Marvel's cinematic universe of superheroes has become one of the most successful movie franchises ever. So it's easy to forget that less than a decade ago, Iron Man and Captain America weren't even on the radar of many filmgoers.
Now, Marvel's pinning its summer blockbuster hopes on an outer-space misadventure that features heroes from one of its more obscure comic book titles: Guardians of the Galaxy. They're hoping to create a Star Wars-scale epic — with a director who's never directed anything this big: James Gunn.
"The Guardians of the Galaxy are a bunch of criminals and misfits, most of them are orphans of one type or another who don't fit in anywhere else in the world," he tells NPR's David Greene.
They include a would-be interstellar outlaw called Starlord, Gamora the green woman, a walking, talking tree named Groot, and a homicidal raccoon named Rocket, who's voiced by Bradley Cooper. "Many of them are the only members of their species, and they come together and find a cause greater than themselves," Gunn says.
On Rocket Raccoon
Rocket's this mutated little beast, he's a character from the island of Dr. Moreau, he's a small animal who was taken and experimented upon, and turned from this little innocent animal into something that was completely and utterly alone in this world, because there's nothing else like him. And he has no attachment to anything else except this talking tree, who he doesn't really treat too well in the first place.
On getting the audience to identify with Rocky and his mostly non-human team
I identify with all of them, I think that at the heart of this story, strangely, I think there's a story about a boy's relationship to his mother — which is Starlord and his mother, who he leaves Planet Earth and his mother dies at the beginning of the film, and all he has left from his mother is this cassette tape, this mix tape that she made for him of her favorite songs. And I think that there's a lot of movies about boys and their fathers, and there's some movies about girls and their fathers or girls and their mothers. But for there to be a story about a male child and his relationship to his mother is a sort of unique thing, especially for a spectacle film with, you know, a spaceship chase and space battles and talking raccoons and so on.
On what he learned from working with Troma, the famed independent horror-comedy studio
The first movie I made was a movie called Tromeo and Juliet, and I truly learned every practical aspect of filmmaking from making that film. I wrote the script, you know, we had location scouts, they couldn't find the location, so I had to go out and find the locations myself at various businesses and get the signatures, I learned about that. We started filming the movie, I got to choreograph the sex scenes, I got to learn about prosthetic effects, you know, I edited the movie, I got to work on every single aspect of the movie A through Z, through the designing the poster and booking it into theaters. I think the people that have had that kind of experience making films, they're in the hundreds.
On whether a former Troma director can fit in on the A-list
I really felt like it was a movie that I needed to make. I grew up loving big budget spectacle films — I mean, Star Wars changed my life as a kid. You know, the most relevant films today are truly spectacle films. Those are the films that people go to see in the theaters today. And it's important for me to be relevant. And yet I feel like most spectacle films have become so boring, where story isn't important, where they try to get so dark and so brooding that it really becomes sort of pathetic. And where they're just sort of one explosion after the next with just no connective tissue whatsoever. And I felt like the movie needed me, frankly!
The coal industry made its presence known in Pittsburgh this week for public hearings on President Obama's controversial plan to address climate change. A key element is rules the Environmental Protection Agency proposed in June. They would cut greenhouse gas emissions — chiefly carbon dioxide — from existing power plants. The national goal is 30 percent by 2030, based on 2005 levels.
Coal has much to lose under the rules. The EPA says power plants make up about a third of the greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S, and coal is used to generate nearly 40 percent of electricity today. States have a variety of options for meeting their reduction targets, but in coal country the industry and its workers are worried about the future.
At an industry rally Wednesday, Joel Watts with the West Virginia Coal Forum opened the event with a prayer. Referring to "God-given coal fields" his prayer took aim at the White House and EPA. "Give us the strength to stand strong against those who lie to us and hide behind their laws," prayed Watts. After "amen" there was applause.
Few here mention climate change. They focus instead on jobs and the economy. "If you shut coal down you lose miners. Miners lose money and they can't get out and shop. So it affects other businesses — it affects your community," says Kathy Adkins, a nurse in Madison, West Virginia who's married to a retired coal miner.
This theme continued at EPA's public hearing at the federal building in downtown Pittsburgh. West Virginia's Democratic Secretary of State Natalie Tennant called for more federal investment in technologies to capture carbon from burning coal and then store it before it escapes into the atmosphere. "There is no reason to pit clean air against good-paying jobs," testified Tennant, "West Virginia can lead the country in developing coal technology that supports both."
But those who want to replace coal plants with cleaner forms of electricity see opportunity with these new rules. At an event organized by environmental groups, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto spoke about a "new energy economy."
"We're not being dismissive of our brothers and sisters that are part of the older energy economy," said Peduto. "We want to bring them along and give them good jobs and opportunities in a new economy."
EPA officials heard oral comments this week from an estimated 1,600 people in four cities across the country: Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Denver and Pittsburgh. Each person was given five minutes.
Patricia DeMarco, a professor at Carnegie Mellon Univesity's Green Sciences Institute, thanked the EPA for developing the proposed rules. "We are facing the definitive challenge of our time: the need to shift from a fossil-fueled economy to a renewable and sustainable economy," said DeMarco.
Others talked about the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to avoid future effects of climate change.
"It's those who are marginalized that will feel the full brunt of climate change," said Kathy Dahlkemper, county executive in Erie County, Pennsylvania. "The price of food likely will increase, and the poor are almost always the hardest hit when we have harsh, weather-related disasters."
The EPA says it already has received around 300,000 comments on the proposed rules. The deadline for submitting written comments is October 16. The agency expects to issue final rules next June.