At the height of their powers, the corporate overlords of Marvel Entertainment have decided to show that they in fact, have a sense of humor about themselves. The “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” a series of interconnected blockbuster adaptations of Marvel comic and superhero properties, was never truly lacking comedy; however most of these films are built on a foundation of self-seriousness and unwavering devotion to the source material. The comic book studio seems to fear that if the “sacredness” of its fiction isn’t diligently guarded, both fans and the uninitiated may start questioning whether all these fellows in color-coded spandex merit quite so much attention. As such few of the films ever take a risk in terms of providing a welcome spin on the material or using these properties to achieve something a little more ambitious than offering triple-A form blockbuster fun.
Enter Guardians of the Galaxy, a space adventure film based on a comic property that was not as ingrained into the pop culture as say Captain America or the Hulk. Since Guardians is not as prolific, Marvel has the advantage of taking this into directions they can’t take with the rest of their pantheon. Guardians opt for irreverence and pop art. It is a movie designed to entertain in quirky and off-kilter ways but unfortunately the specter of what has come to be known as the “Marvel ‘house-style’” looms over the proceedings and prevents it from going anywhere we haven’t already gone.
The biggest problems are the pangs of familiarity about the film. The core story is about a group of ragtag individuals who must triumph over their personality clashes and ego in order to team-up to defeat “evil” which ties into Marvel lore. On the way they discover the importance of friendship and family while kicking serious butt to save the world in a big epic showdown. Sound familiar? That’s because at its core, Guardians recycles most of the same beats from Marvel’s 2012 blockbuster, The Avengers. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing, considering Avengers’ form & function are quite good and worthy of emulation, the problem lies in the fact that Guardians doesn’t bother to go outside the lines of Marvel’s coloring book. It does however have a different set of crayons.
I can’t stress enough that this is an incredibly enjoyable movie. There is a raw cinematic energy about the film that is catchy and intoxicating, it’s like the kind of party you tell your friends about even months after the fact. It’s a largely successful franchise-launcher that’s far sillier and freewheeling than most Marvel fare, no doubt due to originating from a more obscure corner of the comic-book universe. It is written and directed by James Gunn, an alumnus of “trash film” studio TROMA and who was the auteur behind memorable genre pics Super, Slither and even wrote Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake. He is a very distinct filmmaker with a predilection for the bizarre and irreverent (often lowbrow). This time, Gunn makes it to mainstream Hollywood while still maintaining his style (for the most part). The jokes keep coming fast and furious and are mostly of the scatological variety (when not slipping into pop-culture reference territory), and Gunn does OK with the action scenes given that they’re basically mostly weight & texture-less computer animations and few audiences ever expect actual coherence in action anymore. And the best part of the film is the charming cast and “chemistry” with one another. On the surface the film seems to be operating and is held together by the same principles as JJ Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek: entertaining and stylish fluff that is definitely enjoyable in the moment but considerably less so upon serious reflection.
Guardians of the Galaxy is carried entirely by the eccentricities of James Gunn and more importantly, the cast he has assembled. Chris Pratt from NBCs sitcom Parks & Recreation plays the foppish rogue, Peter Quill aka “Star Lord.”Pratt plays him as a kid who thinks they’re cooler than they actually are; which clashes clumsily with the obligatory hyper-competence audience demands from their action heroes. Pratt’s goofy “kid in the candy store” act is undeniably charming when Quill isn’t aping Star Wars’ Han Solo and Iron Man. Joining him are Computer-generated characters Rocket Raccoon and golem-like talking tree Groot, voiced by Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel respectively. Rocket has an attitude problem and Groot (who can only speak in variations of “I AM GROOT”) as his partner, play like your standard-issue buddies from a cop-comedy evoking Riggs and Murtaugh from Lethal Weapon. Another addition is WWE wrestler, Dave Bautista as “Drax the Destroyer,” a musclebound ex-con with a thirst for vengeance. Drax’s brutality is juxtaposed humorously with his formal speech-patterns and an ongoing gag where he can only understand things “literally.” Finally there is the green-skinned space assassin Gamora, played by sci-fi/action mainstay Zoe Saldana who is easily the weakest link in the main cast as the film does not seem to respect her as a fully-formed character and she’s given little to do other than strike “sexy” poses while occasionally waving giant weapons around. Gamora, like many female characters in comics, is treated by the story as little more than an object in the macho-dominated power fantasy permeating itself throughout despite her direct connections to many of the film’s driving forces.
Speaking of forces driving the film, actor Lee Pace is transformed by Hollywood makeup magic into Marvel heavyweight “Ronan the Accuser” Pace plays him flamboyantly but it comes off generic for the most part with mostly monologues, yelling and sneering. Karen Gillan as Gamora’s sister/rival, Nebula, also suffers from the same problems Gamora except multiplied given her minimized screen time. Rounding out the cast are Michael Rooker, Josh Brolin, Glen Close and John C Riley: all character actors struggling to make the biggest impression with the least amount of screen time. The movie largely belongs to Quill, Gamora, Rocket, Groot and Drax: our titular “Guardians” and during the times they were not on screen, the film tends to grind to a halt.
The film halting is indicative of larger problems but for the most part they can be summed up simply: the film devolves into a groan-inducing festival of exposition about MARVEL MOVIEVERSE LORE. The obsession with Marvel lore and adherence to the confines of Marvel’s “house style” tend to suffocate filmmaker James Gunn’s personal eccentricities and distinct capabilities. It’s clear that Gunn is in love with his quirky cast and the possibilities from this lesser-known part of Marvel. All the more clear is Gunn’s enthusiasm for the irreverent tone of the comics themselves; there are clear parallels with Gunn’s own work and some of the works of the current creative teams on the book (Brian Michael Bendis’ current run in particular). However, Marvel movies are a brand and sometimes that means overruling creative vision with brand consistency. The film largely compromises Gunn’s work in favor of delving into the fictional lore and also in keeping with the form and function of the other films.
Design-wise the movie certainly moves away from the candy overlit artifice of the other Marvel films in favor of its own style. However, for a movie billed as an adventure of galactic proportions, MOST of it takes place in narrow industrial corridors. Another issue is that the movie rarely seizes the opportunity to really let loose with the creatures and make-up effects. Audience mileage may vary on such things though since aesthetic design appeal is largely in the eye of the beholder however there is a feeling of restraint throughout. When the film is alive however we get scenes like the time we are formally introduced to a character played by Benicio Del Toro, since the setting for his character bares the creative ambiance akin to a film like The Fifth Element. Another source of contention for the film is the humor. And at its heart, Guardians of the Galaxy is indeed a comedy. When Gunn’s personal brand is not on display, the film does suffer from this veneer of irony-based detachment. Most of the characters and the film itself is built on a foundation of a seemingly sardonic voice but it more often than not plays off as the sort of detached “snark” that seems to be en vogue for genre fiction these days.
Guardians of the Galaxy is an engaging pulpy space-adventure romp with enough unique quirks and a winning eccentricity to carry it. It’s fast, fun and energetic. Its problems stem from conforming its identity to the Marvel franchise mold. Must all these films end the same way, with a long and loud consequence-free visual effects reel? The female characters and antagonists come off as such epic bores whom the film never treats with any sort of respect as fully-formed characters. The humor and unique design aesthetics keep the film distinct and charming enough but their appeal is incredibly rooted in audience taste. Finally, the screenplay could have used some fine-tuning along with the action set-pieces and choreography bringing it to life. Despite the obvious compromises with the overlords of Marvel, the film, peppered with a respectable amount of self-awareness (that sometimes gets obnoxious but is mostly charming) and powered by antagonistic/crass banter, soars highest when it relaxes and lets the film play things fast, loose and irreverent. While the film is not the grand and noble risk fans were hyping about, I certainly hope any of the film’s successes (internal or financial) get to inspire outside the typical comics fandom and get kids, adults and even prospective filmmakers letting their imaginations run wild again. And unlike Gunn, they may be allowed to color outside of the lines.