Nebula’s a Better Fit Than Gamora for Guardians of the Galaxy – Come At Me, Bro

As the torrent of superhero movies gushing from Hollywood can attest, comics are a treasure-trove of inspiration to draw from. With hundreds of characters and a half-century of storylines to choose between, this isn’t a well in danger of drying up soon (whether that’s a good thing or not is rather more complicated). However, they can also clip a film’s wings. Despite their whimsical brilliance – and I’ll hear nothing else, dammit – Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2 and its predecessor suffer from this a little thanks to resident badass Gamora.

Sibling rivalry. Concept art by Andy Park

She often feels like a third wheel, for instance; there’s a whiff of her only being there to kick-start the adventure and/or because she’s a corner-stone of the comic iteration. Although Gamora’s vital in saving the day, she often seems to be facilitating the plot of others rather than following her own arc. She’s arguably the team’s least-developed member because of this; where Star-Lord learns to let others into his life, she doesn’t really change from beginning to end. While Drax and Rocket must move on from their past by accepting a new family, Gamora’s moment of growth – turning on her adoptive father and rediscovering morality after all she’s done – happens before the story gets started. As a result, I wonder whether her vicious sister Nebula wouldn’t have been a better fit for this team. There’s so much potential for growth with the latter.

Menacing, tragic, and unhinged, she’s arguably more compelling than her straight-laced counterpart. Gamora always earned daddy’s praise for a job well-murdered, so Nebula was ripped apart and replaced with robotic bits to make her the former’s ‘equal’. That’s a significant knock to your ego. Moreover, being kidnapped and turned into Thanos’s right-hand killer has left Nebula a broken husk who refuses to let herself feel lest it hurt her. In comparison, Gamora doesn’t seem too weighed down by the guilt of what she’s done. While she’s trying to make up for it by stopping the film’s villain, it leads to a predictable (if acerbic) stoicism. I’m not sure she has a huge amount of depth. Meanwhile, Nebula is emotionally volatile and ready to blow. She’s every bit the killer we’re told Gamora is… yet rarely get a sense of. That redemptive path Nebula’s following is ripe for narrative conflict. I’m not not sure Gamora’s is.

Simply put, it feels like Nebula would have made for a more nuanced Guardian than Gamora (all the same, Zoe Saldana’s great in the role and the part is well-written… even if it leaves me cold). She’s a damaged young woman desperately trying to prove her worth, and that’s a hotbed of stories waiting to happen.

As such, I’m glad she got plenty of screen-time in the sequel. More for Avengers: Infinity War, please!

Alien: Covenant is a Reminder that Space Might Be Pretty Damn HORRIBLE

Space is a damn scary place to be, at least according to movies like Alien: Covenant. If you’re not impregnated by facehuggers that vomit eggs down your throat, you’ll be eviscerated by xenomorphs who rip people apart for fun. It implies something dark, primal and aggressive lying in wait amongst the stars, and the idea of going to space is suddenly made 100% less appealing. It’s a horror film, naturally, but it does raise the possibility that our universe won’t be easily conquered.

Alien
If we find life out there among the stars, we might get more than we bargained for – concept art by Valentin Petrov

New planets hide unknown threats, and some might be microscopic; it stands to reason that an alien world would carry alien bacteria if there really is life out there, and this is a threat our bodies aren’t ready for. While that isn’t nearly so horrific as a monster crawling its way out of your chest, the result wouldn’t be all that different – you’ll still die in a lot of pain and indignity.

Our immune systems are unprepared for such viruses, and they’d be unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. Consider the death-toll when conquistadors marched into South America: local Aztecs were unfamiliar with the likes of European smallpox, and their immune systems crumbled beneath the strain. It’s easy to see how extra-terrestrial germs or pathogens could have a similar effect on us (if they existed, anyway).

Accordingly, spores like those unleashed in Covenant aren’t unrealistic… even if what follows isn’t. The image of someone falling desperately ill for reasons unknown hits close to home. Cheerful, right?

We may not have to fend off inhuman creatures when we start colonising the stars, but our problems aren’t over nonetheless. We’d probably be better off with the xenomorphs: at least you can see them coming.

Beauty and the Beast Shows That Reality is, Like, Overrated

By ‘eck, I wasn’t a fan of outlandish RPG settings when I were a young(er) lad. The likes of Morrowind – complete with crazy mushroom infestations and giant fleas – were all well and good, but I preferred more down-to-earth landscapes that didn’t stretch suspension of disbelief quite so much. Yes, I appreciate the hypocrisy of this when I’d spend most of the time spamming fireballs out of my hands.

Beauty-and-the-Beast-Concept-Art-Disney-Karlsimon-Ballroom_magic_02_L
Look at the sparkles. LOOK AT THEM (concept art for Beauty and the Beast by Karl Simon)

Anyway. It wasn’t until I heard a 15 year-old complaining about the same thing that I realised how much of a 180 I’d done. These days I’m less interested in realism: an immersive, enjoyable experience is far more important to me (not that the two are mutually exclusive, of course). There’s a lot to be said for sheer wonder, and a project that really epitomised that recently was Disney’s Beauty and the Beast remake.

Musical numbers aside, the screen burst with a colour and vitality that you rarely see in cinema now. Overrun with a blush of green and warm orange sunsets, the contrast was amped up until it popped in a loud, primary-coloured firework. The cottages in Belle’s village were also brilliantly wonky, leaning at awkward angles as if they’d been plucked directly from the fairy tales that inspired this story. It was a place bursting with magic and joy, and that’s exactly the kind of place I’d want to hang out in. As with The Lord of the Ring’s Hobbiton, you’d have to drag me away by my ear.

The same could be said of Themyscira, Wonder Woman’s Mediterranean paradise. A scattering of romantic Grecian architecture that blossomed up the side of wooded mountains, it was full of hidden corners and powerful artefacts atop thundering waterfalls. This contrasted fantastically with the dingy reality of WWI. It made Diana’s home a place I’d book flights to without thinking, too. That’s a notable departure from Batman v Superman’s landscapes: they were a hodgepodge of miserable urban jungles that can be best described as ‘damn grey’.

In short, it’s the kind of approach you can only get in fantasy. I’m glad I’ve broadened my horizons enough to see it. While realistic and dour settings are grand, we don’t always champion pure delight as much anymore.

Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2 is the Best MCU Movie (Drops Mic)

I’ve recently been smacked around the head by an epiphany. After seeing Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2 and squeeing like a squeezy dog-toy, I now understand what everyone’s banging on about when they say that superhero movies should be fun. Although I’ve got a lot of time for grittier versions (a la Man of Steel or Logan), a film that goes for your sense of humour is arguably more… enjoyable? Is that the word I’m looking for? Anyway, you leave the cinema content that all is well with the world and practically bouncing along the pavement. You also get many, many quotable memes out of it. As such, I’d peg it as the best movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe since the original. Fight me.

Something good, something bad… a bit of both? Concept art by Andy Park

This is thanks to its refusal to take things too seriously. Volume 2 is wonderfully irreverent, poking fun at itself while bringing back 80s nostalgia with a raised middle-finger. The film isn’t afraid to get weird either – and I mean properly weird. When it’s not using daft locations from the comics (including a living planet, of all things), it’s diving into well-worn tropes that are given a self-deprecating twist. There’s the obligatory ‘follow your heart’/realisation-of-great-power moment that’s shunted off kilter by a certain videogame character, and this is preceded by a ridiculous father-son game of catch mid-way through the story. Guardians knows that it’s silly, so everything’s very tongue-in-cheek. I suppose this is only fair when you’ve got a film starring sentient trees and a talking racoon.

Another bullseye is its strong character-development, of course. Karen Gillen’s Nebula benefits from this in particular, as does Michael Rooker’s brilliant Yondu (out-of-context quote of the day: ‘I’m Mary Poppins, y’all’). The main cast’s arcs aren’t quite so strong this time around, but they still get a thumbs-up as well. The only other MCU franchise that can match it in this regard is Captain America, or – and I know I’ll get stick for this – Iron Man.

Basically, Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2 hits all the right notes: it’d love nothing more than for you to just enjoy yourself. Seriously, go see it.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi – Yeah, This is Why the Jedi Need to End

I boot up the internet and Star Wars is everywhere. With Star Wars Celebration 2017 coming to an end last weekend, the aftereffects of the event are still reverberating through the web like an infamous cry of a million souls before they were extinguished by a dirty great space laser. More to the point, everyone’s still recovering from The Last Jedi teaser and Battlefront II’s trailer. Suffice to say, that kind of reveal leaves a lasting impression.

However, one of the biggest takeaways from the event was Luke Skywalker’s claim that the Jedi must end in The Force Awakens’ sequel. As a former beacon of hope for the Jedi order, his disillusionment has caused quite a stir. The obvious question is ‘why’, but a better one should probably be ‘why not?’.

Perhaps it IS time for the Jedi to end – they’ve caused enough trouble. Concept art by Ryan Church

If you stop and think about it, the Jedi have been nothing but trouble. Besides appointing themselves as galactic police who stick their noses where it may not be wanted, they seem to rely on violence more often than diplomacy. Moreover, they bulled their way through the Clone Wars as generals and warriors when that’s precisely the opposite of what they were built for: I thought a Jedi’s lightsaber training is meant to be used in defence of the innocent and as a last resort, not a first response. Aren’t they primarily diplomats and monks?

Then there are all the amusing gaffs they’ve made throughout the original/prequel trilogies. Most egregious of these would be Obi-Wan’s flagrant dickery in lying to Luke’s face about his father. ‘True from a certain point of view’? Shove off, that’s ridiculous. It’s a somewhat limp attempt to justify a retcon and makes Obi-Wan look negligent. Then there’s Qui-Gon Jinn’s hilariously bad attempt at babysitting, where he takes a young child into the heat of battle when he could have left him literally anywhere else. Finally, the books reveal that the prequels’ Jedi temple was built on a super-evil Sith shrine that apparently corrupted them over millennia (it was apparently capped, but would you take that chance?). I mean, come on. I adore these films, but the characters do make some bizarre decisions.

Then there’s an aspect that, in contrast, the prequels handled rather well. The Jedi are essentially a cult: you follow their strict rules or you hit the road. Additionally, these rules can seem needlessly cruel. Take their refusal for Jedi to form attachments, for instance. This has never ended well, as demonstrated by Anakin’s fall and the fact that those same attachments let Luke save the whole damn galaxy.

Most damning of all would be when you read between the lines. As explained by Tor, a reason for Obi-Wan lying to Luke about his father could be that they needed an assassin who’d take out the Emperor’s greatest asset without querying why. Knowing about his head-in-the-clouds demeanour and daydream to be a hero, Kenobi fed him a suitably clichéd story about his father that’d set him on a collision course with Vader, no questions asked. It’s a calculated, manipulative move.

Similarly, Luke was given the surname ‘Skywalker’ and left with his family – surely a giant red flag to Vader – because he could also serve as bait as an added bonus. If Vader found him, Obi-Wan would emerge and take him down.

It’s a fascinating way of looking at the old Jedi order, and it doesn’t paint them in a very good light. As such, I’m not surprised that Luke wants to shut things down now he’s older and wiser.

Mass Effect: Andromeda – Are We Still Hung Up On Mass Effect 3’s Ending?

Sometimes people are just ready to be furious. There were those gunning for Mass Effect: Andromeda ever since it was in early access, and that sense of outrage only increased upon the game’s release. Judging by livid comments and videos documenting myriad glitches, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was an unmitigated car-crash. The user score on aggregate sites like Metacritic peg it at a wince-inducing 4.8 out of 10, for instance.

Yet the critical reception casts doubt over this conclusion. Based on average review scores from numerous outlets, the same site gave Andromeda a respectable 73%. It’s the kind of factoid that makes me ask whether it’s another case of fans with an axe to grind. More specifically, I can’t help wondering if they ever got over the infamous (and polarising) Mass Effect 3 ending.

ben-lo-havarl02-env
It’s a bold new world, but some of us aren’t along for the ride – concept art by Ben Lo

That game’s finale caused uproar. Although fans voiced their anger in a way that beggars belief, I do understand some of the frustration that led to such insanity. Mass Effect 3’s continuity was baffling: characters travelled large distances with no explanation as to how they managed it. Moreover, certain events contradicted lore that’d been established in prior instalments. This led to theories about the main character being ‘indoctrinated’, wherein the enemy essentially brainwashes you. It also featured a disappointing end to the culmination of five years’ worth of choices. Indeed, we were left with a one-size-fits-all conclusion that didn’t take your prior adventures into account.

This angst forced Bioware to patch Mass Effect 3 with an alternate ending. While I enjoyed their solution to many of the problems detailed above, I appreciate that the original left a bitter taste in the mouth of many. As such, I suppose their hesitancy over Andromeda is logical even if I don’t agree with their wish to see it crash and burn.

Another critical factor was the climax’s bittersweet nature. This was not a happy conclusion. It was miserable, if anything: our hero probably died, their friends were scattered to the wind and beloved locations went up in flames before the credits rolled. We may have claimed victory, but it was won at a terrible cost. After three games and hundreds of hours spent in their company, I think most would want a more cheerful ending. The fact that we didn’t get it presumably ruffled a lot of feathers, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this contributed to any lingering resentment. Indeed, I still can’t hear the soundtrack to that final cinematic without wanting to wail.

As such, I think this has more to do with Andromeda’s mixed treatment than you’d think. It’s a shame, because I’m a firm believer that it plays host to a great idea: colonising a new galaxy (as is the case in Andromeda) is exactly the clean break Mass Effect needs. Furthermore, it’s a good basis on which to build a fresh series. I just wish some weren’t bringing so much baggage along for the ride.

Check back every Friday for a new blog celebrating the characters, worlds and craft of geeky pop-culture.

Kong: Skull Island Shows Why Reboots Aren’t Always a Bad Thing

We like complaining about remakes: they’re a bugbear that send fans into a frothing rage. Mocked for their lack of imagination, we bemoan film’s creative impotence and agree that all these reboots should throw themselves in the bin. But this ignores the fact that retellings aren’t a recent fad – they’ve been happening for decades. The industry has always thrived on reimagining stories for a new generation. And there’s nothing wrong with that: cynicism aside, it allows us to revisit a property and explore something we wish had been done the first time around.

xit0lbj1woezvxcdkikr
Pushing Kong into the 1970s paints the story in an entirely new light – concept art by Eddie Del Rio for Kong: Skull Island

That’s definitely the case in movies like this year’s Beauty and the Beast, where a faithful adaptation is added to with backstory for both Belle and Beast. It was expansive rather than repetitive, and this is very much the approach of Kong: Skull Island as well. With a 70s setting, hordes of kaiju to take on Kong and a very different story that has nothing to do with New York, this is a movie that fights to avoid the familiar.

To my mind, Skull Island was very successful in taking a familiar story and reimagining it in a fresh way. While it may have been on the nose more often than not (its characters are unabashed clichés and the plot can be predictable) displacing the narrative from the Depression to a post-Vietnam war era gives it an entirely different flavour. I’m a little disappointed we’ll never see the Kong of this shared universe taking on bi-planes atop the Empire State Building – indeed, I wish those events could have happened in the past and formed the impetus to revisit Skull Island, wherein they find the original Kong’s bigger descendant – but I suppose that’s for the best when you consider the fact that it has to fit into a world where monsters appear in public for the first time during Godzilla. Not that there’s any chance he won’t clamber up the iconic skyscraper for Godzilla v Kong’s crossover, of course.

This is why I keep banging on about reboots being given a chance: unless you’re pulling an Amazing Spider-Man and going over the same origin less than ten years later, there’s usually something new to mine that’ll make a story fresh again.

Check back every Friday for a new blog celebrating the characters, worlds and craft of geeky pop-culture.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – Do We Really Need a Shared Zelda Universe?

We’re seized by a special kind of madness when new Legend of Zelda games come out. It’s a fever-dream of nostalgia and apprehension: fans whip themselves into a fury for products that break records over their knee with practiced ease. After finding out that the franchise is part of one massive story, they also spend a good deal of time puzzling out where the latest installment appears in its convoluted timeline. Predictably, this has caused a lot of head-scratching where The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is concerned. When exactly does it take place and which other games does it tie into?

Where (and when) we are in the Zelda timeline is something of a mystery – concept art for Breath of the Wild

It’s question that gets everywhere these days. After the success of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, everyone’s scrambling for a slice of the pie with their own connected worlds. DC is eternally playing catch-up to their rivals, Tom Cruise’s The Mummy reboot kicks off a ‘monster’ universe and Kong: Skull Island is gearing up for a crossover with Godzilla in 2020. While this is all well and good, it does make you wonder whether everything has to be connected.

The obvious answer is ‘no’. Bigger isn’t always better, and there’s strength in being able to do whatever you like in a narrative without fear of stepping on someone else’s toes. If another team wants to utilise a character or keep them around for future plots there’s only so much you can do with them. Things are therefore in danger of falling into a holding pattern while everyone waits for the next crossover. Although it’s fun to see how everything fits into a larger narrative (and this also provides opportunities you otherwise wouldn’t get via standalone franchises), there’s an elegance in keeping to yourself. For example, I question the sanity of not connecting Sony’s mooted Venom film with the new Spider-Man flicks but I respect their decision to avoid the story being dictated by team-ups.

As such, is it more hassle than it’s worth to try and connect every Legend of Zelda? Doing so is confusing enough as it is. Whilst the connective tissue between games is largely irrelevant and tangential, it boils down to alternate versions of reality based on whether the famously mute hero – Link – succeeded in his quest to save Hyrule during 1999’s Ocarina of Time. Confused? You’ve not seen anything yet.

Because this N64 classic dealt so heavily in time-travel, things become baffling rather quickly. In one timeline (known as the Adult Timeline) he succeeds, and the world Link leaves behind leads to the cell-shaded Wind Waker. Another has him going back in time, reliving his childhood and preventing Ocarina of Time from ever happening (the aptly-named Child Timeline). This results in Majora’s Mask and the gloomy Twilight Princess. A final possibility has him dying on his adventure (called the Fallen Hero Timeline), a failure that brings us to SNES favourite A Link to the Past and the very original games from the 1980s. In essence, the ‘game-over’ screen becomes canon. It’s all a bit longwinded, so you’d absolutely be excused for not keeping up.

Still, I’d like to think this tumultuous history adds to – instead of detracts from – the series. That may seem odd considering my hesitance about shared worlds, but it’s an idea which can be very powerful if used skilfully. Giving a definitive arc adds to that in-game folklore until it becomes a grand mythology spanning centuries. There was an elegance in the older idea that this is the same tale retold over and over, yet you can feel the weight of history on the shoulders of Breath of the Wild through seeing Hyrule’s ruined carcass. It means something because we’ve spent decades fighting to keep this place alive. It’s familiar to us. We’ve grown up there.

This feels broadly similar to the epic poems from Ancient Greece. Literature that details larger-than-life figures like Odysseus or Athena, these stories played out a grand narrative across heaven and Earth that was taught (and presumably added to) with each new generation. After 31 years of adventure, the Legend of Zelda franchise is genuinely living up to its name for the same reason. Each successive game adds to a rich tapestry of adventure.

It’s why I’m not against the sudden interest in connected universe on film. It’s somewhat exasperating because it stinks of jumping on the bandwagon, but combining stories into one mega-narrative gives you a great deal of context with which to tell your story. That shared history is what made Captain America: Civil War so successful.

It doesn’t need to be confusing or exclusionary, either. As The Legend of Zelda and Netflix’s Marvel shows demonstrate, you don’t have to hit your audiences over the head with a shared universe. Small hints for those paying attention are more than enough. In fact, your story should be front-and-centre rather than the setup for future sequels (I’m looking at you, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice). That’s something Zelda has always gotten very, very right.

Check back every Friday for a new blog celebrating the characters, worlds and craft of geeky pop-culture.