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Non-Review Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy hits a few bumps along the way, but it works very well.

The key to this would seem to be James Gunn. Like the best of the Marvel comic adaptations, Guardians of the Galaxy is a film that manages to find its own unique authorial voice amid the cross-pollination of Marvel’s vast cinematic universe. Like Shane Black on Iron Man 3, Kenneth Branagh on Thor or Jon Favreau on Iron Man, James Gunn manages to put his own unique stamp on Guardians of the Galaxy – a film that remains compellingly personal amid the apocalyptic 9/11 imagery.

Lighting the way...

Lighting the way…

While the film suffers from some of the structural weaknesses that are typical of Marvel’s blockbusters, its strengths come from the director and co-writer. Although set in a vast universe with epic stakes and impossible odds, Guardians of the Galaxy works best when it focuses on its characters, whether the human Peter Quill (with his “outlaw name” Star Lord), the killing machine Drax, the sentient and sensitive tree Groot, the racoon named Rocket or the prodigal daughter named Gamora.

Guardians of the Galaxy is a film that introduces itself to the image of Peter Quill dancing beneath the logo, to the tune of Fooled Around and Fell In Love by Elvin Bishop, playing from a cassette labelled “Awesome Mix, Vol. 1.” That is all you need to know.

Gotta dance...

Gotta dance…

At their best, superhero movies find a way to resonate with the familiar and extrapolate and expand that into a more epic frame of reference. Bruce Wayne confronts grief and anger at the death of his parents by transforming himself into a creature of the night. Superman is the outsider who fights for his adopted planet, ironically representing the best that mankind could be. Tony Stark is a brilliant engineer trying to build himself a future to atone for past crimes. Thor deals with family issues on a mythic scale.

Guardians of the Galaxy hits on these themes very well. The opening sequence introduces us to younger Peter Quill. Following the loss of his mother from a long illness in 1988, Peter Quill runs off into the night alone. He never quite comes back. Of course, Peter is abducted by aliens and taken into outer space, but the movie opens with our protagonist engaged in his own illegal adventures between the stars. Even commanding his own ship as a fully-grown adult, Peter doesn’t appear to have ever gone home.

Comic book fans might empathise with the Collector...

Comic book fans might empathise with the Collector…

That “1988” title card anchors the film. That is the moment at which Peter Quill was frozen in ember. That was the point at which he left and never came back. Even later in the film, he has difficultly articulating his memory of events. He opts to euphemistically describe that as the time he… “left Earth.” The last gift that his mother gave him is still wrapped in a drawer on the ship, as if he is afraid to open it and face her death.

The ship itself is decorated with cultural signifiers from the late eighties – troll dolls and Alf stickers and a classic cassette deck. He speaks of Earth’s “great myth” of Footloose, the epic tale of Kevin Bacon liberating a small town from the sticks up their butts using his “pelvic magic.” Even the film itself seems to be anchored in Peter Quill’s arrested emotional development. The opening scene is consciously framed to mirror Raiders of the Lost Ark.

"Go on, say Batman is the best rodent-themed superhero again. I dare you."

“Go on, say Batman is the best rodent-themed superhero again. I dare you.”

The movie’s design elements also hark back nostalgically, making it seem as though Peter Quill has escaped into an epic science-fiction fantasy as it might look to a child of the late eighties. As Nova Prime, Glenn Close’s hairstyle looks like it escaped the eighties. In the background of most scenes, the aliens are created through traditional make-up and prosthetics, with most of the CGI reserved for Groot and Rocket.

Guardians of the Galaxy never lets its character drama get too heavy. The gags come quick and fast, packed between well-staged action sequences. However, a lot of the charm of Guardians of the Galaxy lies in what is not said. A quick shot of Rocket’s back tells us more about the character than any awkward exposition. Although Peter Quill doesn’t talk about the death of his mother, his willingness to risk everything to hold onto the mixtape she made him speaks volumes.

Star (Lord) of the show...

Star (Lord) of the show…

Communication is one of the core themes of Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, and about how much can be said without words or in words completely divorced from their true meaning. Drax the Destroyer is introduced as a character who is rather literal-minded. During a confrontation in a prison shower, he fails to understand a casual gesture that Quill makes. “Why would I want to drag my finger across his throat?” Drax ponders, honestly confused by all this.

One of the movie’s recurring gags focuses on the relationship between Rocket and Groot, the two bounty hunters who find themselves drawn into the cosmic drama after trying to claim the price on Peter Quill’s head. Groot is only able to express himself in three words. “I”, “am”, and “Groot”; articulated in that order, as Rocket points out. However, Groot and Rocket find a way to communicate with one another despite that incredible limitation, forcing a surprisingly affecting friendship for two CGI characters.

I am Groot. Hear me roar.

I am Groot. Hear me roar.

The movie leaves it decidedly ambiguous whether Rocket and Groot actually understand one another. It’s possible that Rocket understands Groot as well as Han Solo understands Chewbacca, an obvious influence on their dynamic. However, it seems just as likely (if not moreso) that Rocket is simply projecting his own feelings and on to Groot. It’s possible that Rocket’s conversations with Groot are conversations with himself – a wonderful illustration of the movie’s recurring theme about saying more with less.

It’s an approach that respects both actors and the audience, without feeling the need to burden the script with pointless exposition or babble. James Gunn and Nicole Perlman’s script populates the world of Guardians of the Galaxy with a supporting cast that feels surprisingly fully-formed. Michael Rooker’s blue-skinned bounty-hunter-slash-dysfunctional-father-figure is able to say more with a wry grin than an awkward monologue. John C. Reilly’s Nova Corps member is a regular guy stuck in an odd situation.

Somebody's gotta guard the Galaxy...

Somebody’s gotta guard the Galaxy…

Guardians of the Galaxy works best when it allows the ensemble to play off one another in a relaxed manner, bouncing ideas and bickering pointlessly over how much of a plan Peter Quill may or may not have. Guardians of the Galaxy beautifully plays off the standard blockbuster movie moments. At one point, a villain arrives to confront the team, and starts monologuing menacingly. One of the enterprising team members takes the opportunity to use some massive ordinance to make a short cut.

There are other moments where it looks like Gunn might be having a bit of fun with the traditional superhero movie plot elements. Several of the characters can be seen yawning during the obligatory “slow motion badass walk ensemble shot” that we’ve come to expect in  a film like this. At another point, a prison break is juxtaposed against the mellow sounds of Escape (The Pina Colada Song), demonstrating just how unique the film’s flavour is.

Keep your shirt on!

Keep your shirt on!

The core ensemble works very well together. The script by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman, along with superb performances from Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel and wonderful special effects work, help to make Rocket and Groot two of the most wonderfully unconventional ensemble players in quite a while. Zoe Saldana does great work as Gamora, the member of the ensemble arguably least developed by the script. Dave Bautista is arguably the weakest link in the main cast, but he’s a competent straight man.

However, the real stand out performance comes from Chris Pratt as Starlord. Pratt has quickly established himself as the go-to-guy for cheeky out-of-their-depth lead characters. His work as Peter Quill is surprisingly nuanced, balancing defensive wit and hidden vulnerability. Pratt’s Peter Quill is perhaps the most “man-child-ish” comic book protagonist since Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark. He’s a fundamentally decent guy who has learned to pretend like he doesn’t care.

"Iron who?"

“Iron who?”

Then again, given that Robert Downey Jr.’s contract with Marvel expires with Avengers: Age of Ultron, this may be a calculated decision. With his distinctive mask and rocket boosters, along with his witty “overgrown man-child” demeanour, it is not too difficult to imagine Quill filling Stark’s niche in the shared cinematic universe, should it come down to it. It is to Pratt’s credit that the possibility seems exciting rather than cynical.

The problems with Guardians of the Galaxy become apparent when the film has to function as a big-budget superhero blockbuster, rather than simply a dysfunctional co-dependence drama. There is a lot of back story here that requires considerable exposition early in the script. Indeed, it seems like the movie adaptation may be more complicated than the comic books upon which it draws. There are alien governments and treaties and vendettas and agendas and so on and so forth.

Flying finish...

Flying finish…

(As an aside, one can’t help but wonder if the changes to the Nova Corps made from panel-to-screen were to distinguish the fictional organisation from the Green Lantern Corps over in DC comics. Here, the Nova Corps are introduced as a planetary government rather than an inter-stellar peace-keeping organisation. Then again, one suspects that any attempt to distance Guardians of the Galaxy from the disastrous Green Lantern is worth making.)

As with a lot of the Marvel films, Guardians of the Galaxy suffers from a pretty lame bad guy. In this case, it is the classic Fantastic Four adversary-and-occasional-ally Ronan the Accuser. With his distinctive battle armour, the character certainly looks imposing, but he suffers in live action. Most obviously, the character’s hammer makes it look like he’s a fan of Thor rather than a supervillain in his own right. More than that, though, his motivations and actions are stock summer movie baddie stuff.

All fired up...

All fired up…

Indeed, Ronan almost plays as a parody of all the stock and generic Marvel universe villains. He is a terrorist fanatic with daddy issues seeking to avenge himself upon the universe for past wrongs he feels have been committed against his people in general and his family in particular. There no nuance to this, no depth or intrigue. Guardians of the Galaxy doesn’t even bother to set up Ronan as a foil for the lead character. Peter Quill doesn’t meet Ronan until the climax. Instead, Drax is the one who has a person vendetta.

The problem is compounded by the fact that Guardians of the Galaxy is cluttered with potential foes. Ronan is introduced as muscle for Thanos. Voiced by Josh Brolin, an actor who certainly has the chin for the role, Thanos is up to nefarious and shadowy deeds – just as he was in the teaser at the end of The Avengers. However, Thanos doesn’t make much more of an impression here, despite the fact that we get a chance to glimpse the character in the flesh, as it were. He is a guy sitting in a chair.

Ronan takes his Thor cosplay very seriously...

Ronan takes his Thor cosplay very seriously…

The superhero elements of Guardians of the Galaxy buckle a little bit under the weight of the traditional Marvel formula. James Gunn holds the climax together quite well, even if it does feel a little overstuffed with the 9/11 “death from the sky” imagery that has become a stock feature of Marvel’s superhero films – playing a major role in The Avengers, Thor: The Dark World and even Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Despite assurances that “the city has been evacuated”, it still feels uncomfortable.

However, Guardians of the Galaxy manages to retain its quirk for the entirety of its runtime. When Peter Quill does get a final one-on-one confrontation with Ronan, it is a sequence that would feel out of place in any other blockbuster, but works beautifully in context. The movie’s mid-credits sequence may be one of the better ones attached to a Marvel film, even if it does nothing the build towards the next inevitable big budget blockbuster.

Shocking treatment...

Shocking treatment…

Guardians of the Galaxy is incredibly fun. It is a film that manages to retain director James Gunn’s voice while still fitting quite comfortably within the template of the wider Marvel universe. It does suffer a bit when it comes to checking the various boxes expected from a summer blockbuster superhero film, but its flavour is unique enough to excuse those minor missteps in the service of something that manages to feel unique and fun on its own terms.

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4 Responses

  1. Great review!

    I have to admit that despite being a superhero fan and having seen all the previous MCU films I never thought of this film has being a superhero story. It is an unashamedly space opera film that happens to take place in a universe with superheroes present. It isn’t just that we never return to Earth after the opening – Thor 2 had very long passages of time offworld after all – it is the sense that the gang of misfits that compose our heroes are a league above ‘normals’ when that doesn’t really seem true.

    Take Gamora for instance. Everything about her backstory suggests essentially a nigh invincible demigoddess, a female Thor almost or at least Black Widow with outright superpowers. Instead she gets outwitted in a fight with thief and a couple of grimy bounty hunters, then gets thrown in a perfectly ordinary prison (set in space but perfectly ordinary for the setting.) That’s fascinating. I don’t mean to say that she’s insufficently badass or anything – I liked the character a lot and Saldana’s performance – but the fact that it’s suggested she’s as much of a misfit and a loser as the rest and ultimately small beer in the galactic scene except for whom she is related is striking. The others have even more obvious flaws. They aren’t the Avengers, they’re the Mystery Men.

    Of course we have had flawed heroes before but when you get down to it no matter how drunk or obnoxious Tony Stark gets he is still presented as a “A Genius. Billionaire. Playboy. Philanthropist.” The Guardians of the Galaxy on the other hand feel for the first time more like regular people. That’s a strange thing to say about a walking tree, a space warlord’s daughter, a talking racoon and an interstellar conman but there you go.

  2. Sorry for the late comment. I forgot to do the review and I have bookmark folder with all the reviews in.

    Anyway great review. I Loved the film. Great music and very funny 😀

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