Guardians of the Galaxy

August 2, 2014

GuardiansOfTheGalaxy

The announcement that Marvel was truly cashing in its credibility chips – even moreso than they did with Thor, for despite that character being well known, introducing a whole intergalactic mythos is a far cry from following the origin of an earth bound superhero – with Guardians of the Galaxy, a little known (and unknown completely to me) property into the Cinematic Universe that has become the Hollywood juggernaut of the last 8 or so years, was a huge surprise to many. Giving a huge budget to little known character that were based in worlds entirely unknown and populating it with B list stars was a ballsy move, especially considering there’s little earth-based grounding to ease the transition. This significant departure from the normal formula is probably why this has been the most anticipated of the Marvel films in a while, if only because there was a huge question mark around how it would be received. Handing over co-writing and directing duties to James Gunn, who cut his teeth at micro-budget schlock studio Troma and whose directorial efforts have thus far been intriguing, if not always successful, idiosyncratic genre exercises. The fact that we get a pretty traditional space opera drenched in the kind of Whedonesque post-modern humour that’s been one of the keys to the success of the Marvel enterprise is almost disappointing in its obviousness. Not to say it isn’t enjoyable – it is actually very much so – but for those of us looking to see what this multi-film franchise could really do, it gives us a clearer idea of just what the limits are, even as it expands beyond what’s come before.

The story is one of the freshest and most enjoyable of the dreaded “origin stories” we’ve come across, if only because there are new and alien worlds to play with and the motley crew is well-rounded and entertainingly put together. Peter Quill aka Star Lord (Chris Pratt) dances onto the scene with his walkman as he steals this film’s MacGuffin, an orb containing yet another infinite stone. He escapes capture by the forces of Ronan (Lee Pace), another bland villain set on racial superiority and genocide, only to be caught in a melee of bounty hunters including Rocket (a raccoon voiced by Bradley Crooper) and his walking tree, Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), as well as the turncoat assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who all converge to get either the orb or Quill himself. They’re captured and sent to a prison colony where, in their efforts to escape, they meet the final member of the crew, Drax (Dave Bautista), and from then on set out as a group of outlaws and ne’er-do-wells to do, unsurprisingly, “the right thing”.

If this all sounds pretty rote, it kind of is, at least on a basic story level. The villain is exceedingly dull and the film is easily at its most boggy when it takes time to consider him and the familial struggles of Thanos (James Brolin) and his children, Gamora and Nebula (Karen Gillan). Though we do get the actual backstory behind the infinite stones that have been at the crux of the franchise so far – they wisely didn’t overload previous films with the full explanation of their origins – it doesn’t really matter as far as what makes Guardians such an entertaining romp.

The most obvious triumph is the casting, and even if all the types are very familiar (a few Han Solos, a straight man, a big buffoon, a charming simple creature), they’re imbued with charisma by the actors and the impressive CGI character work. Rocket and Groot seem destined to be audience favourites, but other than a capable comedy duo, they’re imbued with a sense of melancholy and regret you wouldn’t expect. Drax might be the secret comedic weapon, as Gunn extracts maximum humour out of the very literal and humourless big guy. Saldana gets the short end of the stick, hampered with a murky backstory and a default “love interest” position, but her physicality rises above the script. Pratt holds everything together as Quill, who can switch between charming buffoon and convincingly capable action star (without ever seeming too slick) with slyly confident ease. The film is dotted with notable supporting characters, including Benicio Del Toro’s peculiar and menacing Collector as well as Michael Rooker and John C. Reilly standing out in minor roles.

Gunn is not a particularly interesting visual director, but in the Marvel house style, he’s just sufficient enough to not sink the venture. The real stand outs are the CG effects, which are cartoonish but seamlessly so, and the production design, which is truly spectacular at points. We’re hit with a number of titles explaining which ship or which planet we’re on, but they come so thick and fast only the most attentive will remember or care. What’s crucial is the unique design of each place, from the bland utopia of the central planet to the mining colony inside the head of an ancient god. Even the prison is distinctive enough to separate itself from all the other space prisons we’ve seen. It’s all very bright and colourful, as the Marvel palate tends to be, while still being recognizably different enough to allow Gunn to jump from one place to another with total abandon, not needing to worry about over-explaining where everyone is.

So the story hits every beat you’d expect, and it defuses the possibly hokey and cliché with a winking smattering of snark to let us all know that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. A big speech is immediately undercut with a knowing gag, and a big action sequences is interrupted by an amusing cut to a quiet negotiation for a prosthetic limb. It’s straight out of the Whedon school of Buffy, Firefly, and now the Avengers, where the absurd and the fantastical are brought down to a recognizably mundane level by a shrugging self-awareness. Gunn’s comic sensibilities lend themselves to this material, and most of the jokes land quite well – some significantly so, as in the case of a throat cutting gesture that spins out and out. There’s the expected massive space/atmosphere battle climax that has its little grace moments (a defensive web of ships is particularly striking) and nicely intercuts between the members of the team as they all carry out their tasks. Guardians understands that this is a team effort rather than just a one-man show, and it’s a minor miracle that it manages to give as much weight and development to all five of its members as it does.

It’s all very entertaining and romping and silly, but Guardians also exposes the limits to the project. There’s a definite risk in creating a film out of such a minor and mostly unknown team of heroes, but all Marvel has really done here is expanded the universe into something terribly familiar – a space western. It’s quite a good one, to be sure, but it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the larger mythology that’s being built by one film after another is never going to be anything of great interest or depth. Whatever originality comes from these films will be in small ways, poking through the genre conventions rather than totally upending them. They still have the time and the space for some good character development but as the universe expands, Marvel’s genre ambitions are showing their limits. If the product is as entertaining as Guardians of the Galaxy, that’s perfectly fine, but a little more ambition in the Marvel Cinematic Universe would be appreciated, and it feels increasingly less likely to happen.

 

-M

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One Response to “Guardians of the Galaxy”

  1. Tommy Says:

    I agree the Marvel Universe is beginning to slip- unless a director comes around that will put his/her foot down and shatter the mold.


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