Disney’s The Little Mermaid (2023) – Review

You’ve got to give credit to Disney, they’ve always found a way to make a boat load of money no matter the circumstances.  Sometimes, however, their money making ideas come at a cost of damaging their brand.  Take the later part of the Michael Eisner era at the Disney Studios.  The Disney Renaissance that heralded the return to glory for the Animation Studio at the core of the company was beginning to wane in momentum going into the new millennium, with many films like Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001), Treasure Planet (2002) and Brother Bear (2003) all performing well under the average of what films like Aladdin (1992) and The Lion King (1994) took at the box office.  Couple that with the rise of computer animation from places like Pixar and Dreamworks, and Disney’s once mighty money making machine was just not able to compete anymore.  Unfortunately, the way that the Disney Team saw as a lifeline through the hard economic times was to turn towards the home video market.  Disney Television animation was in the middle of creating a weekly series spinoff for the film Aladdin, and their epic two part series pilot included a return of the film’s villain, Jafar, as part of it’s central plot.  Disney, seeing the potential appeal of the television event, decided to repackage the pilot into a direct to video movie release, declaring it the official sequel to the original film.  The Return of Jafar (1994) had none of the glossy animation, nor the popular songs, nor even Robin Williams as the Genie, and yet it still made a lot of money for Disney in home video sales; even rivaling the original film with it’s video release.  With the waning box office for their movies happening at the same time, Disney saw this as a lucrative new market for them, so the focus in the early 2000’s shifted away from spending money on new expensive movies, and instead towards raiding the Disney library to make cheap direct to video sequels to their classic films.  They found their way to make money, but at what cost?

From Walt Era classics to Renaissance era new masterpieces, no original Disney film was spared from getting a sequel treatment.  Most of the films made of course were lazy retreads of what had worked before with most of the original magic missing.  If you ask most Disney fans, none will consider any of the movies made in this era canon.  The direct to video craze was thankfully short lived as there was a renewed drive to revitalize the Animation brand with the arrival of Bob Iger as CEO of the Disney Company.  Disney went so far as to close the DisneyToon studio that had been set up specifically to churn out these low grade film and consolidate everything back to it’s roots; even bringing Pixar Animation fully into the fold.  And this led to another bright era for Disney, with films like Tangled (2010), Frozen (2013), Zootopia (2016), and Moana (2016) all performing magically for Disney.  But, while the direct to video era had come to an end, there were still minds within the studio who wanted to find ways to make money off of all the legacy titles they still had in their library.  In 2010, director Tim Burton created his live action version of classic story Alice in Wonderland with the Disney company.  The film became a surprise hit at the box office, grossing nearly a billion worldwide.  The results suddenly made Disney look at what other movies they had that could be given the live action remake treatment.  Suddenly, the new money making machine for Disney became taking their classic animated titles and giving them the live action treatment.  And the results, unfortunately, feel reminiscent of the direct to video craze at Disney.  Yes, they are making a lot of money off of these films, but in doing so, they are stripping away the things that made the original movies so memorable in the first place.  Thus far, they have gone through most of the biggest titles in the Disney canon, with less than stellar results.  This year, they have gotten to he film that launched the Disney Renaissance era itself, The Little Mermaid.  The big worry for many long time Disney fans is that this film will for the best pale in comparison to the original and at worst, stain it’s legacy by being a soulless money grab.  What kind of movie did the new Little Mermaid end up being.

The story of course is familiar to anyone who has either read the original Hans Christian Andersen story or seen the original Disney animated classic.  The ocean is ruled over by the mighty King Triton (Javier Bardem) who welcomes his daughters home for a festival celebrating what they call the Coral Moon.  Unfortunately, he finds his youngest daughter Ariel (Halle Bailey) is missing, so he sends his majordomo, a crab named Sebastian (Daveed Diggs) to go out and find her.  Ariel has secretly been collecting artifacts from the human world with the help of her friend, a fish named Flounder (Jacob Tremblay) and has consulted with a seagull named Scuttle (Awkwafina) to know what humans use those artifacts for.  Ariel’s collection is part of her obsession with life above the ocean surface, which Triton has forbidden her from reaching.  However, one evening she is drawn to the surface when she sees peculiar lights flashing above.  There she sees fireworks being fired from a passing ship, and on board the crew of humans are celebrating the birthday of their highness, Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King).  Ariel is immediately smitten with the young prince, but the celebration is cut short when a storm hits.  Eric ends up nearly drowning when the ship is destroyed in the fury of the storm, but is rescued by Ariel.  He is too weak to see Ariel’s face, but he can hear her siren song and it sticks with him, leading him to vow to find her anywhere on his island if she is real.  Meanwhile, Triton learns of Ariel’s infatuation with the humans and punishes her by destroying all of her artifacts.   Ariel is left heartbroken, which then leads to a intervention from a sinister force that has been spying on her the whole time; Ursula, the Sea Witch (Melissa McCarthy).  Ursula promises Ariel that she can make her human for three days, allowing her to finally reconnect with Eric in the surface world.  However, Ursula’s spell is purposely meant to entrap Ariel, with Ursula intent on using her to get Triton’s crown and trident.  Can Ariel find her true love before the witch’s spell ends and become a part of that world?

There is no doubt about it; the original Little Mermaid is a landmark classic in the Disney canon.  It’s the movie that jump started the Disney Renaissance and brought back Disney Animation back from the dead.  To this day, it is a beloved film to a generation of Disney fans who came of age during this era; myself being one of them.  So, you can expect me to be a tad bit worried about how a live action remake would reflect on a movie as beloved as the original animated film.  Disney’s track record as of late with the live action remakes isn’t great.  Some are definitely genuine good films (Pete’s Dragon, Cinderella, Cruella) while others are just average (Aladdin, The Jungle Book, Peter Pan and Wendy), while sadly most are just downright awful (Maleficent, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Pinocchio).  Given that, I was anxious about what might happen to The Little Mermaid, but at the same time, I have to go in with an open mind and just accept the movie on it’s own merits.  And after having seen it, I am grateful in saying that the new Little Mermaid is one of the better Disney remakes I’ve seen.  I even dare say it’s worth seeing, even if you are against the idea of it existing in the first place.  To be clear, it’s not without it’s flaws.  The novelty of the original is not here, but there is a lot of creativity still on display that it still kept me engaged as I was watching it.  While most of the other Disney remakes feel like pale imitators, made I might add without passion, The Little Mermaid does what I hope for all the Disney remakes to accomplish, which is to justify it’s reason for existing.  Sadly, too many of the Disney remakes feel like the direct to video sequels, which are just movies existing solely as a product rather than a work of art.  There are times in this Little Mermaid where you do feel the pressure of corporate mandates, but there’s also a sense from the people who made this movie that they are trying their best to give us something special, and that helps to elevate it above the other remakes.

The first great thing I’d like to highlight about this movie is the thing that I’m sure most people are going to be talking about the most with this film, and that’s the performance of Halle Bailey as Ariel.  Bailey is transcendent in her performance as the titular Little Mermaid, giving far and away the best performance that I have ever seen in any of these Disney remakes.  From the first moment she appears on screen, she commands this film and elevates the movie as a result.  Throughout the movie, she exudes this infectious charm on screen, even in the moments where she has to act without her voice.  And man, what a great singing voice.  If there was anything that needed to translate directly from the original to this new live action version, it’s that Ariel had to have the most beautiful voice in the world.  Ariel’s original voice actor, Jodi Benson, is a tough act to follow, but Halle more than meets the challenge.  This is definitely evident in Ariel’s iconic “I Want” song, “Part of Your World,” which Halle performs to absolute perfection.  The audience I saw the movie with were spellbound during that scene, and even applauded at the end, demonstrating just how well she nailed the performance.  I am extremely happy to see her shine so brightly in this movie, given the controversy that surrounded the news of her casting in the film.  Because Halle Bailey is a different skin tone than the animated Ariel, there arose a racist online backlash towards the movie.  Sadly, many attacks were levied at her specifically, and she had to weather a firestorm of negative attention from people were pre-judging the movie before a single frame had been shot.  To see Halle rise above all that and give the kind of heartfelt performance that she did is the best outcome out of all this, and I hope that the undeniable power of her performance silences all the trolls and haters online as a result, especially if it leads to Halle becoming a major star because of this role.

Thankfully, the rest of the movie for the most part rises to the level of Halle’s performance as Ariel.  One thing that I think helped is that the film is directed by Rob Marshall.  Marshall has a mixed record as a film director, but where he has done his best work is in adapting musicals, and more importantly, staging musical numbers.  Drawing from his Broadway experience, the guy knows how to make visually interesting musical numbers for the big screen, something that he demonstrated very well in his big screen debut; the Oscar-winning Chicago (2002).  In The Little Mermaid, he’s working with a very different kind of musical, dependent on a lot of visual effects, but to his credit, he managed to make those musical numbers just as visually inventive as the ones he does with no visual effects.  The “Under the Sea” sequence in particular is perfect example of what Rob Marshall managed to bring to the movie.  Every shot is choreographed well to the song itself, and at the same time it doesn’t merely just copy the original film either.  That’s the one thing that made the Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King remakes so frustrating for me; the lack of creativity in the musical sequences.  They either were copy and paste jobs of the original animated sequences, or they lacked any visual stimulation at all.  With the Little Mermaid, Rob Marshall wants to make these songs feel special, and that thankfully carries through in all the classic Howard Ashman/ Alan Menken songs carried over from the original, as well as the new ones written by Lin-Manuel Miranda.  Not only that, but the movie benefits from a cast that can actually sing.  While I was worried about the more realistic depictions of the animal characters of Sebastian, Flounder, and Scuttle, the voice cast helped me to get used to them, and they turned out to be entertaining on their own.  Daveed Diggs’ performance as Sebastian especially works well, making the character just as entertaining as his classic counterpart (voiced by the late Samuel Wright).  The only actor that I wished had gone a bit further with her performance is Melissa McCarthy as Ursula.  She’s not bad by any means, and thankfully exceeded my dire expectations, but at the same time her performance seems too grounded and more of an imitation of the late great Pat Carroll’s vocal performance in the original.  At the same time, I did like McCarthy’s overall look as the character, especially with the bioluminescence they added to Ursula’s tentacles.

The one area where I think the movie may fall behind the original is it’s depiction of the ocean world.  The visual effects are not the worst that I’ve seen in these Disney remakes, but you still get this unfortunate artificiality that encumbers many moments within the movie.  For one thing, the underwater sequences still feel too murky, which dilutes some of the colors.  Coming right off of the heels of James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water (2022), which revolutionized the ways digital water scenes can be filmed, doesn’t help.  The effects to turn the actors into merpeople is also mixed.  I feel like most of the resources for the mermaid effect went into the characters of Ariel and Ursula, both of whom come off as convincing as the iconic characters.  Other merpeople look unfortunately not as great, which is especially true for poor Javier Bardem as Triton, who often looks awkward in the role, buried under too many layers of effects both for his tail fin as well as for his beard.  The above water scenes fare much better, and the production design team did a great job of crafting Eric’s kingdom into this colorful, vibrant place, complete with a Caribbean flavor to it.  One thing about the visual effects that I really think helped out a lot was actually giving expressions to the animation of the animal characters.  After seeing the cold, lifeless faces of the household objects in Beauty and the Beast as well as those of the animals in The Lion King, it’s refreshing to see the digital animators make an effort here to be less adherent to limitations of live action and actually make the animals a bit more cartoony.  There’s also a lot to be said about the structure of the movie as well.  At 135 minutes, the movie is nearly an hour longer than the original, which ran a tight 83 minutes.  But, even with all that extra length, the movie never feels padded with unnecessary scenes.  All the extra time instead is devoted to extra character development, particularly with Ariel and Eric, whose courtship is fleshed out much more here.  Too often Disney chooses to fill their remakes with plot elements that either add nothing or effectively ruin the story as a whole (the idiotic teleportation book from Beauty and the Beast for example), and that’s thankfully absent here.  This is essentially the same story, but just with more meat on the bone.  And to director Marshall’s credit, it flows just as well as the original.

Out of all the Disney remakes, only Pete’s Dragon is one that I would say exceeds the original, which frankly didn’t have that high of a bar to clear.  In the case of all the Disney remakes, none of them ever have been better than the original animated versions.  But, with The Little Mermaid, I would say it joins the likes of Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella remake, which doesn’t exceed the original, but at the same time compliments it.  After so much disappointment, it’s nice to actually say that about one of these Disney remakes.  The film is especially worth your time just for Halle Bailey’s performance as Ariel alone.  I can’t think of a better live action embodiment of one of these iconic Disney characters than her version of Ariel.  She really rose to the challenge, taking on a difficult role, and shone through magnificently.  Thankfully, the rest of the movie is worthwhile as well.  It’s not perfect, and sometimes suffers whenever it has to adhere too close to the original, including some unnecessary shot for shot imitations.  But, there’s a lot of care put into this film that feels absent from so many other Disney remakes.  Somehow, Rob Marshall managed to succeed in a way that other acclaimed directors like Tim Burton, Bill Condon, Robert Zemeckis and Jon Favreau have all failed to do, which is to make a movie that doesn’t feel like a hollow cash grab.  Don’t get me wrong, this movie is still a cash grab, and I worry that Disney will take the wrong lesson from it if it becomes a success.  But, for the first time in a long time, they got the remake formula right.  Much like Cinderella, it changes enough to make it feel like it’s own thing, while still fulfilling the expectations of what we remember from the original.  Despite it’s success, I do wish Disney would get out of this trend of remakes and get back to making original films again.  They’ve got a valuable brand and they are doing no favors for themselves by rehashing their glories from the past.  At least with The Little Mermaid they didn’t stain the legacy of that beloved classic, and at the very least gave it a deserving companion; one where you can definitely say both are worth watching, even though the original is still the top choice.  Thank you Disney for not spoiling your lovely Little Mermaid and letting her be part of our world once again.

Rating: 8/10

The House That Iron Man Built – 15 Years of Marvel Studios and Where It’s Going Next

Roll back the clock to the 2000’s.  The state of Comic Book movies in the mainstream was in a much different situation than it is now.  The 90’s came to close with the genre in it’s worst state, following the box office and critical failure that was Batman & Robin (1997).  While the  DC Comics properties were firmly in the control of a single studio, that being Warner Brothers, their comic page rival Marvel was not so lucky to have a sole proprietor making decisions over it’s cinematic fortunes, both good and ill.  Marvel was coming out of near bankruptcy in the mid-90’s, and to salvage their financial status, they freely spread out the cinematic rights to their characters and storylines to whomever was interested in them.  As a result, the rights to Marvel properties were spread around to most of the major studios in Hollywood.  Sony took Spider-Man and his associated company of heroes and villains.  Fox won the rights to the X-Men and the Fantastic Four.  Meanwhile, fitting of their history of monster movies, Universal became the home of The Incredible Hulk.  The rest, who many believed at the time were second tier characters like Iron Man, Thor and Captain America, went to Paramount, who for a while did little with their Marvel properties.  In the early part of the 2000’s, the studios that did have Marvel characters in their possession did quite well.  Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002) broke box office records for Sony Pictures, while Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000) was hailed as a refreshingly mature take on the often silly genre.  There were, however, some disappointments as well, with Ang Lee’s Hulk (2002) becoming a convoluted mess, and Tim Story’s Fantastic Four (2005) feeling like an undercooked portrayal of Marvel’s first family.  Sequels to the X-Men and Spider-Man movies also fell off for fans in later years, and many were wondering if Marvel was even capable of competing with the likes of DC in sustaining long lasting franchises.  The ante was upped even more after Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins premiered, a critically acclaimed revival of the Batman franchise that put DC back on firm ground again.  Marvel would answer, but the way they would do would change everything we thought we knew about comic book movies.

The Spider-Man franchise over at Sony Pictures was spear-headed by a powerful Executive Producer named Amy Pascal.  To this day, she still retains exclusive rights to produce Spider-Man movies, but her time in the comic book world left a much different impact than that.  One of her assistants that she mentored during the making of Spider-Man was a up-and-coming producer named Kevin Feige.  Feige was very much a person who lived and breathed comic books, and he was eager to change the way super hero movies were made by pushing them to adhere closer to what was on the page.  There seemed to be a feeling in Hollywood that comic book movies needed to be more like action movies.  Storylines were more grounded and simple.  Gone were the tights and in were the dark leather suits.  It’s almost like the industry was ashamed that these popular characters came from such a colorful and imaginative source such as the comic book page.  Feige didn’t believe any of that.  He wanted to see the characters pop right off the page in all their colorful and sometimes cheesy glory.  He understood that these characters were larger than life, and that the movies needed to embrace this aspect about them in order to do the characters justice.  You can feel that a bit in the Spider-Man films from Sam Raimi, which definitely embraced more of the charming quirkiness of the comic books, and it wouldn’t be surprising if this is what Feige imagined for all the other characters as well.  By the time Spider-Man 3 (2007) came out in theaters, Feige was already working a plan to change the future of Marvel on the big screen.  He convinced the leadership of Marvel Comics to invest in a new in-house production company that would supervise the creation of all future Marvel movies at all the studios, insuring a consistency across all their properties that would define them first and foremost as a Marvel film.  Thus began the existence of Marvel Studios.

Marvel Studios would work with all the different studios on their selectively held properties but all the creative choices, such as casting and which stories to tell, would be run through Marvel Studios offices.  As a result of this change in creative leadership, the decision was to abandon most of the franchises that had been developed up to that point and instead reboot many of the characters.  This, however, was easier said than done, as Fox was insistent on continuing on with their popular X-Men franchise as it was; especially since they had a bankable star like Hugh Jackman still going strong as Wolverine.  The other studios were more inclined to rethink the future, and at this point, Paramount was ready to finally begin using the Marvel properties they had been sitting on.  It was with Paramount that Feige saw a really golden opportunity to try something that hadn’t been done before ever with the super hero genre.  Instead of having each character exist within their own stand alone franchise, Feige and company theorized the possibility of having all their comic book characters share a single connected universe.  Not only would they have their own stand alone movies, but the characters would be able to meet each other and crossover; even forming a super team.  Kevin Feige knew this would be an ideal thing for Marvel to undertake, because it’s exactly what the comic books had been doing for decades before.  It’s not a novel idea; DC had been trying to jumpstart a Justice League film for years before, and both the Superman and Batman franchises featured Easter eggs referencing the different heroes in their films many times; same with early Marvel films too.  But the stars had not aligned until now.  With Marvel Studios now assuming creative control, they were ready to give it a try, and the starting point would be with the trio of heroes that the industry had before believed were second tier.

Paramount announced that they were greenlighting new films based on the Marvel super heroes Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America.  These were untried properties, with only Captain America having one cheaply made for TV movie in the past.  But, Marvel Studios believed that this was the right batch of characters to begin plans for a bigger universe.  But, the all important question was who would be the one taking on the responsibility of starting this new era on the right foot.  The answer came with Iron Man (2008).  There had been attempts to bring Iron Man to the big screen before.  For a while, Tom Cruise was attached to play the role of Iron Man and his alter ego, billionaire playboy Tony Stark.  However, Cruise’s busy schedule conflicted with Marvel Studios’ plans, and the team decided to go in a much different direction than what he was planning to do with the character.  For Iron Man, Marvel Studios needed to not just make the actor look good in the suit, but they also needed to make him interesting outside of it as well.  The task of adapting the character to the big screen fell to actor/filmmaker Jon Favreau, who was coming off of a successful stretch of films such as Elf (2003) and Zathura (2005).  He too was an avid comic book fan who was eager to do justice to the character of Iron Man on the big screen.  But, who other than the unavailable Tom Cruise would be ideal for the role.  Favreau’s first choice was a rather surprising one.  Robert Downey Jr., a long time character actor in Hollywood, was not what many would consider to be a bankable star.  His career was nearly destroyed by his drug addiction and the time he served in prison.  He had recently earned high marks for a comeback performance in Shane Black’s Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang (2004), but many still thought he was too much of risk to headline a major studio film.   But, Favreau saw in Downey’s persona exactly what was needed for the role of Tony Stark, and he convinced Marvel and Paramount to take a chance by giving him the role.  The rest of course is the stuff of legend.  Downey was the perfect Tony Stark and his presence on screen carried the film to remarkable commercial and critical success.  But Iron Man the movie also offered up another surprise for audiences.  A post-credit scene introduced another famous comic character named Nick Fury, played by Samuel L. Jackson, who was there to introduce what ultimately would be the future of Marvel films for the next decade and beyond; the Avenger Initiative.

Marvel Studios had proven itself with the crazy success of the first Iron Man movie, and they were ready to continue with the next phase of their plans, which was to get the other films in the pipeline going.  They got a strong assist that same summer with Universal successfully rebooting The Incredible Hulk with Edward Norton playing Dr. Bruce Banner.  They were even able to tie that film in with Iron Man by giving Robert Downey Jr. a surprise cameo at the end before the credits.  But, a surprising development happened in the wake of Iron Man’s success.  In 2009, Disney, which had up to this point been out of the super hero game entirely, decided they were ready to get in on the action.  Unfortunately for them, the other Hollywood studios had already licensed all of the prime properties that Marvel had to offer.  So, what did they do?  Well they decided to buy up Marvel outright, to the tune of $4 billion.  This purchase included Marvel Studios in the package, so now Kevin Feige and company had a new set of overlords to answer to.  Thankfully for them, Disney CEO Bob Iger was willing to be hands off as long as they could deliver the same way they did with Iron Man.  Surprisingly, Disney was also able to secure back the licenses from Paramount without struggle, which meant that they would be the ones in charge of the upcoming Thor, Captain America, and Avengers releases, as well as an Iron Man sequel.  Universal maintained their Hulk license, but were willing to work with Disney in adding the big green guy to the Avengers team up, which became necessary because Edward Norton left the franchise after one film.  Sony and Fox remained defiant in holding firmly to their exclusive rights and keeping them out of Disney’s hands.  Still, Disney was able to work with what properties they had.  Then unknown Australian actor Chris Hemsworth was given the role of Thor, while actor Chris Evans (who previously played The Human Torch in Fox’s Fantastic Four) was cast as golden boy super soldier Captain America.  Mark Ruffalo replaced the absent Edward Norton in the role of Hulk, and lesser know heroes like Hawkeye and Black Widow were added to the mix, played by Jeremy Renner and Scarlett Johansson respectively.  This was the original team assembled for The Avengers (2012), and again Marvel changed the world of comic book movies forever.

It became clear after The Avengers that Marvel Studios was not just a Hollywood success story, they were a force to be reckoned with.  Now that they finally had a home studio base with deep pockets like Disney to finance all of their future plans, they could indeed create that shared comic book universe that Kevin Feige had long dreamed would be a reality on the big screen.  The first four years of Marvel Studios output was deemed Phase One, and that every collection of films thereafter that would ultimately culminate in another Avengers team up would be another new phase.  Over time they introduced a whole lot more of the Marvel family to the big screen, including long anticipated debuts of fan favorites like Doctor Strange, Black Panther, Scarlet Witch, The Vision, and Captain Marvel.  They even managed to turn a very obscure comic property like Guardians of the Galaxy into a smash hit with audiences and critics alike.  Sony even decided it was in their best interest to play nice, and they granted the use of Spider-Man in their Avengers team ups.  At that point, only Fox remained the lone hold-out; but Disney and Marvel were still able to build their universe without the presence of the Fantastic Four or the X-Men.  The question however was where it was all going to lead.  Audiences had become invested in this cinematic universe to the point where they were following it like it was the biggest serialized TV show ever made.  But in every narrative, there had to be a purpose to it, and for Marvel’s endgame, they turned to the comics for inspiration.  Typically, comic books lead their ongoing storylines to major events, and one of the most famous in Marvel comics history was an arc known as the Infinity War.  In the first three phases of what had become known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) there was this connecting thread of powerful gems known as the Infinity Stones being discovered by the characters.  The stones were coveted by a powerful being known as Thanos (played by Josh Brolin), who ultimately used its’ power to reshape the universe.  Marvel Studios masterfully wove in this storyline across 20+ films, and it resulted in two monumental films Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019), both of which wrapped up the decade long arc in perfect fashion.  The MCU managed to achieve the unthinkable, which was to successfully tie in all of their many franchises into a satisfying conclusion to an epic storyline.  Kevin Feige had achieved his dream of bring the comic book universe completely to life.

But, where do you go after you’ve conquered the world.  By the time Avengers: Endgame had been released, Marvel had become the most valuable entertainment brand in the world.  Not only did Disney make back their $4 billion investment; they were able to use their gains to acquire Fox itself, thereby bringing in the last holdouts of the Marvel properties still out in the wild.  With no more roadblocks in their way, they really could do anything they wanted post-Endgame.  So, what were they ready to do in Phase Four.  This new phase was something of a reboot for Marvel.  The storylines that led up to the Infinity War were now complete, with legacy characters like Iron Man and Captain America getting their farewells.  Now it was time to look towards the next event.  For the new phase of Marvel, Feige and company decided the new direction would focus on what is known as the Multiverse.  And once again, Marvel is finding itself in uncharted territory with this new undertaking.  The multiverse is a concept that’s a bit harder to sell to audiences than easy to identify McGuffins like the Infinity Stones.  The plan has offered up some fun ways to explore the multiverse, like current Spider-Man Tom Holland getting the chance to appear alongside his predecessors in the role, Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, in Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021).  But other uses of the concept feel underdeveloped like with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) which didn’t go far enough into the multiverse.  Plus, you see the struggle Marvel is having with establishing their new big baddie for this long arc saga; the multiversal menace Kang the Conqueror (which isn’t helped by Kang actor Jonathan Major’s on-going, at the time of this writing, legal troubles).  For the first time in it’s 15 year history, Marvel seems to showing some growing pains; like the level of success that they have managed to achieve is now starting to weigh down on them and undermining their focus.  One thing that could be affecting this shaky ground that they now stand on is the fact that Marvel is also devoting part of their master plan to Disney’s aggressive expansion into the streaming market, with Marvel Studios creating long form series and specials for Disney+.  Where in past years there was room to build anticipation between each new Marvel film, now Marvel is releasing new properties throughout the entire year.  And for audiences, it’s proving to be too much of a good thing.  That’s why Marvel’s Phase Four has had the most mixed response to date of any of Marvel’s MCU plans.

Now, looking back in all the fifteen years of existence of the MCU, has Marvel finally lost it’s golden touch?  In many ways it’s still relative.  Compared to it’s own past success, Marvel is underperforming a tad bit in it’s recent offerings.  Earlier this year, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023), the film meant to launch Phase Five of the MCU, became the first film widely accepted by both the fans and the critics as the least successful film from Marvel to date.  It’s not the biggest money loser, which goes to Eternals (2021), but it can’t blame it’s poor box office on lingering effects of the pandemic either.  Even still, most of their movies are still out-performing competitors from other studios.  Sony’s non-MCU Spider-Man character movies have not performed as well, with last year’s Morbius (2022) being a pretty embarrassing flop for them.  And the whole last decade for Marvel’s rival DC Comics has been defined by Warner Brothers desperately trying to play catch-up, with some pretty disastrous results.  The failure of their Justice League (2017) movie is a particular case study in how studio interference can ruin a franchise, and it took a grass roots effort on line to get a better director’s cut released to finally satisfy the fans.  Even the less successful Phase Four projects still perform well when compared to the rest of the market; I’m sure DC wishes they had Quantumania’s over $200 million take in domestic box office.  Honestly, Marvel has been in this boat before.  Phase Two had it’s shaky moments too before things finally revved up in Phase Three leading up to the Infinity War.  For any studio to maintain this kind of level of success this long is pretty miraculous, and Kevin Feige, Disney and everyone who worked on these movies should feel a sense of pride that they are still doing fairly well even as audiences are a bit mixed lately.  You definitely have to credit all the things they have done right to make themselves the juggernaut that they are.  Having the strong foundation of Iron Man was a key part of that.  It was risky trusting the future of comic book movies with someone of Robert Downey Jr.’s reputation, but he persevered and his career resurrection is one of the greatest redemption stories in movie history.  15 year later, Marvel is on top of the world and it still has more stories to share, which will hopefully continue to fulfill the hopeful vision that Kevin Feige and Marvel Studios set out to accomplish.  As the legendary Marvel Comics icon Stan Lee always said: “Excelsior.”

Tinseltown Throwdown – Henry V: Olivier vs. Branagh

Of all the plays written by Shakespeare, the one that many believe to be the most inspiring is his historical play Henry V.  Written in 1599, Henry V touches upon the life of the famed English monarch.  The play itself is actually part of a tetralogy of historical plays written by Shakespeare that all combine into a singular narrative, those other plays being Richard II, Henry IV Part I and Henry IV Part II.  The character of Henry V actually becomes the central character of the duo of Henry IV plays because those are less about the titular king and more about his rebellious son, Prince Hal, who will one day take his place as king.  Prince Hal of course is crowned king by the end of Henry IV and the play Henry V shows us the key moment that defined his rule; the war against the French.  While Shakespeare’s other historical plays were about coming of age and the makings of kings, his Henry V is very much an epic showing the glory of kingship and has long been seen as the most rousing of patriotic statements by the Bard with regards to presenting the English monarchy as a powerful force in the world.  Given that his patrons were the English aristocracy, most notably Queen Elizabeth, it’s clear that Shakespeare knew his audience.   But, the masses also loved Shakespeare’s take on history, as Henry V is a rousing piece of theater representing the Bard at his most bombastic.  With the inspiring centerpiece of the Battle of Agincourt as the defining moment within the play, Shakespeare gives us action and suspense on the stage that is far more alive on the page than the usual Shakespearean text.  To this day, Henry V remains one of Shakespeare’s most beloved and often re-staged plays, with many actors relishing the chance to take on the pivotal role of the inspiring boy king.

For many Shakespearean trained actors, the role of Henry V is an especially good one to undertake as a young performer.  A lot of the great actors of the stage and screen that we know of throughout the decades have at some point played Henry V on stage.  Multiple generations of actors, from Richard Burton to Timothee Chalamet have at some point donned the bowl cut and played the boy king.  For many, it’s an ideal launching point to show their skill not just with the Shakespearean text, but also with their ability to command the stage or the screen.  Henry V is a play about a man showing strength and courage beyond his years, and a kind of role like that demands attention from it’s audience.  If the actor pulls off the role perfectly, it can be a star making performance.  That’s probably the reason it’s a coveted role by so many actors.  The play of course has translated to the screen a number of times, but there is little doubt that the most substantial adaptations are the ones from the two men whose film careers are inexorably linked to Shakespeare; Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh.  Olivier and Branagh both came into the film business pretty much in the same fashion.  They began as actors in the Royal Shakespearean Theater before eventually transitioning into film acting, and then they later took their experience in film to undertake their own cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, and in the process both fundamentally changing the ways these plays are presented on screen through their own unique styles.  You can see many parallels between both Olivier’s and Branagh’s approach to Shakespeare on film, though often with focus on different plays.  Olivier was more focused on Shakespeare’s more stately plays centered around kings, while Branagh often looked for more of a mix, adapting some of the Bard’s comedies like Much Ado About Nothing (1993).  But they did overlap a couple times, including with Henry V, which coincidently was the movie that marked both of their film directing debuts.

“We would not seek a battle as we are, yet as we are, we say we will not shun it.”

It is interesting to examine the differences between both Olivier and Branagh’s versions of Shakespeare’s Henry V.  Despite using the same text, the approaches to the play are very different, which in many ways is reflective of the different eras that they were made in.  The production of Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1944) is significant specifically because of the era in which it was made.  When Olivier returned to England after his years in Hollywood, his homeland was deeply embroiled in the midst of World War II.  This was the “Keep Calm and Carry On,” moment in English history, as the nation tried it’s best to press through, even while German bomb raids became ever more frequent.  It’s not any surprise that Olivier chose in this moment to bring Henry V to the big screen.  Taking advantage of the play’s patriotic fervor, Olivier very much intended for his screen adaptation to be a rallying cry for his fellow countrymen; to inspire them to fight as well as they can to defend their country, much in the same way that Shakespeare’s Henry V did.  Sure, it’s turning the centuries old piece of theater into wartime propaganda, but honestly isn’t that what William Shakespeare intended with his original also.  Regardless, Olivier’s plan worked.  The movie was an inspiring piece of cinema that was warmly received by war time audiences, many whom were also inspired to live out the example of the historical king and do what they could to fight the good fight abroad and at home.  At the same time, it satisfied Olivier’s desire to adapt Shakespeare’s play onto the big screen that he felt honored the vision of Shakespeare himself.  Many filmmakers before Olivier had adapted the play before on film, but they were often tied closely to how they were performed on stage.  Olivier broke that mold and showed how Shakespeare could be cinematic without being unfaithful to the text.  This included being creative with how shots were blocked and how the camera moved, making the whole thing less stagey.  It boosted Olivier into a prosperous career behind the camera as well as in front, and inspired a whole new generation of filmmakers who would present Shakespeare in a whole new way on screen.

“Every subject’s duty is the king’s; but every subject’s soul is his own.”

One of those inspired filmmakers to come after Olivier of course was Kenneth Branagh.  Branagh likewise chose to undertake Henry V (1989) as his directorial debut, but his approach was very different from Olivier’s; one that was far more reflective of the time in which it was made.  In Olivier’s time, England was engaged in a very clear cut war where the good and bad sides were clearly drawn.  In that spirit of the times, a rousing patriotic statement without contradiction is far more understandable.  But, by the eighties when Branagh made his Henry V, the world was a much different place.  It was the Cold War era, where the lines between good and bad were not so clear cut.  In the years since Olivier’s adaptation, England went through many different political upheavals, with future generations becoming far more cynical about the idea of patriotism and national identity.  In that time, the effects of the Vietnam War and smaller skirmishes like those in the Falkland Islands led many English youth to look less favorably on the power of the English empire that was in heavy decline.  So, in the midst of this, Kenneth Branagh took this traditionally rousing patriotic story and deconstructs it in a way that would appeal to a more cynical audience.  His Henry V is a far grittier take on the play than Olivier’s technicolor wonder.  And within it, he creates a version of the character that is far more nuanced and complex.  His Henry V is not the saintly monarch of past adaptations, but rather a fierce warrior that can both inspire the men around him, but also inspire fear in them as well.  Branagh is far more interested in the flaws of Henry V, and wishes to make them a crucial part of his version of the story.  Even with that, his adaptation is remarkably faithful to Shakespeare’s original text; almost using every word, as opposed to Olivier’s which abbreviated several parts.  It’s clear upon seeing both versions of the play that both filmmakers knew the kinds of audiences they wanted to reach with their adaptations, and in both cases they achieved what they wanted.  Olivier wanted to inspire, while Branagh wanted to examine.

The different approaches they took in presenting the character of Henry V through their performances reveals a lot about what they saw in the character and why it was important to re-tell the play in their own different ways.  For Olivier, his approach to the part of Henry V is very much a regal one.  Olivier’s style of performance is very direct and commanding.  He plays Henry with the authority of a noble king, unwavering in his duty and one who commands attention in every moment.  It’s the same kind of performance that Olivier honed throughout his career, whether he was doing Shakespeare or not.  And it is a style of performance that is effective in his version of Henry V.  The command of his voice brings out the power of Shakespeare’s words, and you can see why many war time audiences were inspired by his portrayal in the film.  In contrast, Branagh’s fluctuates far more with the way he portrays the role of Henry V.  Depending on the scene, Branagh’s Henry can go from fiercely growling his lines at his most angry to gently speaking his lines at his most intimate.  His performance commands in the same way as Olivier’s, but while Olivier presents more the idea of a king, Branagh presents us more of a depiction of a human being.  His Henry is complex, and full of a wide ranging array of emotions.  It definitely is reflective of a different kind of school of acting that Olivier and Branagh come from.  For Kenneth Branagh, his generation came up in a time where acting Shakespeare on film was more commonplace, so actors like him needed to find ways to make performing Shakespeare feel more natural.  This is definitely evident in the ways they both perform the famous St. Crispin’s Day speech, the most famous monologue from the play, and perhaps one of the most rousing speeches ever written in the English language.  Olivier delivers the speech like a great orator at a podium would; clear, commanding and easy for everyone to hear.  Branagh’s version is a calming speech delivered from the heart like a passionate declaration of love, making it feel like Henry is opening himself up to the men under his command and even trying to inspire himself as he speaks to them.

“Customs curtsy to great kings.  We are the makers of manners.”

While the performances are distinctive, it can be said that both Olivier and Branagh take the same approach to adapting the play to the big screen with their direction, which is to be very creative with how they stage everything.  Olivier, out of the two, surprisingly takes the more experimental approach.  He starts his film with a recreation of how the play would’ve been staged in the original Globe Theater.  Starting off with an amazingly well shot descent from the rooftops of Renaissance London, across the different levels of the theater, and down to the stage itself, the movie begins with a narrator asking the audience to imagine the spectacular sights that only the stage production can hint at with it’s limitations.  For the first few scenes, Olivier begins the movie showing us just what the play itself would have looked like in the Globe.  The subsequent scenes move us into large interior sets that feel lest like they are on the stage and more like they were constructed on a soundstage.  And then once we arrive at the Battle of Agincourt scene, the movie has now moved outdoors onto a real field in the English countryside.  It’s as if the further into the play we go, the movie is reflecting what the audience would’ve imagined seeing the play performed on stage.  Through this clever staging, we see Olivier literally bringing a Shakespeare play to life before our eyes, blurring the lines between the stage and the screen.  Branagh by contrast keeps the staging consistent throughout his adaptation, while at the same time being creative with many of the shots in his film.  He dispenses with the whole stage conceit and just adapts the play straightforward like it’s a historical epic.  But, at the same time, he does some daring things on film, particularly with lighting and editing.  The more gritty tone is carried through in this adaptation through the visuals, with Branagh utilizing real castles as a part of his staging.  Combine this with very violent recreations of the Battle of Agincourt’s skirmishes and you’ve got an adaptation that definitely de-mystifies the shiny image of the original play.  Branagh’s gritty portrayal of medieval times would prove to be highly influential beyond the film, inspiring movies like Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) and Braveheart (1995) in it’s wake.

But what ultimately separates the two films is in how well it actually remains true to Shakespeare’s play.  The different eras in which these plays were written again determine how well the adaptations hold up compared to what Shakespeare wrote.  In that regard, Olivier’s version for the most part is a film for it’s own time for a specific purpose, while Branagh’s version is more timeless and faithful to the story and character of Henry V.  That’s not to say that Laurence Olivier faulted in his adaptation.  His film is a spectacular piece of cinematic art, and a film largely responsible for ushering in a whole new way of adapting Shakespeare for the big screen.  But, it is clear that he was using Shakespeare’s text for a different purpose altogether.  With some very noticeable omissions in the adaptation, it’s clear that Olivier wanted to present a version of Henry V that was a bit more sanitized.  England needed a war time hero to inspire them, and that’s why he made his Henry much more regal and saintly.  This kind of approach is understandable given that time period, but it’s a far cry from the complex character that Shakespeare put down on the page originally.  In many ways, Olivier’s Henry V is contained more within a bottle of it’s own specific narrative, with the intent of making us aware of it’s purpose to present heroism in it’s purest form.  Branagh by contrast brings the character of Henry V back to what he is on the page, which is a king with a complex past.  It’s clear that there is an awareness of the background of Henry’s character in Branagh’s adaptation based not just on the original play itself, but from the real historical account of King Henry V, as well as the story that had been built up through the past Shakespearean plays in which Henry was the focus.  Branagh demonstrates the more modern idea that leaders are not born, but rather made through adversity, and that’s why his version of Henry is flawed and yet still worthy of his sacred place within English history.  His film far more seeks to get to the truth of who Henry V was rather than just make him a symbol.  That’s why he’s a better fit for a more complex time in which morality and honor are not so easily defined in a world that sees things more in shades of gray.

“We charge you in the name of God, take heed how you awake our sleeping sword of war.”

In either case, both Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh created incredible adaptations of the same source Shakespearean play.  What is most important from either version is that they show us the ideal ways to adapt Shakespeare for the big screen.  Their films are not merely straight from the stage adaptations, but instead versions of Henry V that take full advantage of the language of cinema.  Olivier’s version in particular is remarkably ahead of it’s time with it’s unique framing, and it showed many filmmakers thereafter exactly how to take Shakespeare’s words and make them come alive on film.  Kenneth Branagh picked up the mantle set by Olivier and modernized the Bard even more with his version of Henry V, getting back to the complex character of the original text, while at the same time grounding the style in a very lived in depiction.  While both actors do their best to make their heroes stand out, they are at the same time supported by other Shakespearean trained talent that likewise rise to the challenge.  Branagh’s film in particular is filled with a who’s who of some of the greatest British character actors from that time, including Emma Thompson, Robbie Coltrane, Brian Blessed, Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, and even a young Christian Bale.  What is really interesting about comparing the two versions of Henry V is how the context of the times in which they were made are reflective in the presentation, even as the text itself is still eternal and true to Shakespeare’s words.  Olivier’s version was a clear statement of war time resolve with the complexities of the play smoothed over, while Branagh’s version embraces the complexities and is not afraid to create a grittier version of the story for a more cynical time.  Overall, I feel like Olivier’s version is more of the time capsule, looking far less timeless than Branagh’s more earthbound version.  In a more complex world, Olivier’s unvarnished Henry V feels far less realistic.  But, that’s not to say it’s not worth viewing.  Despite it’s datedness, it’s still a great cinematic achievement and is enormously entertaining.  The crown goes more to Kenneth Branagh’s more complex and interesting version of Shakespeare’s Henry V, but Laurence Olivier’s Henry is still a movie fit for a king.

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.  For he today who sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.”

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 – Review

What an extraordinary route it took for this movie to finally make it to movie theaters.  When it was first announced at Comic Con 2012 that Marvel was indeed going to adapt a film based on the Guardians of the Galaxy line of comic books, people thought that they had lost their minds.  It made sense in those early years of the MCU to create movies centered around Iron Man, Thor and Captain America, but the Guardians of the Galaxy?  Still, Marvel believed in what they had and more so they believed in the talents of a rising star filmmaker named James Gunn.  The resulting film in 2014 not only proved everyone wrong, but the original Guardians of the Galaxy quickly became regarded as one of the best comic book movies ever made.  The film was a hit, and it quickly sired a sequel in 2017, which also was a box office hit with critical acclaim.  With the Guardians cast also playing a major part in the culmination of Marvel’s Infinity Saga with the record-breaking Avengers: Endgame (2019), these once obscure character known only to die hard comic fans were now part of the Marvel elite.  And they were about to continue the win streak beyond Endgame, with a third film in their franchise meant to be the launching pad for Marvel’s Phase 4 in the summer of 2020.  But, alas, plans went astray.  First off, James Gunn was fired suddenly by Marvel’s parent company Disney in a short sighted response to years old offensive jokes that an online provocateur uncovered as retaliation for disliking Gunn’s left wing political stances.  Disney later realized their mistake and re-hired Gunn a few months later, but by that time he had already been hired to direct The Suicide Squad over at rival DC.  Gunn still accepted the offer to come back so that he could complete the story he created his own way, but it would be some time before he could start production.  The shut-down caused by the pandemic also complicated things, so by the time cameras finally started rolling on this third Guardians film, 5 years had passed since the last one and the world was a much different place.

Still, James Gunn is keeping his promise and we are now finally getting Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.  So many different scenarios could’ve played out between Vol. 2‘s release and now, including having this threequel having a different director appointed during the time that Gunn was out at Marvel.  The movie certainly no longer is the launching pad for a new Phase of the MCU.  In fact, it no longer is even part of Phase 4, which ended last year with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022).  While it’s placement in the continuity of the MCU has changed, the goal of the movie seems to have remained the same.  This is James Gunn’s final hurrah with this franchise and these characters.  It may not have been conceived that way, but the way things have played out over the last few years, the movie has taken on a very definitive significance that will certainly define it’s place in the Marvel canon overall.  And it comes at a time when Marvel needs it.  While Marvel is not financially hurting right now, there are many who are observing the fact that the once unbeatable box office juggernaut has been appearing a little soft lately.  Most of their post-Endgame movies are being received more lukewarm compared to the ones that came out before, both by critics and general audiences.  None of their movies have bombed, but they are performing well under the high expectations that have been placed on the Marvel brand.  Many believe that we’ve now reached a point of super hero movie fatigue, which is not only affecting Marvel, but their rival DC as well, given the box office failure seen with Shazam: Fury of the Gods (2023).  Given the shaky ground that the genre now sits on, the pressure is definitely high on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 to break the current losing streak.  It’s not going to be easy as both of it’s predecessors grossed higher than $300 million at the domestic box office each, and this film is coming off the heels of Marvel’s first ever money loser with Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023).  Is Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 the movie Marvel needs to save the day, or is it continuing the trend of diminishing returns in a post-Endgame world.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 finds the rag tag bunch set up in their new headquarters, the skull shaped sanctuary known as Knowhere; a place once ruled over by The Collector.  There they’ve helped to set up a community for refugees from across the galaxy.  Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) has taken charge for the most part, since Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) aka Star-Lord is wallowing in his depression and drinking his sorrows away.  Their peaceful existence is shattered however when a super powered being known as Adam Warlock (Will Poulter) breaks into Knowhere, intent on capturing Rocket.  The Guardians manage to overpower the intruder, but now before Rocket ends up being mortally wounded in the scuffle.  Normal methods of healing him don’t work as they find that there is a kill switch device implanted on his heart; a leftover from the horrible animal experiments that made him who he is.  Peter vows to find a way to save his friend, so he musters his fellow Guardians, including Nebula (Karen Gillen), Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), Groot (Vin Diesel), and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) to join him in a search across the cosmos for a way to save Rocket.  Their journey involves breaking into an ultra secure laboratory called the Orgosphere, which they receive help from the Ravagers, Quill’s old gang, to infiltrate.  Among the Ravagers ranks now is Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who is the alternate time line variant of Peter’s murdered ex-girlfriend and has no memory of their past relationship, making their team up a little awkward.  While Rocket remains invalid, he flashes back to memories of his days when he was experimented on by a demented mad scientist named the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), who may be the only person capable of saving Rocket’s life.  Unfortunately for the Guardians, The High Evolutionary is behind the attempted abduction of Rocket and he’s adamant about continuing those experiments further, which will endanger more than just Rocket’s well-being.  Despite all their harrowing adventures so far, this is definitely the most personal battle for them so far, and one that will make the team members confront more of their tortured pasts.

Going over the story of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, it’s pretty clear that this is not as much of a fun little romp that the past films in the series have been.  It will become apparent from the opening of this movie right away that James Gunn is aiming for a much different tone with his trilogy caper.  The movie does open with a thematic needle drop like the past films; but whereas the original opened with the upbeat “Come and Get Your Love” from Redbone and Vol. 2 opened with the equally light-hearted “Mr. Blue Sky” by Electric Light Orchestra, Vol. 3 starts out with Radiohead’s “Creep.”  That upfront statement tells you that this is going to be a much different movie than what we’ve seen before, and to be honest, it’s actually a refreshing change.  After several movies in a row from Marvel that felt more formulaic and tethered to a bigger franchise continuity, Vol. 3 is a movie that immediately throws out expectations and does something refreshingly different for a change.  Don’t get me wrong, it still feels like a James Gunn directed Guardians of the Galaxy movie, but Gunn proves here that he’s not afraid to make things a little darker and more serious.  The experiment works for the most part.  It’s clear that James Gunn was intent on pushing a few more boundaries with this movie, as far as he could go with the Marvel mandated PG-13.  This movie even has Star-Lord uttering the MCU’s first unbleeped F-bomb.  And despite it being a harsher story than we usually get from Marvel, it still hits the right emotional notes and it feels in-line with what Gunn has led his story up to now.  I wouldn’t say that it’s my favorite of the Guardians movies, that is still reserved for the nearly flawless first film.  But this may be the one that impresses me the most with it’s handling of riskier material and it’s epic scope; showing how accomplished James Gunn has gotten as a filmmaker.

The thing that really elevates the movie is the way it treats all of the character arcs in this film.  Each character, even some of the minor ones like Sean Gunn’s Kraglin and Cosmo the Telepathic Dog (voiced by Maria Bakalova) get these wonderful side stories with satisfying pay offs.  Certainly the Guardians themselves have the most important story beats, but one doesn’t overshadow the other.  Of the Guardians characters, Groot may be the one with the minimalist character development, but he’s still a welcome presence throughout the movie, and there is some resolution to his overall character arc by the end.  They continue to build upon Drax and Mantis’ peculiar courtship as well, which provides the movie with some wonderful comedic moments.  I also love how they have continued Nebula’s arc from villain to hero as she has continued to soften her rough edges, while still at times struggling to control her temper.  One thing I was curious about was how they would deal with the whole Star-Lord and Gamora ordeal.  It picks up from where things left off with Avengers: Endgame, where a different Gamora has emerged whose separate from the team she used to belong to.  In the wrong hands, Star-Lord’s desire to rekindle a romance between them would’ve come across as creepy, but thankfully James Gunn handles the relationship in a delicate way that doesn’t cast poorly on either character and feels organic as part of the story.  But, even with all this, the movie is first and foremost Rocket’s story.  His storyline, part of which is told in flashback, is the most powerful part of the movie, and I can tell you without spoiling anything that his moments were the ones that hit the hardest when comes to the emotional weight.  I saw quite a few people wiping away tears at my screening.  A few of the Rocket scenes may be among the bleakest ever put into a Marvel movie since the “snap” from Infinity War, but James Gunn didn’t put them in here for shock value.  He wants us to understand the hardship that his characters had to overcome, and it’s something that needed to be faced head on.  To make those moments work in a film franchise that up to now had been on the lighter side, with a character mostly known as a comedic sidekick is something really impressive, and one of the main reasons why this movie works as well as it does.

The movie is not without it’s faults though.  Chief among them is the villain, The High Evolutionary.  Given how so many of the characters in this film get these rich story arcs, it’s a shame that the villain they face is so one note.  We don’t learn much at all about the High Evolutionary other than he’s extremely powerful and a egomaniacal scientist trying to play God with his experimentations.  Even by the film’s end he remains an enigma; who is he, where did he come from, why is he experimenting on animals?  The movie just never gives us any answers to those questions.  To be sure, actor Chukwudi Iwuji is swinging for the fences with his performance; giving scene chewing ferocity in every moment he is on screen.  But as hard as he is trying, the movie just never quite makes him as interesting as he should be.  It’s a step down from the impact that Vol. 2′s villain , Ego the Living Planet, had.  At least with Ego and even the first film’s Ronan the Accuser there was a feeling of imminent danger to the lives of the Guardians.  High Evolutionary is only a major force of evil in one character’s story, Rocket’s, and no one else’s.  There are also some pacing issues with this movie that hamper it a bit.  At 2 1/2 hours it’s the longest in the franchise, and while much of the epic scale of this movie supports the increased run time, there are plenty of moments, particularly those devoted to comedic bits, that feel like padding.  There are two extended comedy moments, one related on how to properly use a couch with another about how to open a car door, that on their own are funny enough, but when put back to back of each other makes the film feel like it’s wasting time.  Overall, these moments certainly don’t ruin the movie, but about 10-15 minutes could’ve been shaved off of this movie, and I don’t think it would have harmed any of the story telling at all.

Now there are still plenty more things to praise about this movie.  One is definitely the cast.  It’s clear that these actors knew that this was going to be a film that ends an era, so they are giving it their all to make this movie feel like a worthy culmination of the story.  The most impressive work comes from Bradley Cooper in his vocal performance here as Rocket.  He’s called upon to take Rocket into some very dark places in this story and he really finds the heart and soul of who Rocket is in order to make the movie’s darkest moments carry an emotional wallop.  Christ Pratt naturally continues to make Star-Lord a lovable rogue, which he’s consistently done across all three movies, plus the three other MCU films the Guardians have appeared in.  The same goes for Karen Gillen as Nebula, Dave Bautista as Drax and Pom Klementiff as Mantis.  One of my favorite performances in this film, though, is Zoe Saldana as Gamora, as she is playing a very different version of this character; one who’s a bit more blood-thirsty than we’ve seen before, which leads to some wild moments in the movie.  Newcomer Will Poulter’s introduction as Adam Warlock may be not what comic book fans were expecting or wanting, as it’s a bit of a departure for the character, but how James Gunn uses him in this movie makes sense for this story, and Poulter is perfectly suited for the role.  The movie is also on par with the others in the series when it comes to the visuals.  The Guardians of the Galaxy franchise has always been one of the more imaginative visually within the MCU, paving the way for the studio’s more celestial bound adventures, and this movie continues that tradition.  There are some bold visual ideas in this film, like the organically grown structure of the Orgoscope or the oppressive jagged-ness of the High Evolutionary’s fortress.  Even individual scenes are crafted to stun, like a stand-out fight scene set to the Beastie Boys late in the film.  As I said before, despite the change in tone for this movie, it still holds up the high quality craftsmanship that has set this franchise apart in the MCU.

One of the unfortunate things that comes to mind while watching this movie is knowing that we’ll likely never see another movie like it again in the MCU.  James Gunn was a singularly identifiable voice in the whole of Marvel’s pool of talent, and sadly his time at the studio is coming to an end.  He’s about to take the big job over at DC, assuming a similar role over there that Kevin Feige holds at Marvel, and he’ll be responsible for spear-heading the development of all the new DC films and shows coming out over the next decade.  Had Disney not acted as drastically as they did and not fired him over something that turned out to be nothing, who knows if things may have turned out differently.  As far as I’m concerned, James Gunn is in a good position where I think he is going to do an outstanding job.  He clearly has an un-shakable love for comic books and wants to do them justice on the big screen.  He’s already amassed a great track record at DC with the very underrated The Suicide Squad, as well as the spin-off series Peacemaker.  Thankfully, he was able to close the chapter on the Guardians of the Galaxy series his own way, and give it the proper closure that it deserves.  I won’t spoil where all the characters end up by movie’s end, but this movie is definitely a swan song for the team we knew.  Who knows what futures Marvel has in store for them, if at all; we only get the promise of one character’s return in end credits.  But the way that the movie culminates their story after three films is enormously satisfying.  I’ll need to consider more of where I would rank it in the greater MCU, but I can definitely say it’s up there with it’s predecessors in the upper echelon of Marvel Studios movies.  The Rocket Raccoon moments alone I would rank among the best of any Marvel movie.  It’s a movie that I highly recommend for both die-hard and casual fans.  James Gunn did not disappoint, and I’m glad to see that he left Marvel on good terms with one final gift worthy of the franchise’s legacy.  Is it the kind of movie to change Marvel’s fortunes.  That remains to be seen, but it is great to finally spend some time again with the “freakin’ Guardians of the Galaxy.”

Rating: 8.5/10