Guardians of the Galaxy is not Marvel’s best film. At least not in my eyes. It isn’t as consistent as The Avengers and it doesn’t offer quite the perfect blend of heady thrills that we received in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. But it absolutely delivers, and when taken as a pair with Cap, it makes 2014 the banner year for Marvel cinema. Some have called it this generation’s Star Wars. I would call it this generation’s much better version of The Last Starfighter. Whatever you call it, it is a great way to close out the summer.
But let’s put the kibosh on the outright Star Wars comparisons while we have the chance. While it’s obvious that Gunn grew up with Star Wars and brings that kind of semi-grungy feel to the proceedings, the most recent film I can think of that is reminiscent in tone is actually JJ Abrams’ initial Star Trek entry. It cares more about movement and fun (while including some pathos) than being serious sci-fi. And the way Gunn grounds the film with the soundtrack is a much better utilized extension of how Abrams clunkily snuck the Beastie Boys into Trek on an “oldies” station. Both seem to care more about establishing the characters and their interaction than plot, at least on the surface level. In fact, I kind of want to watch it again so that I can do a bit better analysis of the two and how they compare and contrast. But then I’m also reminded because I feel a lot of the original Trek in Guardians, as well there should be considering the cosmic side of the Marvel universe was being developed back in the sixties and seventies. The character Gamora, with her green skin, is highly reminiscent of an Orion woman with a higher make-up budget. This only enhances the proceedings as far as I’m concerned. They are both playful updates that keep the spirit of the pop-art sci-fi they were born from.
After an Up-style, heady, depressing opening designed to inform the audience of where our protagonist Peter Quill comes from, it wisely buckles in to become a tongue-in-cheek thrill ride with some great characters and an assortment of wonderful moments that range from small and personal to universe-shattering. Unlike a lot of films of this ilk, there are even moments when the two collide.
Quill, desperate to make a name for himself as an outlaw with the nickname ‘Star Lord,’ was abducted from Earth as a child right after the most tragic and defining moment of his life, his mother’s death. It’s obvious why Chris Pratt of Andy Dwyer fame on Parks and Recreation was cast, as he imbues the same kind of childlike innocence in the character that makes you root for him even as he’s doing things that could be considered border-line despicable. The real brilliance of the casting is that he manages to give Quill a sense of palpable arrested development. While he’s gotten older and become a seasoned pirate, for lack of a better word, there is a part of him that has never progressed from that moment and the film pulls no punches with the obvious metaphors in this regard. While it is never mentioned by name, Quill obviously labors under a love of the Han Solo model of scoundrel. But rather than push that connection, writer/director James Gunn fills him with just as well-known but more left-field references to the pop culture he grasped onto as a child and hasn’t let go of.
In addition, Quill continues to carry around a mixtape his mother made for him. Played on his original Walkman (still in fantastic condition, surprisingly), it becomes a part of the character and the ’70s and ’80s tunes are built into the film in an extremely organic way. No doubt, the soundtrack will sell a bajillion copies. If one were cynical (and I’m sure there are a few critics who have already said so) I could talk about the film being so blatantly calculated with its feel good, curated soundtrack. I’m sure there are lots of other ways that people can complain about being manipulated (as if that doesn’t happen with every movie), but every example I can think of actually comes across as good, solid, commercial filmmaking. Everything that could come across as trite is embedded into the story or the characters and given a real excuse to be there, beyond being, to quote Mike Nelson from the Twilight Rifftrax commentary, “Coldly calculated to pander to your shrieking demographic.” As an example of commercial limitations being built into character, there are things like Quill’s use of the term “a-hole,” used to get the director his first PG-13 rating, which come across as part of his stunted growth.
And the characters are extremely well put together. The villains and side characters may lack a certain amount of depth, but Gunn does such a good job balancing and creating interpersonal relationships between the eponymous Guardians that one would struggle to come up with a standout. Given that means fully developing five separate characters from scratch (none of the main characters have been seeded in other films) and giving each of them a real arc, that’s not bad at all. Besides Quill, we also have Gamora, played by Star Trek alum Zoe Saldana, who is the adopted daughter of Marvel’s Darkseid analog, Thanos. She finally feels she’s found a chance to escape his clutches. If anyone gets a shorter shrift it’s her, but it’s not from a lack of trying. Part of her character simply requires her to have less of the humorous moments that pull the audience in. If her “sister” Nebula (Doctor Who’s Karen Gillan, sporting one of the more impressive make-up jobs I’ve ever seen) had been further developed, it may have helped as she does have that interpersonal relationship to fall back on, but we may have to wait for the inevitable sequel for that. Marvel occupies this incredibly unique sphere where their films work individually, yet their almost assured success thus far has allowed them a tremendous amount of breathing room. If a plot thread isn’t overly developed in one film, it can be picked up in another. Gunn does a fantastic job wrapping things up in satisfying fashion at the end, but there is more than enough to bring along for another film. It’s a balancing act that most of the Marvel directors have proven deft at and speaks well to the planning that has gone into their overall series. (Ant-Man could always be the first blow against them, but I hold out hope that Peyton Reed will finally get a chance to pull off his superhero film that he’s wanted to do since he was prepping what sounds like a far superior version of Fantastic Four than what ended up coming out.)
In addition, we have a surprisingly good performance from Dave Bautista, who made his name as a professional wrestler. Based on what little I’d seen of his performances talking up matches and his serviceable but unremarkable role in Riddick, I was expecting him to bring a strong physicality to the role of Drax the Destroyer, for sure. But I was pleasantly surprised by the comic timing that he brings to the screen. He gets a good hook that allows humor to be built off him so he can be taken in by the audience much more than a typical scarred up, tattooed, hulking ball of rage. The characters that will undoubtedly find their way into the highest echelons of pop culture, as kids will undoubtedly latch onto them like crazy, are Rocket (aka Rocket Raccoon) and his ent-like sidekick Groot. While they will surely be turned into cute plush toys, neither comes across as particularly adorable for most of the screentime with Rocket managing in particular to come across more as irritable. There’s little chance of him being confused with the kind of CGI animals that inhabit family films where screenwriters work out their issues with how they think their dads worked too much. No, our little Rocket is a hissing, mangy bag of annoyance. And while I still personally would not have picked Bradley Cooper to voice him (I had spent a good deal of time rooting for the David Tennant rumor to be true, giving him a gruff British Isles accent as he does in some media he’s appeared in), he does a more than serviceable job. Also doing his job well is Vin Diesel, who manages to give Groot’s limited vocabulary a surprising range. What in many ways could come across as a one-note character is, through Diesel and some excellent work by the film’s animators, given a surprising depth and unique personality. Sometimes he feels like a Miyazaki character that accidentally fell into the wrong universe.
Gunn manages to herd these characters through several action sequences and alien worlds, giving us a rudimentary travelogue through Marvel’s cosmic branch. For decades the company has had a history of characters jumping around in deep space but this section of the publisher’s continuity had largely been overlooked in favor of Earth-based heroes in the films. Some of this may be because arguably the most well-known of these characters, The Silver Surfer, is tied to the Fantastic Four franchise over at Fox. Some of it is certainly due to a lack of name recognition compared to a character like Captain America (though really, Iron Man was only a sixties cartoon away from similar obscurity to the general public before that movie was a big hit.) And some of it was, no doubt, due to worries about the nature of the ensuing film. After all, apart from Star Wars/Trek, there have been relatively few space franchises that have made a splash at the box office. Put it all together and it’s no wonder people thought this was a big gamble for the studio and their Disney overlords. We’ve been given peaks and glimpses to this larger universe in the Thor films and The Avengers, but on the whole it is a very different project for them.
However, the Marvel name has deservedly become a huge selling point and they made all the right calls here. It may be sci-fi spectacle, but they have injected it with plenty of the Marvel DNA that typically means a fun and exciting story that won’t depress the hell out of you. They put together that rarest of things: A special effects blockbuster with not just a pulse, but a soul.
(Four and a half damns given out of five)