Loki, comes from Norse mythology, and (like Loki) she is a different kind of villain. I enjoyed the scenes in which she was depicted, and Cate Blanchett did a wonderful job portraying her.

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Up to this point, I was satisfied with the development of the mythological elements in the plot. Then came the middle. I’ve always liked how Marvel uses humor to diffuse the tension, but I felt that this time it almost smothered it.

The introduction of the deranged Grandmaster as played by Jeff Goldblum managed to add a humorous sense of dread before the jokes threatened to take over.

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There were good scenes and ideas throughout the rest of the movie, but I felt they were overly subordinated to the jokes. The contrast of dread followed by an instant of comic relief didn’t feel as if it had been given sufficient time to build. Also, I wonder if there was too much reliance on phrases and slapstick sequences from past movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The almost Shakespearian nobility of Thor is a great straight line for the punch lines which involve him. I was sorry to see that sense of nobility lessened as much as it was, partly because I thought it lessened the impact of the humor, which much of the time was genuinely funny. I’m all for evolving a character, but I’m also all for maintaining sufficient continuity to make that evolution more plausible.

Well, this is taking longer than I had anticipated, so I’d better continue this thread next week.

The Modern Pantheon: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

 

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When reviewing Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017, Disney Marvel), I suppose one must mention Baby Groot, voiced by Vin Diesel.  From the opening to the closing credits, he adds an emotional,  humorous, and heroic facet to the story.

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In addition to some of the personnel mentioned last week, some new cast members join the party: Kurt Russell as Ego, Pom Klementief as Mantis, Sylvester Stallone As Stakar Ogord (the head Ravager who reveals some of Yondu’s backstory), and Elizabeth Debecki as Ayesha (a ranking member of the snobbish Sovereign).

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This entertaining and somewhat adolescent movie (no offense intended from one who regards himself an overgrown teenager) employs a number of themes from ancient mythology: patricide, the seduction (or worse) of women by gods, and gods as planets. My unanswered question about Peter Quill’s father is addressed early on. He was sired by Ego, a Celestial (or god, “small ‘g’, son”) whose powerful but self-absorbed mind has generated his physical form and the planet he calls home.

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The planet itself is alive, a concept from Greco Roman mythology. I was reminded of Plato’s Timmaeus. Humans and gods were considered animals because they moved (i.e. were animated), and this applied to planets as well, which were often associated with various gods. The surface of Ego’s planet is a kind of Candy Land on hallucinatory steroids (my invented term).

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I liked how Ego’s planet is, at one point, shown as having a face when viewed from outer space.

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It’s elaborate interior is likened to a nervous system emanating from Ego’s brain.

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Mantis is Ego’s fearful assistant. She identifies herself as an Empath, an alien who can detect emotions through physical contact with the person feeling them.

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The story has a persistent theme of reconciliation – for example, between sisters Gamora and Nebula…

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… and between Quill and Yondu (as well as between Yondu and the Ravagers).

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In an outro mingled with the closing credits, Ayesha…

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Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) Ph: Film Frame ©Marvel Studios 2017

 

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…  reveals the technological chrysalis that will usher Adam Warlock into the MCU.

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In the comics, Adam is repeatedly killed and resurrected, so his cinematic inclusion should be of mythological interest. Another outro (as well as a screen shot) provides a humorous scene of Stan Lee telling stories to the Watchers.

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His own creation, they are observers who show up at events of cosmic importance in the comics. Given the rate at which these movies are being made, Marvel Studios should never run out of characters.

 

 

The Modern Pantheon: Guardians of the Galaxy

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Last week, I mentioned two departures from the norm in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The first I reviewed is Doctor Strange. The second is actually two movies, so far. The first (as if you couldn’t tell from the above picture) is…

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Let’s get this out of the way first. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014, Disney Marvel Studios, directed by James Gunn) has an extensive ensemble cast: Chris Pratt as Peter Quill (Starlord), Zoe Saldana as Gamora, Dave Bautista as Drax, Vin Diesel as the voice of Groot, Bradley Cooper as the voice of Rocket, Michael Rooker as Yondu Udanta, an unrecognizableKaren Gillan as Nebula, John C. Reilly as Corpsman Dey, Glenn Close as Nova Prime, Benicio Del Toro as The Collector, Djimon Hounsou as Korath, Lee Pace as Ronan, and Josh Brolin as the voice of Thanos. There are more, but I’m getting tired. Much could be said about the plot, characters, acting, soundtrack, and special effects of this very entertaining movie. I’m choosing instead to focus on the cosmic and mythological aspects of its well-scripted story.

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This is the first movie which offers more information on Thanos, a multidimensional character invented by writer Jim Starlin for Marvel Comics. He has otherwise been seen only in outro sequences for Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron. A little of his backstory is provided in this movie. If the MCU does any justice to this character, he will prove a good psychological and mystical study. I look forward to seeing more of him.

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From Guardians Of The Galaxy (2014), directed by James Gunn

Of course, Thanos and several others are after an artifact which turns out to be an Infinity Stone.

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Benicio Del Toro does a good turn as The Collector. I enjoyed the sequence where he explains the history of the Infinity Stones. This scene infuses the MCU with an interesting cosmology.

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One of my unanswered questions was the lineage of Peter Quill. His mother was an earthling, but the exceptional identity of his father is not revealed in this first movie. It hints at a mythological nature which enables him to hold onto the Infinity Stone for as long as he does without being destroyed.

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I think it appropriate to mention Groot in this context as well. Despite his violent capabilities, he is a benevolent creature who looks out for his friends and ultimately sacrifices himself for them. Like many Marvel characters, though, he isn’t really dead. The comics as well as the movies of Marvel utilize a number of resurrection themes. I attribute this more to an economic need to provide suspense and to bring characters back for future installments than to any religious motivation, but I still appreciate the additional depth it provides when done properly.

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Surf in again next week. There will be plenty more to follow…

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