Sunday 31 August 2014

The End Times: Bretonnia ain't goin' nowhere

(Those seeking spoilers are not getting them from this post. Okay, maybe one, a little one. I'll be doing a full review of the Nagash books when I've finished them, this is just based on reading the first 80-odd pages of Book One and how I think what's been written affects my most favourite army ever, ever, ever: Bretonnia.)

I'm not one to give credence to the doom and gloom rumours of armies getting “Squatted”. Frankly, the Squats were a long time ago and they were, sorry if this offends, a crap idea. Space Dwarfs on motorbikes were never going to age well, it was very Eighties and one of those mistakes companies make when they think they'll be out of business this time next year. They got dropped more than twenty years ago and its time to get over it. Whilst we're on the subject: Black Templars players (and I am a Black Templars player!) gained more than they lost from being folded into Codex: Space Marines.

Still, the continuing false rumours of a Bretonnia release and the dropping of kit after kit from the webstore have made it hard to keep the faith. May the Lady forgive me, I did start to waver.

Then I opened the Nagash book.

Oh, its grim for Bretonnia just like any other Forces Of Order race right now but I've watched enough wrestling, seen enough faces pounded into the canvas to know where this is going. In this book and probably the next the good guys will get hammered relentlessly but come Wrestlemania (or, y'know, Middenheim or wherever this ends up) the good guys will strike back with faith, steel and gunpowder (less of the last one with Bretonnia but you get my point).

So, yeah, its grim: a major character has been taken off the board; four duchies are in ruins and another one seems to have been eaten by daemons; and La Maisontaal Abbey was destroyed but, frankly, that's just what happens to La Masiontaal Abbey. By this stage La Maisontaal being burnt to the ground is almost a running joke, what you put in an army book's timeline when you want them to have done something in Bretonnia.

But then...

Okay, NO SPECIFIC SPOILERS but the counter-attack is already underway. The book opens with a forty page prologue describing where all the races and nations of Warhammer are at the beginning of the End Times (or is the end of the beginning?). Most of the good guys get a ray of hope, something that they (and their fans) can cling to in the hard times ahead and Bretonnia's is a whopper!

My point is: this is not how GW addresses a concept they're going to junk. They have two strategies they've used in the past. Either they ignore the idea until it fades away (Squats and a lot of Rogue Trader-era background) or they completely, utterly nuke it in a brief piece of background. 80 pages in and this book has the highest mortality rate of any Warhammer supplement I've ever read: background characters and playable special characters with models have been done in, whole cities and small nations have been wiped out including one or two places that did once constituted the basis of an army.

Really, not everyone is going to be happy with who bites the dust including some much-missed old armies but as for Bretonnia (yes, I'm selfish!) they get such a build-up, such a huge revelation-ish (not entirely a surprise but still nice), such advancement from where they were left in Warhammer Armies: Wood Elves and such a huge part in the opening chapter with the whole La Maisontaal affair (and a couple of accompanying scenarios in the rules book) that I cannot believe GW has any plans to drop them.

In fact, I lead myself to hope this means something is coming in the not too distant future. After all: why write whole scenarios requiring a Bretonnia army and not have a Bretonnia army available? Right now the whole metal and finecast range are out of production and there are no knightly character models. 

Like I said, every good guy gets a ray of hope to see them through. 

Saturday 30 August 2014

The Bretonnia Royal Marine Air Corps

Okay, the revival of my Bretonnia army keeps getting delays due to lack of models but this idea won't leave me alone. You see, for a while my friend Matt and I have wondered how exactly Bretonnian naval warfare works when they don't have cannons. Logic dictates that they depend on boarding actions and ramming manoeuvres but a few nights ago something occurred to me:

What if Bretonnia has invented the aircraft carrier?

I just have this image of Bretonnian frigates acting as mobile bases for Pegasus Knights. The Bretonnian ships close with the enemy and whilst their peasant crews prepare for ramming speed and boarding the Pegasus Knights sally forth to draw fire and harry the enemy crews. Meanwhile Damsels using the Lore Of Life whip the sea up so as to batter the enemy ships and speed their own fleet to attack positions. Their Lore Of Beasts sisters use their own magic to augment the Pegasus Knights' attack run.

(Yes, I know Bretonnia is probably the most sexist and most superstitious human nation in Warhammer so you could argue that women wouldn't be allowed aboard. However, Damsels have long been established as beyond all social rules enforced on the general female population and quite a few enforced on the male population, too).

So now my Pegasus Knights have a theme: lots of trident and merlion heraldry to represent the coastal duchies. I wonder if I can pinch a trident head from Matt's Lothern Skycutter for the champion?

Friday 29 August 2014

The Grand Redemption of Peter Davison

There was a time when this was considered high drama.
That time was in the producer's office, not on transmission.
(SPOILER WARNING for Doctor Who: The Fifth Doctor Box Set: Psychodrome and, I suppose, Earthshock).

Last night I listened to Psychodrome, the first story in Big Finish's The Fifth Doctor Box Set, and it really drove home how much Big Finish and others have done to actively rehabilitate the Fifth Doctor era.

In a way this has happened with every Doctor Big Finish has worked with. Their Sixth Doctor is less abrasive to his companions than he was on TV whilst still retaining his hard edge; with the Seventh Doctor stories push the boat out on his scheming and questionable morals; their Eighth Doctor has darkened to flatter Paul McGann's talents; and their Fourth Doctor series benefits greatly from a less arrogant Tom Baker who doesn't feel the need to steal every scene.

A lot of that is character, though, whereas with Peter Davison I feel what's being rehabilitated is the whole era.

Take Psychodrome: the elevator pitch on this one was to create a new second story for Peter Davison. The story is set right after Castrovalva and a lot of it is about the four regulars and their impressions of each other after having been together a very short time. As Tegan points the two stories she features in before this point take place over less than two days and she hasn't had a moment to stop and mourn the death of her Aunt Vanessa. Nyssa's whole world was destroyed and the Master is walking around in her father's corpse. Adric has seen “his” Doctor die shortly after Romana left them and the TARDIS is no longer the same environment he “signed up” to travel in.

None of this was dealt with on-screen. These four characters skipped from Castrovalva Part Four to Four To Doomsday Part One with little continuity. Nyssa does have another encounter with the Master in Time-Flight with no mention is made of the whole “Dad's corpse” business and Tegan meets several members of her family over the years with no mention of poor Aunt Vanessa's fate.

This is the era, lest we forget, that sold itself on its “soap opera” elements and continuity yet never really invested in a sense of character. The season this story is set in ostensibly has one “focus” story for each companion but they aren't focus stories as we understand them: Tegan's story sees her possessed by the villain; Nyssa's has Sarah Sutton playing another character more than she plays Nyssa; and Adric's story gives him little to do beyond die dumbly.

Psychodrome makes liberal use of elements from the stories it takes place between: the unreal environment of Castrovalva gets the added twist of being influenced by everyone's perceptions rather than being under the Master's control. The opening scenes are also reminiscent of the exploration phase of a Hartnell first episode that was used in Four To Doomsday and this is really my point:

With the other Doctors characters get reworked using modern techniques but for the Fifth Doctor stories from his era are actively re-written. One of the most acclaimed Fifth Doctor audios is Spare Parts, in fact it was (very, VERY) loosely adapted for television as Rise Of The Cybermen/Age Of Steel. Spare Parts used the same basic idea of Earthshock: a Cybermen story hugely bound into their on-screen history but instead of re-enacting old set pieces its a story about the history of the Cybermen, even going so far as to re-use the singsong Cyber-voice from The Tenth Planet.

Its not only Big Finish, either, one of my favourite Doctor Who novels is David A. McIntee's The Lords Of The Storm. This book is very much Warriors Of The Deep but done with Sontarans and done well. McIntee uses elements from every Sontaran story, including the fan made VHS story Shakedown, but does it with fidelity and also thinking about how the concept could be modernised. Like Warriors, Lords features a future society but McIntee gives it far more depth than the one from Warriors and uses it as more than a background for the monster story to happen against.

(The actual ultimate example of this pattern I would love to recommend but since the villain of the piece and therefore story it “replaces” is a huge revelation I really, really can't because the internet would hate me forever. It really is one of those twists fandom swears you to secrecy over. Its one of the Fifth Doctor Lost Stories, that's all I can say, and don't read the copyright blurb on the back cover).

Now, I love the Davison era but I have to admit it is one of Doctor Who's most flawed runs. It crackles with potential but that potential never truly breaks through. Turlough is a great idea for an untrustworthy companion but aside from Barbara Clegg and his creator Peter Grimwade everyone just writes him as a coward; killing a companion was a good dramatic idea but using it as an excuse to get rid of the unpopular one was cheap; the Black Guardian trilogy was a good idea but needed a middle story that actually said something relevant to the overarching plot; and why the hell does it matter that the robot prop doesn't work properly when the robot is a bloody shapeshifter?

So I'm grateful, is what I'm saying. The wasted potential of those three seasons is a huge bugbear of mine. You can point to just about every regular character and say they were wasted and that we can finally see how Turlough and Tegan and Nyssa and Peri would work if written well and directed patiently can only be a good thing.

And yes, if Psychodrome is anything to do by, there's hope for Adric yet.

Thursday 28 August 2014

5 words that need tighter legal controls

After yesterday's post it occurred to me there are other words writers, directors and producers use that kind of piss me off through repeated misuse and here they are.

Comedies are emotional because they provoke joy. “Emotional” does not have to mean “depressing”. It usually does, though.

Or, alternatively, “pretentious”. The Dark Knight Rises is a big example of this as far as I'm concerned. For a start its “innovative” plot is just Knightfall and No Man's Land inelegantly stitched together but the films have a larger audience than the comics it adapts so Chris Nolan and his fans get to pretend he's doing something terribly original with the property. Oh, and as for the villain holding the city to ransom with a nuclear bomb... give me a break! That's practically bloody textbook!

Less widespread than the others and more in video game territory but here we go: companies have a terrible habit of trying to tell us what is iconic. Though, actually, DC tried to pull something similar with Hush, advertising him as the “first major Batman villain introduced in decades” where “major” isn't entirely theirs to define. As it happens Hush was a good idea, he did become a major returning villain but his popularity could not be relied upon before the audience got a look at him.

That ain't how it works. Something becomes iconic because the audience latches onto it. The baseball cap worn by the lead character in a game you haven't released yet does not get to be iconic just because you say it is.

New Avengers has been running for a decade and I'm really not sure what's new about the current version when it features some of the oldest characters in the Marvel Universe in their role as pillars of the Marvel Universe. The New Super Mario Bros. franchise is a series of nostalgia games designed to evoke memories of the SNES era. There needs to be a statute of limitations on this.


This is a particularly abused one and social services really need to step in. Like “emotional” this tends to mean “depressing” but with a side order of “brown and shooty”. Reality can be fun and realistic can mean a lot of different things: a story can be realistic because of its setting (Eastenders): because the emotions of its characters are meant to be related to (Battlestar Galactica); or because it takes a procedural angle on the story its telling (Law & Order). It does not just mean first person shooters with limited colour palates. 

Wednesday 27 August 2014

Female characters: Equal opportunity flaws

This post started as a rant against the use of the phrase “strong female character”, that meaningless buzz phrase trotted out when comic companies deign to advertise one of their female properties. It can mean anything: that the character is physically strong, that she's emotionally resilient or that the writing is going to be of consistent quality. You just don't know and some clarity would be nice. That's bad enough but it occurred to me there's a second problem with the phrase:

Strength ain't that interesting.

What's more we know this: the standard template criticism of Superman is that as a physically invulnerable, emotionally perfect individual there's not really anywhere to go with the character. Superior interpretations of the character (at least the ones I've connected with) introduce a flaw of some kind: All-Star Superman confronted him with his own mortality; New Krypton turned him into an unwanted lone peacemaker between humans and Kryptonians; and For Tomorrow presented him with a genuine crisis of faith.

To break this down to pure theory: a character's flaws, whether they get over them or fall prey to them, generate more plots than their strengths. If Hamlet weren't a ditherer his uncle would have been dead by Act 2 and we'd be missing some of the best speeches in the whole Shakespeare canon.

As to female characters probably one of the comic writers most praised for their female characters is Greg Rucka who, you may have guessed, is a man. I'm choosing to highlight him over, say, Gail Simone or Kelly Sue deConnick because when a man writes a woman its put under a huge microscope by female fandom and often (unsurprisingly) found wanting. Rucka, though, has not one but two female characters who are regularly held up as a sort of gold standard for writing women in comics: Renee Montoya and Tara Chase.

In Gotham Central and later as The Question, Rucka put Renee Montoya through the emotional wringer: combating alcoholism; the death of her partner; the ethical dilemma of avenging his death when the law proved insufficient; and, not least, being forced out of the closet and having to confront the reaction of her staunchly traditional Catholic parents. There was also her use in setting up Batwoman's past in which she was both the love of Kate Kane's life but by being closeted also represented an act of deception Kate had made the active moral decision not to engage in despite it robbing her of her lifelong dream. These issues drove the personal evolution of the character for close to a decade between Gotham Central #1 and the character's disappearance following Flashpoint and the New 52 reboot.

With Tara Chase in Queen & Country, Rucka went further, and we have a character who is almost entirely made of flaws. Tara is a genuinely competent, even gifted, MI-6 agent but as the series progresses we learn that not only does she have significant emotional flaws but that she was selected as an elite “Minder” agent because of them: they make her a more effective weapon in her handler's arsenal but cause her enormous pain as a human being.

Both of these characters are praised, not universally of course, and under certain interpretations of the phrase they could certainly be called “strong female characters” but that's not what makes them most interesting. I'd rather have meaningfully “complex” over meaninglessly “strong” any day. 

Tuesday 26 August 2014

The Rewards of Necromancy

Okay, this one wasn't my idea, exactly. As is evident from past hobby posts I have searched for years in vain for a motivational method to keep me focused on painting. I've tried targets, I've tried doing A Tale Of One Gamer (Dwarfs were not as inspiring as I'd hoped) and other methods too boring to list and pretty much gave up on the idea.

Then my friend Matt and I read the Humbling Of Settra scenario in White Dwarf #30. The idea is simple: Nagash on his own versus the opposing player's entire Tomb Kings collection.

I've got a lot of Tomb Kings models: few are built, none are painted. I had an opportunity to pick up a whole army's worth on the cheap a few years ago and took it. They've been a “rainy day” project ever since and now the day seems to have come. Matt and I intend to play the scenario some time in January between the end of our current narrative campaign and the beginning of the next. I've got four months to paint as many Tomb Kings miniatures as I can.

As an added spur to work I'm going to set myself some rewards for the first few milestones. Another friend of mine does this and his method is that he likes tanks, he loves tanks so when he finishes a big infantry unit he'll reward himself with a tank. I like centrepiece miniatures, I like doing a real production number on something flashy so here are my rewards, my presents to myself:

500 points completed: I get to paint my Ushabti. I love Ushabti and the original great weapon ones look beautiful in Finecast.

1,000 points: The Necrosphinx, a beautiful centrepiece. I'm thinking a jade effect for the body.

1,500 points: A couple of years ago Matt made me a custom “Scorpion” Warsphinx for my birthday: a mash-up of Necrosphinx and the Arachnarok Spider from the Orcs & Goblins range. Definitely something I should paint up now I have reason and some idea of how I want to colour it.

2,000 points: At this stage I get to buy a Nagash model of my very own.

I'll set further rewards if I exceed these targets but that should be more than enough to be getting on with. 

Monday 25 August 2014

Is Peter Capaldi working from the Colin Baker playbook?


There's a lot to be said about Peter Capaldi's d├ębut episode, amongst them the fact that I'm finally starting to like Clara and that Vastra and Jenny are finally gaining some layers, both as characters and as a couple. What I want to concentrate on is that Capaldi seems to be playing a Doctor, and Moffat seems to be writing a Doctor, who calls back to the series' least popular period.

So it was the mid-Eighties, Colin Baker was the Doctor and I'm sort of reading tea leaves after that because every first hand account of this period wildly contradicts every other first hand account. As far as anyone can tell there was a plan or an idea or a vague, vague notion of running a story arc where the Sixth Doctor would start out unsympathetic and the audience would warm to him over years. It didn't work: Colin Baker started off his era by trying to strangle his (female and heavily sexualised) companion, an act for which he never apologises and she just sort of passively forgives him for even as he continues to be genuinely unpleasant to her.

Once all the feminists in the audience have stopped vomiting, we'll continue.

Anyway, the plan failed. During Colin Baker's second story, a dreadful act of continuity porn called Attack Of The Cybermen, a quarter of the audience just up and left and Doctor Who pretty much died there and then. It was put on hiatus after that season, brought back for a significantly shorter run after which Baker was fired and then generally lurched about the TV schedules for three more years during which it improved immensely but no one was paying attention anymore. From there its cancellation, the Wilderness Years and then the 2005 revival.

It went wrong then, can it work now?

Well, for one thing Capaldi's moment of betraying Clara is almost instantly redeemed. He might be unpredictable but he isn't acting totally against the Doctor's moral code (like, oh, for instance: strangling a defenceless woman!). There's an ambiguous moment with the bad guy of the week where either he kills himself or is killed by the Doctor but the villain is a genuine threat whose survival would have meant the deaths of Clara and the Paternoster Gang. “Would you kill to save your friends' lives?” is a moral ambiguity people can get behind and debate.

There's also the fact Moffat is working with a greater level of audience trust than John Nathan-Turner had in the 1980s. 1980s Who was past its heyday and trying to hold onto an audience that still sort of missed Tom Baker. Modern Who gets more than ten million viewers an episode opposed to the about seven million JNT had in the era we're discussing.

There's more goodwill these days, is what I'm saying. Most of the last seven seasons have been good quality, quite a bit has been fantastic whilst Colin Baker came in after quite a few years of... shall we say “problematic” production values on the series?

I must admit, love Matt Smith's Doctor as I did I was getting a bit fatigued on the series last year, especially as Clara never clicked with me (she's doing better now) so I'm very much looking forward to seeing where this is going. 

Sunday 24 August 2014

Nine things to notice about The End Times: Nagash

It was... a dark time.
The End Times: Nagash is on pre-order, the White Dwarf is out and I have pre-ordered the slipcase edition. So what do we know from the various sources available: the magazine, the webstore and so on. This is all publicly available advertising so I'm calling no holds barred on spoilers as you could get most of this out of a £2.40 magazine or for free on the GW website.

There are, absolutely 100% confirmed in the write-up for the Nagash book, rules for Valten. I've been hoping for Valten to come back into canon since he rated a mention in Ask Grimbrindal a few issues ago. What's more, I checked the GW webstore and Valten's models (there were three) have disappeared. GW is big these days on not putting out rules for a thing unless they're going to produce the model since third parties can take advantage of that loophole so we can hope for a plastic Valten someday very soon.

Keeping with the Vs: some of the background outlined in White Dwarf #30 mentions that one of Nagash undead lieutenants (or Mortarchs) is Vlad Von Carstein. Vlad! Von! Carstein! He's back, the big daddy of the Vampire Counts and he's heading for a face-off with Archaon.

Welcome to the Future
A box-out on page 30 pegs the resurrection of Nagash as happening in 2524 (Imperial Reckoning). That's two years after the static dateline Warhammer has maintained since the sixth edition.

Good Lord(s)
Like Storm Of Magic and Triumph & Treachery before them The End Times represents a slightly tweaked core rules set. This time around the big change is that in an End Times game you can take 50% of your army as Lord choices which makes sense since all the great lords and heroes are going to be on the field at a time like this. At 1,000 points that means Nagash can be taken in a bog standard 2,000 points army.

He likes nines, does Nagash. Of course there are nine Books Of Nagash, his rules allow him to know nine spells and he has chosen “nine beings of immense power” to be his Mortarchs. So far, from various sources, we know four: Vlad Von Carstein, Mannfred Von Carstein, Neferata (going to love to hear how that happened) and Arkhan the Black. Five more to go and we have to ask: was Konrad too bat-shit insane even for Nagash?

Fair Bretonnia
Call me desperate at this stage but Bretonnia gets a few mentions in the solicitations describing the new background and artwork from the Army Book cover is used in the second teaser video. Since a big civil war was going on last we checked in with them in the Wood Elves timeline where the rebel leader either was undead or in league with them I can hope for positive developments in the near future.

Body issues
Of his whole body, apparently, only Nagash's skull and a bit of spine that makes up his Pharaoh beard are original, the rest comes from “the noble body he possessed to re-enter the mortal realm”. Since this Nagash business is spinning out of last year's Sigmar's Blood campaign book could this be the fate of Volkmar, last seen being kidnapped by Mannfred as he prepared to enact a great ritual (the box-out with the new dateline mentions that it was Mannfred and Arkhan who performed the resurrection ritual).

The Golden Bastion of Balthasar Gelt
Don't know what it is but apparently its protecting the Empire from Archaon's Horde. I am very much looking forward to finding out what this is about.

The Big 1

Looking at the slipcase edition on the webstore the two books have numbers on the spines but the slipcase itself has a great big “1” on its spine. So there are more books to come. The End Times: Archaon next? Karl Franz?

Thursday 7 August 2014

What is Superman v Batman: Dawn Of Justice for?

I should clarify what I mean by “for”. When I ask what this upcoming movie is for I mean “What is it for creatively speaking?”. What is it setting out to achieve other than piles of dollars on opening weekend? True, we don't have a plot yet, we won't for a while but we do have the initial marketing and that tells... a confusing story.

Back up a moment and we'll examine another, comparable film in the context of this question. Since I wrote about it only yesterday Guardians Of The Galaxy, naturally springs to mind. I have no insight into the production of the film but just watching it a few objectives spring to mind:

Objective 1 is to trial out a lower-tier Marvel property in film and see if Marvel Studios can make a franchise out of something the wider audience hasn't heard of and isn't propped by the Avengers name. Huge takings at the box office so Objective: Achieved.

Objective 2 is to widen the Marvel cinematic universe out into space, building on what the Thor movies did. We get the Nova Corps, Xandar, Knowhere, the Kyln, the Kree Empire, Thanos and the Collector. Working out from that, even if Guardians was a flop, Marvel has the basis for a Captain Marvel film, a Nova film or doing The Infinity Gauntlet for Avengers 3. Objective: Achieved.

Two objectives, one of which is just inherent in the creation of the film and the other affecting little more than window dressing by asking the writer to incorporate, say, a pre-existing Mos Eisley-style hellhole like Knowhere instead of creating a new one. Neither really imposes on the plot to any great degree.

So what are the objectives of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Let's start with the film's title because that's a ripe little target.

Okay, as far as I'm aware the film was never officially referred to as Man Of Steel 2. That was just a convenient label the film media slapped on during pre-production so they'd have something to call it. All that was announced was that it was a sequel to Man Of Steel. Seems simple, Objective 1: Superman sequel, built the franchise, establish the Metrooplis status quo only just set up at the end of Man Of Steel.

Then the announcement was made that the plot would involve Batman coming to Metropolis and having a punch-up with Superman. Objective 2: introduce a new Batman. A Justice League film was coming, we all knew that, so it wasn't unreasonable to try out the World's Finest team-up combo as a first step.

And then...

A slew of new details. The full title: Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice. Superman has been moved down to second billing in the title so is this the second Superman film or the first in a new Batman franchise? Then there's the subtitle, which along with the announcements that Wonder Woman, Aquaman and Cyborg would be included in the cast, make it clear this is also very actively prefiguring or even about the creation of the Justice League.

Objective 3: Introduce and establish Wonder Woman.
Objective 4: Introduce and establish Aquaman.
Objective 5: Introduce and establish Cyborg.
Objective 6: Bring the characters together to spin off Justice League film.
Objective 7: And introduce and establish Lex Luthor at the same time.

These objectives are all implicit in the inclusion of the characters, all of whom are listed on the film's IMDB page. Including the new Batman and Lex Luthor this film is introducing five new major franchise characters, at least two of which the studio will be actively pitching to make solo films for. This could be setting up as many as three other film franchises and that seems too much for one movie.

DC and Legendary are trying to copy Marvel's success. I can't blame them but I think a problem here is trying to copy results rather than methods. They're introducing the lion's share of the Justice League in (if we take Green Lantern as canon in this universe) their third film. Avengers Assemble was Marvel Studios' sixth film in their masterplan and at most any one Marvel film only introduces the title character and one other in the supporting cast like Black Widow and Hawkeye.

I think the problem might be that Marvel produces in-house as Disney subsidiary whilst Legendary is a third party. The slow-build Avengers masterplan was a massive risk and solo films for Wonder Woman and Aquaman are perceived as even bigger risks. Aquaman is actively a joke character in the public imagination, as is the fact that a Wonder Woman movie has been in pre-production hell for perhaps longer than I've been alive.

I'm not saying Dawn Of Justice won't be good, I'm not saying it will necessarily fail. I only want to point out that on the evidence of the things announced two years before release it's setting itself a lot to do in one movie when the Marvel playbook they're cribbing from emphasises a slow-boil and very long-term planning. 

Wednesday 6 August 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

Yesterday I read the somewhat surprising statistic that Guardians Of The Galaxy had the third highest grossing opening weekend of the year so far, after Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Transformers: Age Of Extinction. This is both easy to believe and kind of puzzling.

Colour Me Puzzled
Okay, so Marvel Studios' offerings are reliably good and even when I've called one weak (Thor: The Dark World springs to mind) they've been entertaining. There has always been the suspicion, though, that maybe their success is partially because they were presented as a serial. These films are split into phases that culminate in an Avengers film, the first Captain America movie was subtitled The First Avenger to stress this and directly lead into Avengers Assemble. Avengers Assemble was a huge film, Avengers: Age Of Ultron is going to be a huge film and people now know that they “should” watch Iron Man 3, The Winter Soldier and The Dark World to get the full experience.

Guardians Of The Galaxy doesn't have that, in theory. Yes, a recurring MacGuffin introduced in The Dark World makes an appearance, as do characters from Avengers Assemble and Dark World post-credits teasers but neither of these was advertised. What's more, the characters in this film just aren't known in the popular culture. We comic geeks know the Guardians as quirky fan-favourites but your average man on the street? Nothing, I'd bet. Captain America? Pop culture icon, often misunderstood as a character but a famous image. Iron Man and the Hulk have both had cartoons people my age would remember not to mention the well-remembered Lou Ferrigno Incredible Hulk live-action series. And Thor is, well... a mythological figure practically anyone in the Western world will have at least heard of.

Hell, August isn't even a month usually associated with big openings since most people in the northern hemisphere are too busy enjoying barbecue weather. This is genuinely the first Marvel Studios film in years that has had to sell itself purely on the studio's reputation. The trailers pretty much emphasis three things:

1. It's Marvel Studios, you know you can trust them.
2. It's space opera, maybe you like the genre and did we mention how our parent company has the Star Wars license these days?
3. Raccoon with a chuff-off big gun.

This film was trading on the reputation built up by the Marvel films over the last few years and it totally, totally lives up to that rep.

Come And Get Your Love
Back on topic, let's talk about the soundtrack first because it is a stroke of absolute genius. The initial set-up is that Peter Quill is abducted by aliens as a child in 1986 on the day his mother dies. His only real possession at that moment is a cassette walkman and a mixtape of '60s and '70s hits his mother made for him. We get a classic action movie suiting up scene for the Guardians set to The Runaways' Cherry Bomb, a prison break runs to the lyrics of Escape but not just any old song called “Escape”, its the one better known as “The Pina Colada Song”. Best of all are the opening titles because you think you know what you're getting there:

Peter Quill, now an adult space adventurer in a red leather trenchcoat and techy accoutrements that John Crichton would envy, walks across a desolate alien landscape with ruins in the distance. So far, so space opera, right? Then he takes off his space mask, puts on his earphones and Redbone's Come And Get Your Love starts up. He dances across the screen, disco slides, picks up an alien lizard-rat-thing and uses it as a hair-brush microphone! It is gorgeous.

Every one of these songs accompanies a scene it is completely unsuited to on paper and yet fits perfectly in practice.

Character, Visuals and Spiritual Succession
Star Wars is an obvious influence and not just because a couple of Lucasfilm companies were involved in production and we're blatantly looking at a tech demo for Disney's Episode VII. Guardians Of The Galaxy cleaves to that classic Star Wars formula of switching locations every twenty minutes or so to present you with another set of fantastic visuals and new dangers to fling its character into at high speed. It's not the only influence, though.

Quill himself, as a character, owes a lot to Farscape's John Crichton but he isn't a straight lift. For a start he isn't an entirely modern man thrust into the fantastic, he's grown up in space and is far more adjusted to it than Crichton ever was. Also, Crichton was a character who embodied the One Sane Man trope so he could comment on the absurdities of his world and here Peter Quill is as crazy and sci-fi as everyone else. If the film has a One Sane Man it is, without a doubt, Rocket Raccoon.

No, I'm perfectly serious. Almost every one of Bradley Cooper's lines is comedy gold and half of them are exasperated comments on the other members of the cast. This is clearly a character who lives his life in a constant state of “Oh God, what now?” but we get enough evidence of other emotions that he doesn't seem two-dimensional. Hell, he even has a speech I found emotionally affecting, I was close to tearing up because it frankly touches on issues of bullying that are somewhat close to my heart.

I wasn't actually tearing up, though, that was reserved for a certain moment in the final act with Groot.

Oh yes, and if it seemed to you a waste of time and effort on Marvel's part to employ Vin Diesel to do mo-cap and voice-acting for Groot I assure you it was money well-spent. I've never been a great believer in CGI over physical effects but Rocket and Groot are so well-realised and so well-acted (yes, I am applying the tag of acting to the process that brings Groot to life) I'm confident they'll be just as big breakout characters with the film audience as they were with comic fans.

Talking of big fellas: Dave Bautista, better known to me as The Monster Batista of WWE fame. Of all the characters Drax has changed the most between page and screen: he's no longer an augmented human but an alien from a very literal-minded race who don't understand metaphors, similes or anything of the like. The jokes are obvious and you see almost all of them coming but Bautista plays it so straight and with such conviction its endearing. And again, there's a speech that paints him as more than the 2D brawler he might be assumed to be.

Zoe Saldana rounds out the cast as Gamorra and adding green to the list of colours she's been in space. She's probably the least served by the script, if I'm being honest, as unlike the others her character starts off complex and we don't really get the easy hook for her before we're plunged into her backstory and the complexities of her motivations. None of this is bad, exactly, but the other characters benefit from a more leisurely introduction.

Thrown together they bicker, they talk at cross purposes, they get on each others' tits and, of course, they save the universe. Star Wars, Farscape and Firefly have all used this sort of formula for the simple reason that it works but none of the comparisons exactly matches. Starlord might be the obvious Han Solo analogy with his blaster and imperious female sidekick/boss (it's complicated, in both cases) but Rocket is as much a Han Solo type, especially since he has his own incomprehensible strongman alien friend in Groot. You could also compare Quill to Malcolm Reynolds except that Quill doesn't have even the dying embers of a cause going into the story. Guardians Of The Galaxy cribs from a lot of playbooks but doesn't copy any of them out word-for-word.

A Whole New Galaxy
The trailer promised that after the Avengers films we were getting “A Whole New Galaxy” and that's true: this film sets up the cornerstones of the cosmic Marvel properties so that even if this film had done badly there would be things to work on later. There are so many nods here for the comic fans to smile at: Knowhere makes an appearance, as does the Kyln penal colony, the Nova Corps (more of them, please), the Kree Empire, Benecio del Toro's Collector and even Cosmo the Space Dog in a, sadly, non-speaking role.

Oh, and NO SPOILERS but this film's post-credits teaser is one of the most ridiculous in-jokes I've seen in a film ever. Just remember that Star Wars license Disney now has, *wink wink*.

So, do you have any actual criticisms or are you just geeking out?
In all honesty there are only two flaws I see in the production and those are minor. The first is that there's a romantic subplot that doesn't quite come off but at least it has the decency to be underplayed. It's Starlord and Gamora incidentally, not to disappoint all those Drax/Groot shippers out there, and I don't quite buy the pairing but Saldana and Pratt have decent chemistry so it isn't offensive.

The second is that in a quite crowded film some of the guest actors don't get a chance to stand out. Glenn Close's Nova Prime shine in her every scene but is mostly a functional role and I know I'm biased but Karen Gillan doesn't get nearly enough to do as henchwoman Nebula. Definite sequel fodder there.

We've got a long way to go before the sequel (2017 was mentioned) but I have very high hopes for it.