03 August 2014

First Impressions: Guardians of the Galaxy

Needless to say when starting any review like this - but I never really thought I'd be here writing that Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) movie is probably one of the best films the studio has ever done as well as one of the better films of the Summer and probably the year. It's simultaneously hilarious, thrilling, and sexy with some of the best character work done in any blockbuster by any studio. I'd like to discuss the merits of this film to the fullest extent possible, so SPOILERS forever, folks.

That's what really pulls me in - strong character work. It would have been so easy with this property to just disregard every character as really silly and stupid, and that's true for every character, but the film also treats them like real people with real motivations and feelings while embracing the inherent silliness. Rocket Raccoon is a good example of a pure novelty character who is really really ridiculous but also expresses this pain, anguish, loneliness, and guilt through demonstrating real feelings inside of him. He also has a genuine arc. This goes for just about everyone and is just one of the ways that Guardians throws us the unexpected.

So much of this film spits in the face of blockbuster convention, which should be the case for a James Gunn film after Slither (2006) and Super (2010). I'm curious about this motif the film has concerning somewhat old-style stagnant characters and new relaxed characters colliding in ways where the new characters, the brash quirky Guardians, triumph every time.There's these really eye-rolling clichĂ© moments where bad girl Nebula is making some grand villainous speech, then Drax just blows her up with a bazooka. There's no room for that lofty pontificating. Same deal a little later with Ronan, who is about to destroy the world and is bragging and going on like every "sophisticated" erudite villain ever, which Peter Quill interrupts with an impromptu dance-off to "Ooh Child." Full soundtrack here, btw. It's this blatant disregard for the kinds of space opera stock characters who are supposed to inhabit these films. Fuck you safe storytelling - climactic dance-off.

It's this battle of cinema. As if in the wake of Man of Steel (2013)'s wanton destruction without seeming regard for actually being heroic, Glenn Close delivers a line explicitly about evacuating the city on Xandar. There's these sudden shifts with the MacGuffin, an Infinity Stone (presumably, Power) and where it can and cannot go and how the goals of each team member shifts based on the escalation of the plot. It's fascinating. The team-up itself also isn't really contrived, and it's subverted as each member moves from selfish reasons for teaming up to realizing that they each don't have any friends because they're all assholes. Drax is probably the best example of this where he reaches his final goal about midway through the film, fails miserably at it, but then his character is strong enough to move on and have a moment of self-realization. It's fantastic.

The Cosmic mythos hits hard and fast but Guardians doesn't care about you catching up and doesn't bog itself down with exposition. You can understand fast enough that the Nova Corps on Xandar are good and the Kree (or mostly the Kree under Ronan) are bad, and that's all you really need to know. It doesn't worry about why Quill was abducted at such a crucial moment in his life or other extraneous plot elements that would slow down the story. It's crisply only concerned with character, which is highly unconventional. With that all said, Ronan isn't particularly interesting, save as a foil for the irreverent Guardians, because of his incredibly self-serious nature. This is again a feature of that battle between old and new cinema, particularly superhero cinema, which can easily be read as a potshot at DC, which has moreover self-regarded its movie properties as high art while Marvel tends to like to have fun in its sandbox.

It's a kind of insane movie where every character is comic relief but also able to play straight. Drax is one of the more intense presences, but his failure to understand metaphor and scenes like this make him the straight man that gets the most laughs. That's probably the best character-building scene of the movie, by the way, and probably all of summer. Everyone has this mix of comedy and pathos that's really rewarding to watch. Even Groot, the braindead tree gets a scene where he instantly kills a ton of dudes, seems overpowered, and then makes up for it with just a goofy grin to let you know he's more human under that bark than the majority of other blockbuster characters out there. Guardians nails this balance time and time again which makes it so damn watchable.

There's these other moments like when Quill saves Gamora from space (I don't know how this works, who cares), and then like, says something really meaningful about his feelings about her which then devolves into basic asshole hitting on her, which she immediately sees through. It's just that irreverence for the trashy typical romantic beats and overused dialogue that sets this film apart. They act like real human beings! From a feminist standpoint it also avoids the issue of its female characters lacking agency, instantly falling under men's magical wieners, and being totally subservient characters. They're real people! Everyone is a real person! The fucking talking raccoon has his own balanced needs and desires! I wouldn't be as excited if every movie pulled this off, but no one does! It makes me so happy.

This is also probably the most well-cast superhero film since Robert Downey, Jr donned a suit of iron. On some basic level that's really the fault with weaker flicks like Green Lantern (2011) or The Incredible Hulk (2008) - the film never recovers from that initial miscasting and no one can get on board. Bautista was born to play Drax even more than he was to play the Gold Man. Zoe Saldana has collected her fair share of heroine ass-kicker roles, but her turn as Gamora is equally tortured, cold, hopeful, and full of agency. It's somewhat disappointing to see that one trope of chicks fighting each other isn't subverted at all, but Karen Gillan's Nebula is a pretty decent jealous twisted foil for her.

The two big voice actors, Vin Diesel as Groot and Bradley Cooper as Rocket, though, tend to outshine everyone else in the cast. Diesel reminds us of what he did in The Iron Giant (1999) and what a talent he has for these specific kinds of characters. He needs to do more of this kind of work and less movies featuring cars or Riddick. Well, I really like those movies, but voice acting is at least a decent retirement plan.

Rocket is such a complex character and Cooper somehow nails him without ever really picturing him as the voice. It's not phoned in at all. He brings a good mix of talent both comedic and dramatic that he's showcased in films ranging from The Hangover series to yes, two Oscar-nominated performances. Who knew he also had voiceover talent?

There are plenty of really quick bits with some really decent actors that aren't really given time to develop (though that's only because we tend to think highly of John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, and Benecio del Toro - but their chracters don't need to be in this film more), but we should lastly be chatting about Chris Pratt, who, with the obligatory Marvel ab scene, cements himself as a live action action star in addition to his own voice work in this year's LEGO Movie (2014). How is the doofy Andy from Parks and Rec suddenly fast becoming one of the biggest stars in Hollywood? It's that mixture of loveability, refreshing well-received material, and actually distinctive interesting work. It's what separates him from the tremendous rabble of replaceable young white dudes in Hollywood trying to become the next big thing.

The film also large centers around Peter Quill's Walkman (see Soundtrack, above), which provides an incredible anachronistic beat that offers the film most of its charm as well as a symbol of Quill's complicated relationship with his mother and her death, which is something that he's really not able to accept until he grows as a person with real contact with other characters by film's end. Each of the Guardians is in some way the last of their kind, and the film demonstrates Peter's loss of Earth through this subtle but still achingly lonely expression of his devotion to his music. Blue Swede, "Hooked on a Feeling" - "That's MY song!" he exasperates to an unsympathetic blue guard: Peter for better or worse is trapped with 80s culture in addition to whatever the hell culture he's getting in Space, and his Awesome Mix Tape Vol. 1 is his only real connection to Earth, his mother, and a life back home he may or may not ever want to get back to. It's a pretty damn complex lead character.
Summer's greatest heroes...what the
 hell...how did this ever happen

Also re: the stinger: I love idiots like this that suggest either 1) a stand-alone Howard the Duck movie (there's no bloody chance of that happening or 2) a strong featuring role in Guardians of the Galaxy 2: Rocket's Dark Moon (2017). I don't understand why many people out there can't understand Marvel's shifting marketing tactics. Once upon a time in the far away world of 2008, Marvel used all of its stingers to set up the next installments of things to build anticipation and hype and to reward hushed whispers of "OMG AVENGERS!" and the like. They filled Hall H at Comic Con with full casts and announced crazy new projects like Guardians where we all went "what the hell are they thinking?" Marvel doesn't give a shit about that anymore. They are out of the business of proving themselves. They can just make ridiculous joke movies like this and cap it with ridiculous Howard the Duck jokes. It's just this giant "fuck you" to its audience that it's been favoring lately, even within mainstream projects like Iron Man 3 (2013) and most of Guardians, which as I said, tends to directly upend blockbuster cliches.

Should we even talk about the future of Guardians in relation to the Terrestrial Marvel Cinematic Universe? I'm going to tend not to care - when and if the Avengers meet the Guardians (possibly in Avengers 3: Give Us All Your Money [2018]), it'll be a shitshow of epic proportions. There's already a firm connection in comicdom of Tony Stark joining the Guardians, and with the numerous Infinity Stone drops and Drax's Thanos hatred, it does all seem like a long but inevitable collision course.

So yeah, I loved this flick. It's that rare kind of funny, good-feeling film that still contains a lot of heart and soul amid its goofiness that all Summer Blockbusters need to learn from. It is a very distinct and difficult style to pull off, though, and it's evident already that audiences have responded pretty well. I'm really curious about where this franchise can go and intersect with the rest of Marvel's cinematic baby, but for now I find a film without a great deal of flaws that strikes new and interesting ground where so many others have failed. Hail Xenu.

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