Friday, August 1, 2014

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy (spoiler-free)



I saw Marvel's latest entry in their shared MCU, Guardians of the Galaxy, today, with my wife and daughter. We saw it in 3D (not IMAX) mostly because of scheduling; I generally eschew 3D if I can. Short version: this is another solid entry in the MCU, and should make a whole pile of money for Marvel. We enjoyed it thoroughly. Was it the best ever Marvel movie? Not quite. Spoilers are kept to an absolute minimum; if you saw the trailers, there's nothing new here for you (although they are somewhat misleading; there are pieces of dialogue in the trailers that definitely aren't in the movie).

Obligatory sfx note: the effects were flawless. Groot and Rocket especially, being CGI characters, were a wonder to behold. Not only were they technically flawless, but they were impressively physically emotive. There's a scene with Rocket in particular that really took my breath away with the pathos that they were able to put into a CGI character. It's a quantum leap beyond Gollum (and forget about CGI Yoda from Phantom Menace).

The rest of the cast is very well done, although Zoe Saldana as Nebula seemed a little flat to me. Chris Pratt as Henry Quill/Starlord steals the show, although Dave Bautista's Drax the Destroyer was a close second, with a lot of unexpectedly great lines and a real arc that let him change from the person we see at the beginning of the film to his final character. His was the character who most grew from their experiences.

Good villains make great movies, and Ronan the Accuser was a good villain. He actually had a real motive, which was wonderful to see.

There are some tie-ins with the rest of the MCU, specifically stuff we've already seen in Avengers and Thor 2 (which again shouldn't be a big surprise to anyone), and it should surprise no one that a GotG 2 is already in the planning stages. But what interests me more, as a fan of the whole ginormous enterprise that Marvel is attempting to create, is where Guardians fits into the grand scheme. There are at least three different sub-universes within the MCU; the Avengers, the Cosmic, and the Mystic. This film is of course the first real foray into the Cosmic (Thor and Thor 2 were only peripherally so, as the Asgardian worlds seem rather self-contained compared to the rest of the galaxy), and it most definitely links the Cosmic to the Avengers universes.

A lot of people early on said what a big risk this film was, and that may be true, given that it was based on a fairly obscure team of heroes in a new setting. But I see it more as testing the waters for other similar efforts, namely, the Cosmic universe. I think the inevitably positive response (and huge box office) of Guardians means that Doctor Strange will be seen as less of a risk in itself. It all weaves together.

Getting back to this film specifically, there is a lot of humor in it, but it's not nearly the goofy space-comedy that I was expecting. There's a lot of wisecracking from nearly everyone, but it's nothing more than one might expect from a particularly energized episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There are one or two truly bizarre moments, which will absolutely baffle those who aren't familiar with the comics (not just GotG, either; there's a bit of fan-service in there that is just out of left field, but all the more wonderful for it).

The action sequences were well done, but perhaps a bit pat. I found myself enjoying the repartee between the characters during the action than the action itself, which might not be entirely accidental. That sort of banter is where the relationships between the characters lives, and that is most definitely the heart of the film, just like it was in Avengers.

This is a terrific Marvel film. It's not my favorite Marvel film, though; Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and the first Iron Man definitely top it in my personal list of favorites, but it is a completely solid contender against stiff competition. Absolutely worth seeing in the theater, and it should have a lot of rewatch value on television, too. Don't bother with the 3D if you can avoid it, though; it didn't add much, and was as annoying as it always is when there was a lot of contrast between bright white and dark areas. Lots of double-images in those cases.

Factions of Greyhawk - The Scarlet Brotherhood

The Harpers
One of the new elements in the upcoming 5th Edition D&D rules are factions. Specifically, there are rules for factions in the Forgotten Realms as part of the D&D Adventurers League, which is the new organized play thing (is it replacing the RPGA? I've not seen anything one way or the other). They are, quite coincidentally, much like I had envisioned factions in my own Adventures Great and Glorious; player characters can belong to a faction and gain levels within that faction, and there are certain benefits from doing so. Basically, each time you do something that benefits your faction, you get one or two "renown points" that eventually take you up the ladder within the faction.

In the Forgotten Realms, the factions are the Harpers, the Order of the Gauntlet, the Emerald Enclave, the Lords' Alliance, and the Zhentarim. As far as I know, only the Harpers and the Zhentarim were present in the Realms before the latest incarnation, but I could very well be wrong as I've not kept up with it.

Now, naturally, my thoughts turn to the Greyhawk setting when I see something like this. First and foremost, I don't see any reason the faction mechanism can't work outside of organized play. In a home campaign, there are going to be shadowy and out-in-the-open groups, and having a nice set of mechanics to regulate how the PCs interact with these organizations could be beneficial to a lot of DMs.

The Zhentarim
Factions are of course optional, and not every member of a party need belong to a faction (or the same one!). A PC might go through an entire campaign without ever even encountering a faction, although another PC might find their interactions with a given faction to be central to their experience. It all depends on how the DM has set up the game.

Greyhawk is replete with such factions, that could be used to both support and oppose the activities of the PCs over the years. The Scarlet Brotherhood is an obvious choice, as is the Circle of Eight. I'd throw in Iuz, as he has agents across the Flanaess in various guises and positions. A campaign set in and around the City of Greyhawk might include the Rangers of the Gnarley Forest, and perhaps the Greyhawk Thieves' Guild. I'm not sure if the Old Faith would count as a faction in this sense of the word, but there's definitely some group of Druids in the Flanaess operating in a coherent fashion (the "Oaken Concatenation" perhaps?).

There are still some details yet to come about the mechanics of the various levels work (mentoring at level 2/4, downtime at level 3), but there's enough there to at least get an idea. Let's see how this works.

The Scarlet Brotherhood

Faction Overview

The Scarlet Brotherhood (also known as the Brothers of the Scarlet Sign) can trace its lineage all the way back to the vanished Suel Imperium. Although the hierarchy of the Brotherhood places its highly trained monks at the top, followed by assassins and thieves, it has agents and operatives of all sorts pursing its subtle and dangerous ends. Those who operate openly offer sage counsel and seemingly wise advice; those who are less open about their ties to the Brotherhood are ruthless in their obedience to the orders of their superiors, to further the end of one day seeing the Suel dominate the Flanaess, as is their destiny owing to the innate superiority.

Beliefs

  • The Suel race is inherently superior to all others, and the Suel are the natural rulers of the world
  • Evil is the only philosophy that will achieve our goals
  • Influence is preferable to control, control is preferable to force, force is preferable to failure

Goals

  • Protect the purity of the Suel race
  • Infiltrate the centers of power in the Flanaess
  • Establish a new order with the Suel people at its apex

Member Traits

Members of the Scarlet Brotherhood can be of any class, but must be of evil alignment. Most agents of the Scarlet Brotherhood will have been raised in the Tilvanot Peninsula itself and sent out into the world, but some few people of pure Suel blood are recruited from outside. All believe in the inherent superiority of the Suel race and its destiny to rule the world, although they are wise enough to hide that belief from outsiders, who might misinterpret it (or interfere with the Brotherhood's plan to see that destiny come to pass).

Ranks

  • Friend (rank 1) - faction insignia is a tattoo bearing the Scarlet Sign
  • Cousin (rank 2)
  • Nephew (rank 3)
  • Brother (rank 4)
  • Elder Brother (rank 5)