Summer movie blockbusters used to kick off in the summer. Jaws was released on June 20, 1975 and Back to the Future hit theaters on July 3, 1985, but in the age of comic book cinema, summer begins in May.
Marvel Studios and many of the other studios that own Marvel’s property have consistently released their summer tent poles at the start of May. The surprise hit Iron Man dropped on May 2, 2008 and jumpstarted the Marvel Cinematic Universe, reinvigorating the acting career of Robert Downey Jr.
It should come as no surprise that Marvel would release the sequel to their hot property, Guardians of the Galaxy, on the first weekend of May and aptly name it Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. The sequel picks up in both story and tone where the last one left off.
The opening sequence is worth the price of admission, and is actually one of the best opening sequences to a film I have ever viewed. It not only sets up the story, it also reminds the viewers why they fell in love with this ragtag group of superheroes during Vol. 1. The Guardians are hired by the powerful alien race, the Sovereign, to defeat a giant space alien who wants to eat the Sovereign’s treasured batteries. As they wait for the alien to arrive, the Guardians discuss everyday life problems despite being the saviors of the entire galaxy in a nonchalant way that Berthold Brecht would enjoy.
The giant space alien eventually arrives and pure chaos unfolds, backed by fantastic musical accompaniment. After the Guardians defeat the alien, Rocket, voiced by Bradley Cooper, steals the very batteries they were hired to protect. The Sovereign of course are rather upset by this and attack the Guardians who are then saved by Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) long-lost father Ego, played by Kurt Russell. Space drama then ensues.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 does not disappoint. It’s action, CGI, storytelling, music, and humor is above and beyond many of the other films in a similar genre that have already been released this year, such as Power Rangers and The Fate of the Furious.
Though Marvel has dominated the first weekend of May, several studios now attempt to start the season even earlier, taking big blockbuster films that usually would come out in June and releasing them in April. I often refer to these films as “Not Ready for Primetime Players” as an homage to Saturday Night Live. April blockbusters are usually not bad films, but they are not great films either. Looking at Power Rangers and The Fate of the Furious, they both did well in the box office and received some critical reception, but both films would have been lost in the summer shuffle.
Power Rangers is a retelling of the 1990’s classic pre-teen show about teenagers, with attitudes, who stumble upon an alien power that morphs them into the power rangers. The film opens as a wonderful retelling of the classic film, The Breakfast Club. These soon-to-be-rangers are diverse, modern, and quite interesting and engaging characters. They’re also all stuck in detention. Blue Ranger Billy Cranston, played by RJ Cyler, performs one of the best cinematic portrayals of someone with Asperger’s I have ever seen on the big screen. Sadly, the film morphs back to the corny kid show in the third act and I feel like I just wasted my time and energy caring about diverse and relatable characters who are now fighting a space witch in giant dinosaur robots.
The Fate of the Furious falls into a similar trap of hokey action. The entire “family” of the Fast and Furious franchise once again returns, but this time their adversary is none other than their leader, Dom, played by Vin Diesel. Dom must betray his friends in order to protect what is dear to him being held by Charlize Theron’s beautiful, yet evil, Cipher. Like all the other films in the series, this iteration is filled with explosions, amazing sports cars, and, of course, the destruction of said sports cars.
Power Rangers and The Fate of the Furious have similar, if not better, action sequences and CGI than Guardians, but are not as enjoyable films. Though Guardians has a talking raccoon and a small tree-like character who only says “I am Groot,” I was able to relate to that film far more than the other films, which starred actual human beings.
Marvel has broken the mold with action and comic book movies by recreating classic films with comic book characters. One could say The Avengers is a classic ensemble film similar to Ocean’s Eleven or The Philadelphia Story. Guardians can find ties to The Magnificent Seven or The Seven Samurai. Regardless, all these Marvel and non-Marvel films have one thing in common amongst them: the human element.
The Guardians are believable because we can relate to them. They have relationship, family, and trust problems like many of us viewers do. We see this through excellent storytelling, imagery, and, most importantly, humor. Great Marvel action films take time to laugh at themselves amongst the unstoppable action and CGI. This feat is what keeps these films grounded.
Power Rangers has a dark, serious tone at the beginning with relatable characters, but shifts to a silly one by act three when the teenagers morph. Furious is filled with tons of characters, but they never dive deep into their hopes and dreams besides reiterating how they are all “family.” Neither of these films ever have laugh-out-loud moments like Guardians does. The lack of solid humor and reliability is what differentiates Power Rangers and Furious from Guardians, not the action or the CGI.
It is hard to say yet if the other summer blockbusters will have the heart and soul of Guardians. The fifth installment of Michael Bay’s robotic, CGI-based franchise is Transformers on the horizon and I am sure will also lack any remote glimpse of the human element. One can only hope that studios finally remember they are making films for humans like themselves.