In Norse mythology, Ragnarok is a series of events and battles that lead to the destruction of most of the gods. But different from Apocalyptic stories, it leads to rebirth for the Earth. After natural disasters wipe out all humans but two (Lif & Lifthrasir), the land submerges beneath the sea only to reemerge renewed and refreshed. The two humans repopulate the world, living with the help of the surviving gods. In Judeo-Christian terms, it’s closer to the story of Noah than Revelations. Ragnarok has been translated to English as “The Twilight of the Gods,” and as “Gotterdammerung” in German, where it served as the basis for the last of Wagner’s operas in the Ring series. In the Marvel Universe, though, Ragnarok means the regeneration of the Thor franchise.

The original Thor in 2011 was fun, with director Kenneth Branagh contrasting the operatic heights of Asgard with fish-out-of-water humor when Thor is banished to Earth. But Thor’s later appearances in the two Avengers movies as well as Thor: The Dark World (2013) were more standard smash-‘em-up superhero fare. Overall, Thor was a bit of a prig with all the “only he who is worthy can wield the hammer” stuff and his impossibly sculpted muscles. Star Chris Hemsworth was getting so bored with the franchise he was ready to bail out.

Enter writer/director Taika Waititi. The part-Maori New Zealander has a wonderfully cockeyed sense of humor that’s been displayed in his projects like What We Do In the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and he brings that sensibility to Thor: Ragnarok. While three screenwriters got credit for the Ragnarok script, including Dark World screenwriter Christopher L. Yost, Waititi encouraged his cast to improvise – something that usually does not happen in the Marvel Universe. The story also gives Thor a fresh dose of humanity.

After the events of Age of Ultron, Thor battles Surtur, a huge demon beast who plans to destroy Asgard. He defeats Surtur and returns to Asgard, where Thor discovers Loki is now celebrated after his supposed death during the Dark World battles. He finds Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and many Asgardians watching a stage re-enactment of Loki’s death. (The cast of the actors is fun, with Chris’s brother Luke Hemsworth playing the actor Thor, Sam Neill [Jurassic Park] as the actor Odin, and the actor playing Loki is an uncredited Matt Damon.) The tag at the end of Dark World revealed Loki (Tom Hiddleston) was alive and disguised as Odin, and Thor finds a particularly Thor-ish way to make the trickster reveal himself.

Loki takes Thor to where he dumped Odin – a retirement home in New York City – only to find the home has been demolished. But with the help of Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, in an extension of the tag at the end of Doctor Strange) they find Odin sitting on a bluff in Norway overlooking the ocean, awaiting his imminent passing. Odin warns Thor that his death will release Thor’s first-born sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett), the goddess of death. Hela had been at Odin’s side as he conquered worlds, but couldn’t accept peace, so she was banished by the Valkyries. When Odin slips away, Hela appears. She destroys Thor’s hammer, then catches a ride on the rainbow bridge to Asgard, tossing Thor and Loki into space on the way. Thor wakes on a junk-strewn planet where he’s captured by a mysterious woman warrior (Tessa Thompson) and pressed into gladiatorial combat by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). His first bout is against the Hulk, who landed on the planet after he flew off at the end of Ultron.

The plot of Ragnarok is fairly thin and straightforward. What makes it soar is the humor and characterizations, especially with some smaller roles. You have an almost unrecognizable Karl Urban (Bones in the rebooted Star Trek and the remorseless killer in The Bourne Supremacy) as Skurge, an opportunist who’s taken over running the rainbow bridge from Heimdall (Idris Elba). There’s also the blue rock warrior Korg, with a truly unexpected voice provided by director Waititi.

This movie gives the most screen-time yet to Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk, and it makes you wish for a full Hulk movie, even after the two misfires with Eric Bana and Edward Norton. (Seeing Thor try to play the Black Widow role to calm the Hulk is almost too bizarre to believe.) But the one who steals the movie whenever she’s onscreen is Blanchett as the first female big bad villain in the Marvel Universe. She gives Thor and the Asgardians hell, even as she looks divine doing it.

You usually don’t go to a superhero movie to laugh out loud (with the exception of Ant-Man), but this movie will garner that reaction several times. Yet it still works perfectly as a Marvel film. Hemsworth’s Thor is rejuvenated by his trials, while the actor himself is reinvigorated by this take on the character. While the story may look at the “Twilight of the Gods,” this film is a delightful romp in the mid-day sun.


The Third Time Is The Charm

Rebooting a series with a reworked cast can cause problems, especially when it’s the third time. Most movie lovers try to forget when George Clooney pulled on the black cowl of Batman (and the infamous nipple breastplate) after Michael Keaton and Val Kilmer hung up their capes. Batman and Robin was not a high point in the history of cinema, or in Clooney’s career, either. Thankfully he did Out of Sight the next year and never looked back. With the Spider-man franchise, Tobey Maguire was good in the first two films and then completely self-immolated in the third, while Andrew Garfield was okay in the first but couldn’t save the mess of a sequel. Sony Pictures had changed the name to the Amazing Spider-man, but neither of those films lived up to that promise. I might have skipped Spider-man: Homecoming if not for the introduction of the reboot in Captain America: Civil War. Tom Holland was delightful in the role, and having Marisa Tomei as a non-geriatric Aunt May was a bold and welcome change. (Imagine Robert Downey Jr. hitting on Rosemary Harris. Have you clawed your eyes out yet?)

Marvel sold the rights to the character to Sony, as they had the X-Men to Fox. In the short term, it was a financial help to the company as it transitioned from print comic books into the media powerhouse it’s become. But it meant they couldn’t control a product that they knew intimately. Now Sony (under its Columbia brand) has wisely returned the webslinger to Marvel in a co-production deal, and it has paid off handsomely with a $100 Million plus opening weekend, an 8.1 out of 10 rating on IMDb (the best of any film in the series), and a rejuvenated character that outshines all five previous movies.

Homecoming is literally true. Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield spent their time swinging around Manhattan, since it has all those lovely skyscrapers. Spider-man: Homecoming returns the character to Queens, Peter Parker’s home in the comics. He’s back to being your friendly, neighborhood Spider-man. The “bit by a radio-active (or genetically modified) spider” backstory is dispensed with in a couple of sentences. The production team also put him in a realistic high school, populated with characters that look like they belong there. With Tom Holland you have an actor who is only a couple of years separated from those High School days himself, much closer than either Maguire or Garfield were when they did the role. Finally, the film takes a classic Spider-man villain – The Vulture – and generates a compelling backstory for him.

The story begins in the rubble left by the Avengers fight against the alien invasion of Manhattan. A salvage company run by Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) wins a contract to collect the alien technology that litters the scene following the battle. However, they’re soon shut down by the government after they decide to do the collection themselves in partnership with Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.). Toomes decides to keep the tech they’ve already recovered and, with the help of the Tinkerer (Michael Chernus), turn it into black-market weapons. One thing created is a set of self-propelled set of wings that allows Toomes to fly, turning him into the Vulture.

Fast-forward to 2016 and the events of Captain America: Civil War. We see Peter Parker (Holland) recruited by Stark and Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) and transported to Germany for the airport battle, but our viewpoint is Peter’s video diary filmed on his phone. Following the battle, Peter returns home ready to do great things, but he’s ignored by Stark and Happy. He does his own small-scale heroics – and posts videos on the internet – but mostly he’s stuck in High School purgatory. He’s obsessed with the beautiful senior Liz (Lauren Harrier); he’s tormented by Flash (Tony Revolori), a nerd like Peter but one whose father’s bank account is large enough to make him cool; and he hangs with his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) while the sardonic Michelle (Zendaya) watches unimpressed. Things change when Peter runs across a robbery team (wearing Avengers masks) using the alien tech provided by Toomes. When Happy ignores Peter’s request for help, Peter decides to track down who’s providing the tech on his own.

Normally the more writers on a project, the worse it turns out, since they have a tendency to muddle the focus. Three writing teams contributed to the screenplay, though the primary team that also has story credit is Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley. Their milieu has been comedy, with the Horrible Bosses movies being their biggest hits, and they bring a cockeyed viewpoint to the story that serves it well. Daley is mostly been known as an actor, starting with “Freaks and Geeks” and spending almost a decade on “Bones” as psychiatrist Lance Sweets, but with more scripts like this that will change. One delightful bit is having the school use corny PSAs recorded by Captain America in the gym class and detention. “I know that technically he’s classified as a terrorist now,” the bored gym teacher says, “but the administration says show these, so I’ll show them.” Beyond the humor, though, the screenwriters know you need a powerful villain, and the action needs to keep flowing. They deliver on both.

Director Jon Watts also has a resumé heavy on comedy, including directing the Onion News Network. But then as his first feature film he made Cop Car, a mean little thriller starring Kevin Bacon. The set pieces on the Staten Island Ferry and at the Washington Monument are thrilling, but they’re also woven into the whole fabric of the film.

It’s a particular delight to watch Keaton. Ever since Night Shift, he’s been inventive and interesting on screen, even in lesser roles. After a long season out of the spotlight, he’s now come roaring back. With Vulture, he matches the effectiveness of Jack Nicholson’s Joker without the over-the-top schtick.

Homecoming’s almost two-and-a-quarter-hour running time flies by. This is a movie you could easily watch several times and be entertained at every viewing. The first time, though, make sure you stay until for the final tag after the credits. It is arguably the funniest one ever for a Marvel movie.

Captain America Rises

Of all the superhero series that have filled the screens of theaters – and filled the seats as well – the most pleasant surprise for me has been Captain America. The first movie, Captain America: The First Avenger, had a tinge of nostalgia that you don’t usually find in the genre, with the origin story set during WWII. It also had a compelling and semi-tragic love story between Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter; not many superhero movies leave you with a tear in your eye. Then came Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the best Marvel movie to date. So I was primed for Captain America: Civil War.

The movie was directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, the brother team who helmed Winter Soldier and who’ve been tagged to take over for Josh Whedon for the next Avengers movies, the two-part Infinity War. The script, based on the classic story by Mark Millar (who also wrote the base stories for Kick-Ass, Wanted, and Kingsman: The Secret Service), was adapted by Christopher Markus and Steven McFeely who’d done the previous Captain movies and are also doing Infinity War. While they each may not be Christopher Nolan, as a team they come pretty close.

As a result of an operation run in Lagos, Nigeria by Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Sam Wilson aka Falcon (Anthony Mackie), and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) that causes a large number of civilian casualties, Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (John Hurt) delivers an ultimatum from the United Nations to the Avengers: submit to oversight by that organization or be declared outlaws. He has an ally in Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) who’s racked by guilt from the Ultron affair.

Rogers sees the other side, that political interference could prevent them from being effective or doing what they see needs to be done. Wilson supports him and they refuse to attend the signing of the accord. But then the conference is attacked and it appears to be the work of the Winter Soldier, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan). Rogers believes Bucky is being framed, and with the help of Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), Rogers tries to save his friend. But there is much going on behind the scenes with a mysterious player named Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) pulling strings in the background while pursuing his own agenda.

After several movies each, the main actors wear their characters as comfortably as their costumes. One of the pleasures of Civil War is the new kids on the block. Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) joins Team Cap and brings a welcome dose of snarky humor. For Team Iron Man there’s Spiderman (Tom Holland). The character has finally been repatriated to Marvel after fourteen years at Sony and five great to awful films, and Holland gives me hope the upcoming Spiderman movie will be the former rather than the later. Best of all though is Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), who’s out for revenge after his father is killed at the conference. Boseman is a powerful actor as he proved with 42 and Get On Up. Where superhero movies are often operatic in their emotions, Boseman dials it way down, which makes his performance all the more compelling. His own stand-alone movie has been announced for 2018, and I’m already looking forward to it.

It’s fun to see the consistency of the Marvel Universe. They brought back William Hurt as Thunderbolt Ross, the character he played in 2008 in The Incredible Hulk with Edward Norton. They also again have John Slattery as the older version of Howard Stark, a role he began in Iron Man II.

I’ve mentioned in previous reviews how hard it is to make a good third movie in a series. Lord of the Rings managed it by pretty much filming all three as one movie, and it had the benefit of having a trilogy as its basis. Even when the third is done well, the second movie is often the stronger. Nolan ran into that with The Dark Knight, which still is the pinnacle of the superhero movie genre. The Dark Knight Rises was excellent and a fitting conclusion for the trilogy Nolan planned, but it will always be overshadowed by The Dark Knight. The same goes for Star Wars. Return of the Jedi was a decent final chapter for the original trilogy, but it couldn’t match The Empire Strikes Back. About the only time the third movie in a series was better was Revenge of the Sith, but then it didn’t have far to go to outshine episodes 1 & 2.

Civil War falls into the same slot. It’s thrilling, has a deeper plot than most superhero movies, the acting’s first-rate, and it builds to a satisfying climax, but it couldn’t top Winter Soldier. So hang your expectations at the door and simply enjoy it for what it is, a really good movie.

The Best Revenge

Comics have not been kind to Ryan Reynolds. His first foray in a movie based on a comic book was 2004’s Blade: Trinity, where he was hard to see behind Wesley Snipes’ ego. In 2011 he starred as the DC Comics Green Lantern, which was a major misfire. The only good thing to say about it was it was the entrance to the DC Comic world of screenwriter and producer Greg Berlanti, who has since adapted Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow for the small screen. The less said about 2013’s R.I.P.D. the better – the title is almost too much by itself. Saddest, though, was 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine, because he got to play a role he’d wanted to do for years, mercenary Wade Wilson (a.k.a. the Merc with a mouth and, more importantly, Deadpool). The movie messed with the character, grafting on other X-Men powers to Deadpool and, worse, sewing his mouth shut. For a character whose dialogue is a large part of his appeal, silencing him was a blunder – nothing unusual for that movie. But Reynolds continued to hope to redo the role, even doing a 3-minute test film in 2012. 20th Century Fox, the studio with the rights to the X-Men system of the Marvel Universe, showed the test to fans two years later and it garnered great excitement. Based on that response the studio finally greenlit Deadpool, with Reynolds as both star and producer.

Fox didn’t make it easy, which is something they have historically done (as fans of “Firefly” or “Dollhouse” can attest). They gave the film a miniscule budget in comparison to other superhero movies, and then cut additional millions from it so the final amount was around $58 million. In comparison, X-Men Origins: Wolverine had a budget of $150 million. Reynolds cut his own salary to make the movie, and they had to rewrite the script to take out other X-men characters as well as scenes that they could no longer afford. First-time director Tim Miller had only made two short films in the early 2000s, though one of them was nominated for a short subject Oscar. Following that he went into visual effects for games, developing “Mass Effect 2” and “Star Wars – The Old Republic”. The movie is rated R rather than PG-13 like almost every other superhero movie. The last superhero movie to get an R was Punisher: War Zone, which bombed in 2008.

But the best revenge is to prove the doubters wrong, and that’s what Ryan Reynolds has done. Deadpool grossed almost triple its budget in the first weekend, and it received a 8.7 out of 10 rating from IMDb and a Rotten Tomatoes audience rating of 95%, a better score than Marvel’s The Avengers. Miller now has the record for the highest grossing debut feature film ever, beating out the co-director of Shrek the Third. And as a final payoff, a sequel has been announced, likely for next year.

The basic plot is the Deadpool origin story. Former Special Forces soldier Wade Wilson is a mercenary who survives by taking enforcer gigs in New York City. If you need someone to stop a stalker who’s been threatening you, Wilson’s the guy. He frequents a bar run by his friend Weasel (TJ Miller) where he meets Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). He falls hard for her, and she for him. They’re deliriously happy until Wilson is felled again, this time by cancer that has spread through his organs. At the bar he meets the Recruiter (Jed Rees) who offers to heal the cancer and give him super powers. Wilson agrees, but then discovers the head of the project, Ajax (Ed Skrien), and his assistant Angel Dust (Gina Carano) intend to turn him into a super slave. A forced mutation turns him physically ugly while giving him the power to heal and even regenerate limbs. Wilson manages to escape and takes the name Deadpool while he seeks out Ajax for revenge.

The great fun with both the comic book and the movie, though, is that Deadpool knows he’s a fictional character. He constantly breaks the fourth wall by addressing the audience directly with his snarky comments as well as referring to items outside the comic book world. For instance, when the X-man Colossus says he’s taking Deadpool to Professor Xavier, Deadpool shoots back, “Which one: Stewart or McAvoy?” The audience knows right from the start this is not your typical movie, since the opening credits are from Deadpool’s perspective with generic descriptions (such as “Producers: A Couple of Asshats”) while the camera pans through violent close-ups in the middle of a car crash, all set to the song “Angel of the Morning” by Juice Newton. There are so many items referenced in the movie, the DVD commentary will likely run three times the length of the movie.

The crazy thing is, it works as an adventure story, a superhero original tale, and as wicked comedy – you could even throw in romance story and Hollywood insider commentary as well. Director Miller has pulled off a high-wire balancing act the equivalent of the Flying Wallendas. It helped that the comic was adapted for the screen by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, who pulled off a similar trick with Zombieland. (The opening credits call the screenwriters “the real heroes here.”) Reynolds also did some uncredited work on the script, and the actors were allowed to improvise in some scenes, but it all blends together into a movie that’s fresh, irreverent, exceptionally violent but also heartfelt.

The bottom line is it’s fun. It won’t be everyone’s shot of wry whiskey (pun intended), but if you like Marvel movies, or comedies such as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, you’ll likely get to the end of Deadpool with your mouth hurting from smiling and laughing so much. And do make sure you watch all the way to the end of the real credits – it’s worth it.

Big Laughs, Big Thrills

I never was a fan of Ant-Man when I was a kid. My earliest favorite comic book was The Fantastic Four – I started reading them with the first issue – and I enjoyed Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, and the others from the 1960s. But the idea of a miniscule superhero wasn’t big enough to capture my interest, so I ignored him. Thus I was a skeptic about how it would play as a movie. After seeing Ant-Man at an early showing last night, I’m happy to report the film is one of the best movies to come from the Marvel Universe.

There were other reasons for concern. The original story and screenplay was written by Edgar Wright (Shawn of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) and Joe Cornish (Attack the Block), with Wright scheduled to direct. For geeks, that was a dream pairing. However, the head of Marvel Studios, Kevin Feige, wasn’t pleased with the script and had revisions made without Wright’s input. When he saw the changes, Wright walked away. Instead Marvel brought in Adam McKay (Anchorman, The Other Guys) to polish the script along with star Paul Rudd, and gave the movie to Peyton Reed (Bring it On, Down with Love) to direct. Such conflict can often sink a movie, but instead it seems the best parts were kept in the script, and the movie even made its original release date.

The movie begins with a preface from the 1980s. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), the original Ant-Man, meets with Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), Howard Stark (John Slattery) and Mitchell Carson (Martin Donovan) to resign from SHIELD when he discovers Carson is trying to fabricate the formula Pym uses to miniaturize. (Note: There is gaff in the scene: look for the disappearing blood.)

Fast forward to the present day. Pym has been ousted from his own company in a boardroom revolt led by his protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly from “Lost”). He’s invited back to witness Cross’s announcement that they will soon perfect a new version of Pym’s formula, allowing for the creation of an army in high-powered suits that would be unstoppable by conventional forces.

At the same time Scott Lang (Rudd) is being released from San Quentin. The mechanical engineer had turned into a Robin Hood burglar to take back the money a corrupt businessman had stolen, but instead of thanks he’s sent to prison. When he gets out he tries to go straight for the sake of his daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson). It’s tough, since no one will hire an ex-con, and to add insult to injury his former wife (Judy Greer) is engaged to a cop (Bobby Cannavale).  Eventually Lang goes along with three other ex-cons (Michael Pena, David Dastmalchian, and rapper T.I.) to break into a house. It leads to one of the wildest job interviews ever.

Ant-Man balances off-kilter comedy with its thrills and manages to succeed on both levels, not an easy thing to do. While all the Marvel movies have an element of humor, the laughs are secondary to the action. In Ant-Man, it’s beautifully blended so that you’re rolling with laughter even as you’re breathing fast from the thrills. Rudd is the perfect actor for this role, handling the performance with tongue-in-cheek intelligence. Michael Douglas is in excellent form as well, capturing some of the cocky attitude from Romancing the Stone along with a droll humor. The writers gave him and Evangeline Lilly a complex relationship that, like flint and stone. keeps sparks flying, though they manage to pay it off in a way that makes it understandable.

While it isn’t Wright directing, Peyton Reed’s work captures Wright’s spirit and supports the script beautifully. I would have liked to have seen what Wright would have done if left on his own, but I have no complaints about the final product.

While Avengers and dinosaurs have been the big items this summer movie season, it’s worth it to aim small and see Ant-Man. The filmmakers have crammed a lot of delights into a tiny package. Also make sure you stay to the very end as there are two tags, one after the initial credits, and another at the very end. The one at the end is a lead up to probably the most anticipated movie of 2016

Big Heart One

In 2004 Pixar took comic book superheroes and blended it with their trademark animation to make The Incredibles, which lived up to its name. The Brad Bird directed feature had plenty of thrills as well as the cockeyed humor the Pixar does so well. Now Walt Disney Animation, which has made a strong comeback with movies like Tangled, Wreck-it Ralph, and last year’s mega-hit Frozen, has taken a step into the Marvel Universe with Big Hero 6. This time, they blend the story with the emotional resonance of Bambi and Beauty and the Beast.

Hiro (voiced by Ryan Potter) and his brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) live in the alternate universe city of San Fransokyo with their aunt Cass (Maya Rudoph). Yes, they’re orphans; this is a Disney flick. You could do a sub-classification for Disney Animation movies on whether the main character has lost one parent or two and almost all their movies would be listed on one side or the other. Hiro is a 14-year-old genius but is only interested in hustling at robot fights. Cass feels completely out of her depth with Hiro, so it’s up to Tadashi to play the parent. He takes Hiro to the university laboratory where he’s studying and introduces him to his lab mates: Fred (TJ Miller), Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.), Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez) and Go Go (Jamie Chung). Hiro’s fascinated with their work, and is in awe of their professor, Robert Callaghan (James Cromwell), who created much of the technology Hiro uses in his robot. Tadashi also shows Hiro his creation, an inflatable medical robot called Baymax (Scott Adsit).

The visit fires Hiro’s drive, and he creates an incredible technology for a science competition where the prize is entrance into Callaghan’s class. The creation captures the attention of Alistar Krei (Alan Tudyk), the billionaire head of Krei Industries, who makes Hiro an offer on the spot. Callaghan denounces Krei as an opportunist who cuts corners to make money, and Hiro decides to reject the offer and take his place in the laboratory. But on the night of his triumph, a fire breaks out in the display hall and Tadashi is killed trying to save Callaghan.

Hiro retreats to his room, but he discovers that Tadashi has stored Baymax there. Hiro thinks his work for the science competition was destroyed in the fire, but then he and Baymax follow a lead and discover a kabuki-masked villain duplicating Hiro’s work.  They try to report their encounter to the police, but the desk sergeant is less than impressed. Hiro realizes the masked man likely caused the fire that killed Tadashi, and decides that he must capture him. But to do that, Baymax needs a major upgrade.

As you’d expect with Disney, the animation is astounding, especially the busy street scenes. The characterizations are sharp and fun, in particular the four lab mates who reach out to Hiro after Tadashi’s death and get recruited into his plans, thus providing the 6 in the title. But what sets Big Hero 6 apart from many superhero stories is how it takes on such deep themes as the corrosiveness of revenge, the power of teamwork, and the cost of heroism. The movie uses its super powers to tug at your heart strings.

There are no songs in the film, so for parents who have listened to “Let It Go” a bazillion times, it’s safe to go back into the theater. The script (by Jordan Roberts and Daniel Gerson & Robert L. Baird) was adapted a Marvel comic by Duncan Rouleau and Stephen Seagle, but completely reimagined might be a better way to describe what the writers accomplished. The comic book was more of a straightforward adventure in the X-Men vein, but in the film it’s the labmates’ scientific accomplishments that allow them to craft their superhero characters. The original also objectified women, but that is completely rejected in the film, amen and hallelujah! Baymax was more a normal robot, but the Baymax in the film is an absolutely brilliant creation. Directors Don Hall and Chris Williams have a gift for blending both heavy action and heart-warming humor.

It is fascinating to see the blending of Marvel and Disney, two almost polar opposites in the animation realm, but it works beautifully. There’s even a direct nod at Marvel in the tag at the end of the credits that will warm nerd hearts.

Not Long Ago but Still Far, Far Away

Writer/Director James Gunn has balanced comedy and thrills before, with the comedic horror movie Slither that starred Nathan Fillion, and the superhero takeoff Super, starring Rainn Wilson. Neither of these were hits, though they have their fans. It seemed unusual that Gunn would be entrusted with a new Marvel franchise and a budget of $170 million (more than ten times the budget of Slither). But Marvel knew that for Guardians of the Galaxy to work, the thrills needed to be delivered with several stiff shots of wry humor. And deliver Gunn has.

On the face of it, Guardians of the Galaxy is a risk. It doesn’t have the built-in fan base of the Ironman, Thor, or Captain America series that have been going for decades in the comics. The Guardians first showed up in Marvel Comics in 1969, and then disappeared until 2008 when Dan Abnett and Andy Lansing reformed the team. Rather than superheroes on earth, you have regular guys in the far reaches of space – or at least as regular as a genetically-modified raccoon, a walking tree, and a green female assassin could be. With its off-world settings and space opera story, Guardians of the Galaxy has little in common with the rest of the Marvel universe. If anything it’s closer to the original trilogy of a story from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. As a place to live, that’s not a bad neighborhood.

After an unusual preface for a Marvel movie, we meet Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), an earthling who now wanders the galaxy, making his way as a scavenger. Quill also goes by the name Star Lord. On a deserted planet, he finds an orb that he’s been asked to recover by his mentor/partner Yondu (Michael Rooker). However, he’s interrupted by Korath (Djimon Hounsou), a servant of Ronan who’s also come looking for the orb. Quill manages to escape and decides to sell the orb himself on Xandar, the home planet of the Nova civilization.

Ronan (Lee Pace) plans to destroy the Novans, and wants the orb’s contents to help him obliterate Xandar. He’s assisted by two genetically-mutated adopted daughters of Thanos (Josh Brolin): the blue-skinned, bald Nebula (Karen Gillan) and the green-skinned, black-haired Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who’s engineered to be an assassin. (If you stayed around for the tags at the end of The Avengers, it was Thanos who showed up at the end of the first tag, flashing a very creepy smile. Another character from a previous tag – the Collector (Benito del Toro) from the end of Thor: The Dark World – has a longer role in Guardians. And do stay for the end of the credits for Guardians, where the tag features another legendary, even infamous, Marvel character.) Ronan dispatches Gamora to recover the orb, unaware she’s decided to betray both him and Thanos.

What distinguishes the Guardians story is how they form themselves into a team. With the Avengers, it makes sense for them to cooperate, even if Tony Stark doesn’t play well with others and one of them is a green rage monster who’s happy to hit friend or foe. With Guardians, they’re actively working against each other at first. When Quill tries to fence the orb, he comes to the attention of bounty hunters Rocket Racoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel), a walking tree with a limited vocabulary. They strike at the same time as Gamora does, causing mass pandemonium and resulting in them all being thrown in prison by Corpsman Dey (John C. Reilly). There Gamora becomes the target of Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) who has a vendetta against Ronan for killing his wife and daughter. Watching them come to understand that they must work together to defeat Ronan and save Xandar is a delight, and is beautifully written by Gunn along with his co-screenwriter, Nicole Perlman. (Perlman was an uncredited script doctor on the original Thor and is now working on a spinoff for Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow.) An even greater accomplishment is that you grow to care deeply for each of these characters.

Chris Pratt has transformed himself into a heroic physique, but he retains the gift for humor that he’s displayed on “Parks and Recreation” for five years. Zoe Saldana has displayed her action prowess in several movies now, such as Avatar and Columbiana, and she’s perfectly cast as Gamora. In a way she’s the straight person of the group, though you usually don’t that in a kickass character. Former wrestler Dave Bautista has always had the physique, but here he displays a killer simplicity. When Rocket says that metaphors go over his head, Drax responds, “Nothing goes over my head! My reflexes are too good; I would catch it.” Cooper does excellent voice work as Rocket, so much so that you forget it’s Cooper doing the role, while Diesel is able to mine both comedy and emotional depth from three words. For a movie like this to work, you also need believable villains, and both Lee Pace and Karen Gillan provide the right amount of antagonism for the story.

It has to be mentioned that what adds a cockeyed delight to this movie is the musical score. When Quill dances while looking for the orb during the credits, lip-synching “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone, you know this is not your ordinary Marvel adventure. A central factor of the plot is his mix-tape of 70’s hits, including songs like “Hooked on a Feeling” by Blue Swede and “Fooled Around and Fell In Love” by Elvin Bishop. It provides a giddy counterpoint to the action. (How his cassette could survive for a couple of decades without stretching, or where he could find batteries for his Walkman, is not explained. Don’t worry about it; just enjoy the music.)

Although this production was a gamble, it’s one that has paid off and keeps Marvel’s streak of hits going strong. It’s rare for a movie to reclaim the top spot on the box office list in its fourth week of release, but Guardians did just that, and has become the breakout hit of the summer. Needless to say, sequels are already planned. Marvel has added a wise caveat to the whispered line from Field of Dreams: “If you build it well, they will come.” And they’ll keep on coming.