“Guardians of the Galaxy” **** (out of 5)
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Lee Pace, Karen Gillan, with Benicio Del Toro, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, and Josh Brolin
Written by: James Gunn and Nicole Perlman, based on the Marvel comic created by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning
Directed by: James Gunn
Prior to the release of this film, I sensed a small, but vocal group of fans growing discontent with Marvel’s ‘stubbornness’. After all, fan hero Edgar Wright had walked from the “Ant-Man” project due to creative differences, seemingly because Marvel wouldn’t budge. Remember, this is a group that hit so hard on their gamble, yet seemingly couldn’t wait to plan everything out in ‘phases’, then not allow for different versions of their ‘plan’. Sure, they’ve been unbelievably successful, but I’ve been pining for them to have some fun. Even the latest Captain America film, despite how well-done it is, still operates at a spy thriller-level of seriousness. In walks Guardians of the Galaxy, a robust, strange, kind of gross, yet extremely funny space opera that’s a complete breath of fresh air for the Marvel cinematic universe. Aside from a few problems that are really nothing more than my own brain being finicky about songs, this film does ‘comic book movie’ better than any of its’ counterparts, and will likely be remembered for generations to come.
More than one specific part of the film, the tone is spot on. Upon the hiring of James Gunn as director, I was understandably worried- even with the bits and pieces that worked with his films Slither and Super, they certainly weren’t complete. I did, however, detect a specific sensibility from Gunn that would work for a proposed film about a bunch of rag-tag galactic misfits. From an opening scene where Peter Quill (Pratt) prances around an alien treasure room to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” to a chase on the galaxy’s capitol planet, cast and crew alike seem to know that the world they’ve created is far too ludicrous to be taken too seriously. As a result, Guardians sets a different set of rules, and comes off as quite self-aware, which is the right approach. Think of it as an ‘indie blockbuster’.
Star-Lord/Quill is the focus of the story, but unknowingly he brings four other beings to him in search of the stolen alien orb. On the galaxy’s capitol plant of Xandar, home of the “Nova Corps” (think Green Lantern Lite), Quill tries to sell this alien treasure. Soon, he’s pursued by the green-hued Gamora (Saldana), the enormous, deadly Drax (Bautista), and the dynamic but scientifically improbable duo of Rocket (Cooper) and Groot (Diesel). After tearing through the city in a three-way bounty chase, all five are arrested and shipped off to “Knowhere”, a floating galactic space skull, which just happens to serve as a prison. This motley crew goes from fighting each other, to gathering in a police lineup, to plotting an escape, to collaborating against a common enemy, all within 45 minutes. What feels like a rushed partnership in lesser films actually makes sense here- these five all have specific skills that mesh well, and they’re all outcasts.
Little does Quill know that his artifact-snatching actions have attracted the attention of Thanos (Brolin), the ‘Mad Titan’. He has both his son Ronan the Accuser (Pace) and his daughter Nebula (Gillan) scheming to acquire the power contained within this orb, and now that the five galactic misfits have it, they’re a target. Much has been made of the Thanos character since he first appeared on-screen in The Avengers– but if I’m honest, his menacing tease isn’t fully realized here. Brolin, while vocally capable of pulling off the role, delivers flat, antiseptic lines that don’t reflect the promise of his hype. I’m sure he’ll eventually show off, but Thanos underwhelmed here. The same goes for Ronan, who doesn’t appear to have much of a motivation for his aggression, nor is there much nuance to his character, other than his hatred for his boss/father Thanos. If there is a weak spot to this film, it would be the underwhelming presence of the villains. In fact, their lack of menace is what keeps this film from overtaking Captain America: The Winter Soldier as Marvel’s best entry.
The villains aren’t what make this memorable, however. Let us ponder the multiple possibilities for failure with this film- a talking, irascible CGI alien raccoon, a stoic alien tree that can only utter four words, a former pro wrestler in a pivotal role, a green-skinned assassin, and a talented, but unproven lead. In the hands of lesser talent, Guardians would be a disaster. As it is, Gunn and crew took all of those same possible eccentricities and spun them into positives. Pratt is a star- and he’s brilliant as Star-Lord/Quill, showcasing both his comic timing and his action chops. Cooper and Diesel, while just voices, offer such a depth of character with the small amount of time they have. It’s truly remarkable how Rocket and Groot are realized, both behind the mic and behind the CGI wizardry. Saldana, playing off her existing connections to sci-fi popular culture (Star Trek, Avatar), brings depth to her character and elevates it from being a simple hired hand. Bautista was a real revelation- who would have thought he could bring a dry, comic awareness to a character named ‘Drax the Destroyer’? What appeared to be a weak link with his casting actually stood out for its’ brilliance. There are new, exciting worlds loaded with strange, bold new visuals, prompting me (a critical sci-fi stickler) to fixate on the screen in wonder.
Other than the obvious comparison to another pop culture titan in Star Wars, one needn’t look much farther than another Marvel mind for a more prescient comparison. The late “Firefly” series and subsequent film entry Serenity are good, low-budget templates for this material, but Guardians stands taller. The ironic part is that Guardians, for all of its’ visual brilliance, actually owes its’ character chemistry in large part to Joss Whedon’s cult favorite. What sets it apart is Gunn’s inherent odd sensibility- the need to place a gross joke in the right place, or a gnarly alien to ground it in a different universe.
Guardians of the Galaxy does care about the larger “Avengers” universe, but only by proxy. The filmmakers have forged their own beast here, rife with the fantastical and the improbable, and it works. Ok, not only does it work, it’s wonderful. Despite my minor protestations (and they are minor), Guardians succeeds where others haven’t- bringing the spirit and fun of something like Star Wars back to pop culture, a task that even the latter’s creator failed to accomplish. There are brash heroes, skilled warriors, sly sidekicks, idealistic factions, and loyal friends. Simple? Sure. Pandering? Not at all. Guardians is the film experience the Star Wars prequels wishes it could have been- but as a function of artistry, the film isn’t the slightest bit worried about comparisons, expectations, or symmetry along the lines of a franchise. I appreciate that rebel sensibility, and it should be commended for being so bold as to cast a lead like Pratt, for being weird, and for coming off like the middle child that wants to be noticed, but is fine to do its’ own thing. Guardians is fun enough to make me say I “felt like a kid again”, and actually mean it.
*note: the mid-credits scene would be throw-away, if not for the already obvious Star Wars/George Lucas link. By getting the scene right, it shows just how wrong Lucas was/is, and solidifies Guardians as a new standard-bearer in sci-fi/fantasy.