Logan: sad, beautiful and final

Film

James Mangold is a compelling director; in that a lot of his work has real emotional depth and nuance, and often benefits from repeat viewing. And he’s kind of underappreciated. I mean, Girl, Interrupted, 3:10 To Yuma and Walk The Line all had him at the helm.

And yes, granted, he’s also got The Wolverine on his filmography, but we’re all allowed a little stumble now and then, right?

And I have to say, with Logan – almost certainly Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart’s last portrayal of the characters – Mangold has finished with superheroes on a high (assuming he’s not coming back to direct again). Because, simply put, this film is poles apart from almost ALL superhero movies (even Deadpool), in that it’s a melancholy love letter to Logan, aka Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Charles Xavier, aka Professor X (Patrick Stewart), as the two that are heart and soul – and indeed spine – of the X-Men franchise.

Theirs is the father-son dynamic that’s touched on consistently throughout prior films, but is really brought front and centre here. And, structure wise, we’re in somewhat different territory. Because whilst superhero films (these days) are often Westerns half in disguise, Logan wears this badge proudly, with Mangold really playing to his strengths as a director.

In that it’s a muscular, visceral, downtrodden and wistful story. One that’s gritty, painfully real, and lacks any semblance of a Hollywood shine. (I mean, within one scene more F bombs get dropped than the rest of the franchise put together.)

Indeed, Mangold has previously stated his touchpoints were Shane, The Cowboys, Paper Moon, Little Miss Sunshine and The Wrestler. And, for me, the latter two cited really shine through. Whether it’s the road trip structure or the fact Logan shares a lot of common ground with Mickey Rourke’s wrestler, in that he’s a ‘broken down old piece of meat’, you sense these influences keenly.

And, story wise, it also takes its cues from the Old Man Logan series of graphic novels. So within the opening scenes where we meet Logan, he’s a grey-haired, shabby limo driver. He drinks, he’s bleary-eyed, bent, broken and walks with a limp. So he’s oceans away from his body being the temple of earlier films. Now it’s more a urinal. In short, he’s a right mess and borderline suicidal.

Plus the fact he’s got a half-senile Charles to look after; shacked up in a metal bunker in Mexico (described in one scene as a man with the world’s most dangerous brain and a degenerative brain disorder to match. A lethal combination). So gone are the days of the mansion and gone are the days of mutants and the X-Men. Logan and Charles are practically all that’s left. And they’re barely clinging to life as it is.

But… they’re given purpose by the arrival of a young girl, Laura (Dafne Keen), who has certain familiar abilities. And so Logan is tasked – with Charles in tow – to attempt to evade bad guys and get her to the safety of Canada. So we end up with a sort of mismatched family road movie – with Logan as the cantankerous yet caring father, Charles as the doddering yet insightful grandfather, and Laura as the wild, precocious daughter looking for a family and sense of belonging.

And, whilst the whole film has many sweet notes, it’s also immensely sad and surprisingly violent (every Wolverine kill is far bloodier and more gory than ever before).

This is also, without a shadow of a doubt, both Jackman and Stewart’s best performances as these characters. The studio has clearly given Mangold license to do things a bit differently, and it’s really paid off.

The world feels more real. It’s the most emotional ‘superhero’ film yet (in any franchise) and it’s focused in its use of a handful of characters tops, which is really refreshing (the swollen cast of recent X-Men outings was beginning to bore me a bit).

So ultimately, this is a strong contender for the best X-Men movie to date, or at least a firm second place. And you could argue that without all the prior films the weight of emotion wouldn’t ring true here, and that this movie needs to stand fully alone to be considered the best. And that’s valid.

But it’s also worth noting that this movie does FAR more right than it does wrong. Coupled with the fact that more than a handful of scenes are truly heartbreaking.

Now how many X-Men films could you say that about?

X-Men: Apocalypse – review

Film

The thing about superhero movies (as some geeky pub conversations may go), is that they have to get bigger and more spectacular each time. To the point where there’s nowhere left to take the story. And, whilst previous X-Men films have destroyed the Golden Gate Bridge and football stadiums and such, the only logical way to head, if we’re honest, is up. All the way to an apocalypse, total annihilation. (Something of a theme this summer, I thought, having sat through the new Independence Day trailer before this film began.)

Luckily for Marvel they have a character called Apocalypse aka En Sabah Nur – the first mutant; one who absorbs other mutant’s powers and who we first encounter in the film’s opening sequence in ancient Egypt (although he may be much older). During the scene he gets betrayed by his followers – who claim he’s a false God (one of the movie’s recurring themes) – and so he ends up trapped underground, in stasis and dormant. Until… thanks to some fortune (for him, more than the rest of the world) he awakes and decides that humanity needs an Etch A Sketch style reboot.

Enter our (slightly reluctant) heroes.

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They’re all back, for the most part. We’ve got Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), now a freedom fighter, roaming the world setting fellow mutants free; Hank/Beast (Nicholas Hoult), rocking the bespectacled Professor look, helping out Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) in his house for the gifted. Then there’s Erik/Magneto (Michael Fassbender), holed up in Poland pretending to be normal, until events cause him to somewhat snap and return to the fold in a fury.

There’s also a load of newbies. Some younger versions of characters we’ve seen before and some are entirely new. We have: Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Archangel (Ben Hardy), Psylocke (Olivia Munn), Kurt/Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Peter/Quicksilver (Evan Peters), Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan). Plus a few more. It’s X-Men remember, character overload aplenty.

X-Men-Apocalypse-preview

That said, Bryan Singer really is some sort of genius when it comes to making these characters zing. Having seen three superhero films in a row recently (Batman v Superman, Captain America: Civil War, and this) I’d say this X-Men – the ninth in the series – is, to me, not only the most complicated in terms of character juggling, but also the funniest and the most emotionally resonant.

There I’ve said it. In your face Avengers.

For those of you that keep up to date with film reviews I may sound out of step at this point. At least with critics, who have largely laid into the movie saying it’s repetitive and downbeat – and Rotten Tomatoes seems to back this up, rating it at 52%, which isn’t great. But don’t get me wrong, I don’t put this too far above Captain America: Civil War (quite possibly the best Avengers film so far), I just think this X-Men entry takes it by a nose.

I felt I cared for these characters more than Steve Rodgers and Tony Stark. I felt invested in their fates.

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Maybe it’s just that I prefer Fassbender, Lawrence and McAvoy as leads compared to Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr. Maybe I bought into the emotional beats more readily? Maybe it’s the comedy? Maybe this just seems more ‘Marvel’ in tone than the last Cap film. I genuinely think this X-Men is funnier than Captain America; not only for successful jokes throughout, which all land well, but in particular for another outstanding Quicksilver sequence; one which beats the last one hands down for its complexity, comedy, inventiveness and sense of danger… in that the stakes are upped from the last time he did his thing.

Whatever connected with me with this film, it remains a mystery. Maybe it’s just it had more of a sense of fun? Anyway, it was time well spent at the cinema.

And, as you’d expect with new blood coming in, it is, of course, left open for a tenth film. Which is quite some achievement for a franchise that’s been going so long. Although in terms of where we go next, that’s rather up in the air. Singer has spoken about taking the X-Men into space or exploring more of Jean Grey’s story. Now the space plot sounds like mad genius, so maybe that’s the best play. But… Jean Grey is insanely powerful as a character, so that could be good route too. Either way, with the young cast all bedding in nicely the future remains bright.

Trailer park: The Jungle Book, X-Men, Warcraft

Trailer park

Continuing my run of ‘trailer park’ blogs, here’s another. This one focusing on sci-fi, fantasy, adventure and action. ‘Tis the season to fight monsters, tra la la la laa.

The Jungle Book
(out April 2016)
Picking up (in a way) where Life of Pi left off, this film takes the technology further in what looks to be a frankly awe-inspiring version of this classic story. With a strong cast expect to be dazzled and delighted.

X-Men: Apocalypse
(out May 2016)
Upping the ante, that’s what superhero films are all about. For the latest in this franchise the gang face Oscar Isaac’s Apocalypse, the first mutant, and immensely powerful to boot. This has promise.

Warcraft
(out June 2016)
Aiming to be perhaps the first director to create a successful film based on a computer game, Duncan Jones could well pull this off. It’s not holding back either, with an epic trailer promising spectacle and character in spades.

Top 10 superhero films of the last decade

Best Of lists, Film

We’re living in a time of caped crusaders, masked vigilantes, mutants with god complexes… anyway, you get the idea. Plucking a time period of the last ten years out the air to give this thing some parameters, here are my favourites, along with my reasons why.

10. Thor (2011)
Deciding that you’re going to stick a Norse God on screen and do it in a serious manner must have been a tough meeting. However, this is one that Marvel – and director Ken Branagh – pulled off with skill and dexterity, with Chris Hemsworth bringing the golden-haired chap to life with conviction. This film also introduced us to Tom Hiddleston’s Loki – a character that stole every scene he was in and threatened to steal the entire movie.

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9. Chronicle (2012)
Newcomer director Josh Trank twisted everyone’s melon with this found footage take on the genre. After three lads explore a hole in the ground they end up with a number of special powers. However one of them (the excellent Dane DeHaan) goes a bit mad with inner torment that causes things to quickly go awry. This film is about as far removed from the rest on the list as you can get, which makes it a refreshing change and worth a watch.

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8. X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
Absence makes the heart grow fonder. And in the case of director Bryan Singer that was exactly the case, after he returned to the franchise he’d started all those years ago. To give himself a challenge he opted to go for the most mind bending plot yet, involving time travel and fighting in the past and the future. He also drew out some fine performances from Michael Fassbender as Magneto and Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique.

x-men-dofp-mystique

7. Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)
Guillermo del Toro really doesn’t get enough credit for the level of detail that went into some of the sets and scenes for this movie. The troll market, in particular, was astonishly detailed and quite masterful. Then there’s his characters, from Ron Perlman’s Hellboy to Doug Jones’ Abe Sapien, each were so well rounded, interesting and, despite their supernatural looks, human and fallible to the core.

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6. Iron Man (2008)
Robert Downey Jr. aka an insurance nightmare, aka a massive punt by the studio, aka an actor at possibly the last chance saloon. Well, whadda ya know, he pulled it off, with a performance that wowed critics and audience and started a billion dollar franchise. And now, with his rapid fire delivery of lines and nonchalent attitude, you cannot imagine anyone else in the role.

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5. Watchmen (2009)
Another director that has his critics, yet Zack Snyder managed to bring what was widely considered an unfilmable graphic novel to the screen in a manner which emphatically delivered. Visually, it looked stunning, the story was well handled and the performances (particularly Patrick Wilson’s Nite Owl and Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach) were outstanding.

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4. Kick Ass (2010)
With everyone’s attention firmly fixed on the big studios for the next superhero film, this one – independently financed – snuck its way onto our screens and made a massive impact. Director Matthew Vaughn managed to rouse Nic Cage from his slumber to deliver a barnstorming performance. He also introduced us to the acting talents of Chloe Grace Moretz.

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3. Batman Begins (2005)
It’s easy to forget that Christopher Nolan’s trilogy had to start somewhere for it to be as wildly successful as it was. And it began with Christian Bale and lots of character building. Indeed it was about 45 minutes of screen time before we actually saw Bale as the Bat. Yet it was worth the wait as Nolan had crafted a believable hero for the modern age and firmly shut the door on past versions of the character.

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2. The Avengers (2012)
Bringing together a bunch of superheroes in an ensemble piece is a big undertaking. If this hadn’t of worked, Marvel would have had to go back to the drawing board for a serious rethink. Luckily they weren’t to worry for they were in safe hands, those of director Joss Whedon. His sparky dialogue and style perfectly suited to a bunch of heroes that spend almost as much time fighting each other as they do their enemies.

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1. The Dark Knight (2008)
What can you say about Heath Ledger’s Joker that hasn’t already been said? Whilst his performance got him a posthumous Oscar, it was not just his film alone (although he stole every scene he was in). Bale – ever the trooper – had to face off against him, and also probably delivered his best performance of the trilogy in what was effectively a triple role as Bruce Wayne the man, the playboy and the vigilante.

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X-Men: Days of Future Past review

Film

X-Men-Days-of-Future-Past-Mystique-with-water-pistol-680x425So… How do you discuss the new X-Men film without giving too much away? Well that’s easy, throw in time travel. Always guaranteed to confuse all but the most hardened of moviegoers. And indeed confuse was the case in the cinema I went to; a full house with the audience all sitting quietly, leaning forward focusing.

The reason being is that this is one densely plotted film, by X-Men standards at least. Dense and tense. Most of this plotting is a good thing but requires you – in the words of Sister Mary Clarence a la Sister Act 2 – to sit up and pay attention. Those devilish trousers of time. If you go back you’ll affect the present, or create a new future, or something. Either way, it must have made for a right headache when planning the plot.

To recap: the events of this film happen around a decade after First Class but we’re brought up to speed with a serious voiceover in an apocalyptic future,xmen-dofp-review-02-600x399 one where sentinels were created which could adapt to any mutant talent, making them perfect killing machines. Facing extinction the last remaining mutants send Wolverine’s consciousness back in time (into his younger self) to the 1970s to stop the scientist behind the sentinels, Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), from creating them in the first place.

So far so very Terminator right?

Except here we have Wolverine playing the confused ‘come with me if you want to live’ role, one where he needs to bring together James McAvoy’s Charles (wallowing in a pit of self loathing following events in First Class) and Michael Fassbender’s Erik (incarcerated in a maximum security prison having become a man who doesn’t compromise when it comes to safeguarding the mutant race).

This is clever writing. Instead of Wolverine in beserker animal mode he has to play peacekeeper, mediator between two men who, in future Magneto’s words, ‘couldn’t be further apart’.X_Men_Days_Future_Past_13838031567965 So Wolverine is scaled back and used sparingly – present in most scenes, but this is not quite his story.

So it’s not all introspective soul searching, we also have Jennifer Lawrence’s Raven/Mystique, also hellbent on stopping Trask, but having to choose which path to take to do it: Charles’s compassion on the one side or Magneto’s uncompromising nature on the other.

Bryan Singer, the man who kicked this franchise off in 2000 is back directing (following his departure after X2 in 2003) and it’s clear his love for the characters hasn’t diminished. If anything, absence makes the heart grow fonder and this is an impressive end (if that’s what it is) to this chapter of the franchise. And he’s savvy enough to give us what we need in terms of action, but also realise his vision by keeping the focus on the story and relationships above all else, particularly the triumvirate of Raven, Charles and Erik.???????????? It’s a brave move and – hopefully if the public respond and go see it – a clever one.

Despite the usual gargantuan line-up of characters, this is ultimately McAvoy and Lawrence’s movie in terms of performances: him all brooding and wounded, her confused and misguided anger. Throw in Fassbender’s intensity and you’ve got the perfect blockbuster pressure cooker.

Most (ok, a lot) of modern blockbusters have an engaging opening act, a compelling and thrilling middle, then sort of trail off in the final third or, more annoyingly sometimes, have a weak, infuriating and unsatisfying ending. Refreshingly Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg deliver a rather quite touching scene to bring the overall story full circle, leaving it in the best possible place for the future.

And, with almost a clean slate from here on out, where will they take these characters next? It’s an exciting prospect to ponder.

Trailer park: Gilliam, Godzilla, Jump Street and X-Men

Trailer park

130903ZeroTheorem_8026001Quite a lot of interesting films out in the next few months or so. From another glimpse into the mind of the lunatic that is Terry Gilliam to Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill proving that 21 Jump Street was no fluke… they hope (note: I haven’t actually seen it yet, obviously); there’s films galore to sate your cinematic appetites.

And if that lot doesn’t float your boat there’s also a bloody great lizard kicking up a stink and X-Men time jumping willy nilly, and indeed causing a load of havoc of their own. Enjoy.

The Zero Theorem (March 2014)
Weird, wacky, deranged, fantastical – you’d expect nothing less from Terry Gilliam right? It’s good to have the director back with this dystopian tale starring Christoper Waltz. Critics are already comparing this to Brazil and 12 Monkeys – two films widely regarded as his best work.


Godzilla
(May 2014)
In 2010 British director Gareth Edwards made Monsters with a crew of five people on a budget of about $800,000. It was a resounding hit. And so he gets given the keys to play on the big stage with a reboot of this franchise. Chances are this will be a blast.


22 Jump Street
(June 2014)
Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill are back as hapless cops sent undercover, this time to college rather than school. From the trailer it looks like the two have picked up where they left off. The old difficult second album, but if they pull it off expect some genuinely funny stuff.


X-Men: Days of Future Past
(May 2014)
This looks set to be the biggest one yet in the franchise, uniting cast old, new and all those in-between. The man that kicked it all off 13 years ago, director Bryan Singer, is back. So expect big, time-twisting things, epic action, even more epic performances. And Wolverine getting mad.

Katniss and a mockingjay: the revolution will be televised

Film

Hunger-games-catching-fire-lawrence_katniss‘Katniss Everdeen, the girl on fire.’ The same could be said of Jennifer Lawrence these days. Following her award winning performance last year, she’s got some exciting things lined up to hit the screen soon. American Hustle, reuniting her with Silver Linings Playbook director David O. Russell, is out in December which, from the trailer, looks to be a right sexy treat. It’s covered in my recent trailer blog, along with some other ones worth a look. She’s also part of the jaw-dropping cast of X-Men: Days of Future Past, comfortably slotting herself into another juggernaut of a franchise.

Then there’s The Hunger Games. One thing that struck me about the middle slot of this trilogy is just how bleak and desolate it feels. I suppose, given the three act structure of a film (setup, conflict, resolution) and extrapolating that over a three film arc (or four film arc, as the conclusion will be a two-parter), Josh Hutcherson and Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games Catching Fire, a reviewthe second one will always be rife with conflict and see the antagonist flex his or her muscles to gain the upper hand. Think Empire Strikes Back and Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

On that note, and given the fact most of the audience will have seen the first one, this feel films tougher and more emotionally affecting than the first. Indeed, many of the characters have matured and grown wise to what life is like under this oppressive regime; off and on love interest Peeta and Katniss’s sister Primrose are typical examples. The latter calmly taking a needle from her mother’s shaking hands to sedate someone after a savage beating.

And talking of beatings, this film has them aplenty (mostly administered by soldiers looking like a cross between storm troopers and extras from a Daft Punk video).Hunger Games Catching Fire5-20131105-172 Austrian director Francis Lawrence (Constantine, I am Legend, Water for Elephants) doesn’t let up; there’s precious little in the way of light moments to lift the mood. At times I questioned the 12A certificate (there were a lot of kids in the audience at my screening). However there was minimal cause for concern, in the event of a violent act the director would invariably cut away at the last moment, something no doubt advised by the studio to make the broader kid-friendly certificate. A tactic to save kids’ sensibilities perhaps, but still psychologically affects us adults, as we can fill in the gaps.

This is only really an observation though. Lawrence has taken the reins of this franchise in able fashion, proving he can handle action, drama and quieter character moments equally well. He’s also avoided directorial flair for the most part, letting the cast grow in their roles. jennifer-Lawrence-on-fire-in-New-Hunger-Games-Catching-Fire-Trailer-3As you’d expect, the focus is by and large firmly kept on Lawrence’s Katniss – we see everything from her point of view. And rightly so, she’s not only the catalyst and linchpin for the entire story, but also a tough female protagonist, something of which we’ve not seen on the big screen in a long time.

Hence perhaps why Jennifer Lawrence is fast becoming a favourite of tinseltown. In years past Hollywood has taken Oscar winners and tried to turn them into action/superheroes and failed (Hallie Berry, Catwoman; Charlize Theron, Aeon Flux; hell even Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider to an extent), perhaps lack of success was down to poor script, a weak director, sub-standard supporting cast… Who knows.

ID_D37_14785.dngNow, however, it feels right. Lawrence feels right. Maybe the industry has just finally got its act together. I’ve been a fan of hers since Winter’s Bone and, for me, she’s not put a foot wrong (please Jennifer, stay away from run-of-the-mill rom-coms!). And with Francis Lawrence directing the concluding two-parter of this tale, it looks to be in most competent hands. President Snow, watch your back… And your front. In fact, just watch out. Katniss is coming, she’s mad as hell and she just won’t take it anymore.

avengers natasha romanoff

Marvel – masters of the cinematic universe

My musings

For this posting I’d like to discuss the evolution of the Marvel universe. I recently – finally – got around to seeing The Avengers. Or, as it’s known in the UK, Avengers Assemble (damn you, Steed).

I have to say, having unavoidably seen and heard many reviews, I was worried I wouldn’t enjoy it and be expecting too much. Would it live up to the hype? Would it feel rushed/crowded with so many larger-than-life characters jostling for screen time? Well, much like everybody else, I found it thoroughly enjoyable. Great pacing, great action, great characters, great dialogue.

avengers natasha romanoffPlus all the Avengers were given – more or less – an equal amount to do, including the new characters: Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow. The latter unsurprisingly well written, given writer/director Joss Whedon’s affinity for strong, female characters (Buffy et al).

So, before this becomes an Avengers review, back to the subject in question. I had a vague awareness of the fact there’s been quite a few films over recent years that have come out of the Marvel studio. However when you really look, it seems like an unstoppable wave. To name the live-action films we’ve had since 1998:

  • 5 X Men (2000, 2003, 2006, 2009, 2011)
  • 4 Spider Man (2002, 2004, 2007, 2012)
  • 3 Blade (1998, 2002, 2004)
  • 2 Iron Man (2008, 2010)
  • 2 Hulk (2003, 2008)
  • 2 Fantastic Four (2005, 2007)
  • 2 Ghost Rider (2007, 2012)
  • 1 Thor (2011)
  • 1 Captain America (2011)
  • 1 Avengers (2012)

I’ve left off the experiments that were Daredevil, Elektra and Man Thing, simply because they weren’t hugely successful and it’s unlikely there will be a follow up to any of these in the near future. Therefore I’m only including films where the characters have appeared more than once in the Marvel cinematic universe. So, from 1998 to 2012 (that’s 14 years, keep up), we’ve had 23 films. That’s 1.6 films a year! I’m not sure if what I’m expressing here is good shock or bad shock? Perhaps both.

snipes dorff bladeLooking ahead
I suppose, with this sort of prolific output, you’ll have successes and failures. In recent years, they’ve begun to have more of the former, both critically and commercially. For every mediocre Daredevil or Fantastic Four you’ll get a decent Spider Man or Blade.

Or, if you’re really lucky, strike complete gold and unearth Robert Downey Jr. A man born to play Tony Stark. Don’t believe me? Watch some of his early work, like Natural Born Killers. Check out this classic scene. For me, if you take his character there, throw in a little Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Tropic Thunder, you’ll get Tony Stark. Perhaps a leap but it makes sense to me!

Don’t stop us now
With recent successes of the Avengers’ characters, both in their ensemble film and stand-alone outings, the plan for Marvel films over the next few years is looking quite exciting. Next year we’ll get a second from the blonde Asgardian, Thor: The Dark World and Iron Man 3.  In 2014 we’ll have, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, plus – most intriguingly – a massive departure from the norm with Guardians of the Galaxy. A film which has a sentient tree and a raccoon with a gun as main characters.

I can’t say I’m excited about this one…yet. Although I do approve of the concept art above. What I like is that you cannot accuse Marvel of resting on their laurels or playing it too safe. That, in itself, is reason to be quietly optimistic. But I guess we’ll see. Oh, and there’s also a second Avengers due out 2015, just in case Guardians doesn’t go as planned.

Defenders of the universe
So, on the whole, I think it’s great Marvel are mixing it up. Yes, they’re putting out films for a lot of their mainstream superheroes, but they’re safer bets. Keeps the money coming in. They could just sit on that but, like any industry, if you’re not moving forward you’re doing the opposite.

So introducing a new host of characters is brave, yet wholly necessary. Eventually we’ll get sick of superhero films and want westerns or zombie films for a few years or something. But, if Marvel keep freshening things up, maybe we’ll stay a while longer. Maybe a character called Rocket Raccoon is just what’s called for – long live diversity!