Monday, August 18, 2014
Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, 2014)
Going into Guardians of the Galaxy, I had enjoyed all of the earlier Marvel Cinematic Universe movies. As definitive adaptations of the comics characters, they were all so carefully and calculatingly crafted, almost to a fault. And the construction of a shared cinematic universe was something truly unprecedented, which Marvel absolutely pulled off. But there was not a single movie in the meta-series that I could call a classic among blockbusters, or that I would rate as a personal favorite. I liked them all, I considered them all “good,” and expected I would always, without fail, show up to the theater to catch the next one. But, at the end of the day, they were “just” movies—something to fill the day, but not to direct significant emotional energy toward. Maybe it was partly because I never felt as much attached to these characters to begin with as I had to my favorites, Spider-Man, the X-Men, and Batman.
So I really had no idea what to expect, as I went to see Guardians of the Galaxy, a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie based on a title and characters that I knew nothing about. Would this finally be the dud to break Marvel’s streak of box office and critical successes? Some would say Iron Man 2 (2010) was already that dropped ball, or if you want to count it, you could name TV’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013). But the point is (and it’s merely a realistic view, not a cynical one), nothing lasts forever. And, as Marvel has begun branching out to draw from its superhero C-listers for source material, the end of its cinematic golden age has felt increasingly imminent.
Well, as of my writing this, Guardians of the Galaxy has already successfully crushed the competition at the box office, so it is no bomb. And if the previous films, good though they were, somewhat underwhelmed, was this to be the one I'd been waiting for all along? No, it’s quite a lot better than that, better by a mile than anything I would even have hoped for out of Marvel and Disney. Guardians of the Galaxy is not only by far the best movie to date in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but also the first space opera epic to fill me, as an adult, with the same feeling of joy I once experienced watching the original Star Wars trilogy as a child.
The world that director James Gunn and crew have created in Guardians of the Galaxy is grand, wondrous, and whimsical in the manner and on the scale of Star Wars, without ever looking like a Star Wars knockoff. It has a palette all its own, seemingly inspired by color psychology marketing, looking as though made up entirely of aluminum soda cans, with even the skies, perhaps lit by non-yellow suns, exhibiting a metallic multi-color sheen. Like the great vessels of Star Wars, the hero’s ship here, the sleek and brightly painted Milano (apparently named after actress Alyssa Milano), becomes, by the end of the film, a recognized and beloved character in its own right. The villain’s giant craft, meanwhile, with no conventionally discernible parts, or even a clear front or rear, looks like none other in science fiction, more closely evoking the ominous and unknowable monolith of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The galactic police officers pilot miniature fighters that don’t look impressive, until they link together to form an expansive barricade—inefficient, I would think, but nevertheless it makes for an applause-worthy moment. And even the industrial pods, not built for combat (yeah right!), are a delight, especially when one character crashes a pod into a spaceship, then uses the pod's mechanical arms to man the ship's controls, one ship piloting another.
The unearthly visuals of Guardians of the Galaxy still manage to feel of a piece with the Asgard segments of Thor: The Dark World (2013), although the events of the film are far enough removed from the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as to require no knowledge of the other movies. Thanos does appear, and it’s exciting to speculate on how Guardians of the Galaxy might cross over with the Avengers once “The Mad Titan” inevitably takes his proper place as the big bad for the Phase Three centerpiece film, but, for now, it’s actually quite refreshing how well this movie stands on its own.
What makes Guardians of the Galaxy work so well is, ultimately, not so much the visuals or even the world it builds, but the characters and story, which have real heart. Although irreverent and more vulgar than Star Wars, the film succeeds in presenting characters that are easy to like and to root for. One factor may be that they actually seem to like one another and play well together. The strength of the ensemble immediately shows from the moment Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) first meet. Each manages to shine and show off their particular skills and personalities in that first encounter, but what really makes it is the chemistry, even as their relationship is, at that point, actually adversarial, as they are engaged in a three-way struggle. The other two members of the titular gang of misfits are an anthropomorphic CG tree and a musclebound meathead played by a former pro wrestler (Dave Bautista). They are more limited, but still fill their roles well, and are essential to completing the group dynamic. This team chemistry was something painfully absent from The Avengers (2012) and never really emphasized in the solo pictures, which has been a problem, because characters like Thor and Captain America simply haven’t the depth to carry stories on their own, and come off dull with no one to play off of.
I want to take this moment to say how amazed I have been by the casting in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It has not perhaps been the pitch-perfect casting of the Harry Potter films, and there will always linger those controversies over the actors who were replaced from one movie to the next. But some of the gets have been truly impressive and even daring. They got Jeremy Renner, who could and has played the lead in action movies, to be basically a second-string Avenger. We had Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Redford playing supporting roles in the Captain America films. And now Guardians of the Galaxy has Glenn Close, Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, and Benicio del Toro, all in minor (but not cameo) roles. Reilly could play the lead in a very different kind of superhero picture, and Hounsou, as well, could be (and probably has been) the number-two in a cheaper comic book movie. But both actors here very professionally assume smaller roles in service to a film that is far greater than their performances. It says something about just how big a deal these movies are now, that even the bit players are name actors.
The real surprises, however, are Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper. Either of these guys is a big enough star to headline a superhero movie (albeit against my better judgment), but here they join the Marvel Cinematic Universe without ever actually appearing on camera. Vin Diesel puts in his best work since The Iron Giant (1999), providing motion capture and voice for Groot, a simple-minded tree-man, whose only words are “I am Groot,” delivered with varying inflections, according to the context. As for Cooper, I’ve never been his biggest fan, but he is legitimately one of Hollywood’s hottest leading men right now, and it is, once again, amazing to me that Marvel could get him to voice a talking raccoon. And his performance, along with some photo-realistic CG, really does bring the coarse character of Rocket to life.
The movie really depends on the complete ensemble, but if I had to pick a favorite among the cast, it would be Zoe Saldana as alien assassin Gamora. The lone female member of the team, she's also the straightest. But she's cool, sexy, and heroic. After playing the blue CG alien Neytiri in Avatar (2009), now Saldana plays a green alien in Guardians of the Galaxy. One could say there is something distasteful about this actress of color having to repeatedly play, well, "colored" characters in her biggest movies, as though Hollywood couldn't handle a black woman as the lead female in a tent-pole production. But one could also consider that, in painting her green here, the film takes conventional race out of the equation. It's possible that, if you weren't already familiar with the tremendously versatile Saldana, you might not know from her appearance here that she is black, and you would simply recognize that the character is strong and beautiful, without any racial qualifiers. And, for what it's worth, in the Star Trek reboot series, Saldana does play an African human, while the most prominent green alien woman was memorably played by the Caucasian Rachel Nichols. I'm pretty sure the green women of Star Trek have always traditionally been played by whites, so, on some level, it could even be argued that the Afro-Latin Saldana is breaking down a wall here.
The story of Guardians of the Galaxy doesn't break any new ground. It's a fairly conventional and universal "ragtag group of scoundrels band together to save the world" tale, selling themes of bravery, selflessness, and especially teamwork. But it is well-paced, well-executed, full of action, and ultimately succeeds because, again, you like the characters, and so you care what happens to them.
The soundtrack, full of hit songs from the '70s, has received much attention. It actually figures into the plot of the film, although tenuously on close inspection. The songs are taken from a mixtape put together by Peter Quill's mother, who passes away in the opening sequence, when Quill is a child. He is immediately afterward abducted suddenly by aliens, which is scarcely referenced after the film skips ahead to Quill’s adult life as the space-faring “Star-Lord.” The mixtape then is all he has left to remember his mother by, but it doesn't actually guide the action in any way. No, the film's sequence of events is instead set into motion by Star-Lord deciding, for no given greater reason than greed, to double-cross his associates on a deal involving a mysterious artifact, which leads to him crossing paths with the other likewise mercenary protagonists and into the crosshairs of the villains. The songs that play throughout the movie, representing Quill's relationship with his mother, may be the emotional core of the film, but the entire mother subplot could truthfully be removed with no impact on the main plot. It's not a major issue, but it's the one noticeable indicator of the possible contentiousness and disharmony between writer-director Gunn and the film's first writer, Nicole Perlman, as the whole mixtape angle was definitely Gunn's contribution.
On reflection, maybe one reason I loved Guardians of the Galaxy so much is precisely because, for the first time, here was a Marvel movie where I didn't know the source material at all. I suppose the armchair filmmaker and comic book geek in me always had very particular ideas about how I would have adapted The Avengers, and maybe anyone else's vision brought to screen, no matter how objectively quality, would have disappointed me. In the case of Guardians of the Galaxy, maybe I could not be disappointed, because I had no expectations. If so, I guess I had better continue to stay away from the comics, but expectations for the sequel will now be high, regardless.