Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Irreverent and Heart-Warming "Guardians of the Galaxy" Demonstrates the Mastery of Marvel

The chemistry of the central team makes Guardians a roaring success.
With Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four and X-Men owned by other movie studios, Marvel was forced to focus on lesser known superheroes when it began releasing films as an independent studio six years ago. Many questioned their plan to build multiple movies in an interconnected universe around the likes of Iron Man, Captain America and Thor, but Marvel pulled it off with aplomb.
 
Since taking those initial risks in the lead-up to The Avengers, the studio has been coasting a bit, chugging along on the strength of sequels as they put the pieces in motion to continue cultivating an expansive Marvel Cinematic Universe.
 
But could they get people to show up for a truly obscure property, and what did it mean for the company's long-term hopes if one of their films failed? The answer to the first question is a resounding yes, and the answer to the second question will have to wait until next summer, because Guardians of the Galaxy is a smash hit, and a deserving one at that.
 
One of the things I've enjoyed most about the Marvel output thus far is how willing they've been to mix things up by embracing elements from other genres. Captain America: The First Avenger was a period war film, more reminiscent of Indiana Jones than a typical run-of-the-mill superhero outing. Thor played up the Shakespearean overtones, and from what I've heard, Captain America: The Winter Soldier takes more than a few cues from the political espionage thrillers of the '70s, while next summer's Ant-Man is said to be a heist film.
 
This marks the third sci-fi franchise to cast Zoe Saldana as the female lead.
Although Guardians hits most of the beats you might expect in the super hero genre, it's actually more of a space adventure in the vein of Star Wars. In fact, one could argue this is practically the Star Wars film fanboys were hoping to get back when George Lucas announced he'd be making a prequel trilogy.
 
Like Star Wars, Guardians focuses on a rag tag team of assorted underdogs ultimately growing into a pseudo family with the common goal of thwarting an intergalactic evil. The team includes a kick-ass princess, a tough-talking mercenary with a gigantic partner whose vocal intonations only he understands, and a leader with a mysterious lineage. There's no robot side kicks -- instead they've got a bad ass warrior looking to avenge the death of his family -- but, overall, it's pretty damn familiar.
 
That being said, this isn't just some Star Wars clone. Even though they are similar in broad strokes, the lead characters here are all uniquely defined and well inhabited, and beyond that, they are surrounded by a world that is densely populated and  feels authentically lived in. Besides Guardians operates on a way loopier energy -- in truth, it plays like a film you'd find in the middle of a spectrum that had Star Wars at one end and Spaceballs at the other.
 
As Peter Quill/Star Lord, Chris Pratt officially announces himself as a movie star, proving more than capable of carrying a blockbuster on his shoulders. He's been doing a nice job of modulating his ascendance in Hollywood over the last few years, parlaying his successful comedic performance on Parks and Recreation into a number of diverse film roles in the likes of Moneyball, Her and Zero Dark Thirty. With this, The Lego Movie and next year's Jurassic World, things are going into overdrive for the hardworking actor.
 


A post-credit cameo by Howard the Duck is a nice nod to the last time a
Marvel property this weird made it to the big screen. That film was produced
by George Lucas, whose Star Wars clearly influenced Guardians.

But the best-in-show work involves the motion capture characters. Watching Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel), it's hard not to think of Jar Jar Binks -- how this movie could do this type of thing so perfectly after The Phantom Menace flubbed it so badly is astonishing; and I don't just mean that in reference to the quality of the special effects.
 
Some reviews have commented that the film wastes many of it's best known actors in little roles (and this beside casting the two biggest draws as CGI characters). However, while that is sometimes true (Glenn Close's presence is pointless), the likes of John C. Reilly and Benicio Del Toro get to steal a few scenes while adding a believable depth to the proceedings.
 
The film isn't all perfect. Freshness and tone represent the film's greatest strengths, but there are parts where Guardians gets a little too quippy, and it's ultimately just another in a long line of action movies that require the heroes keep a powerful doohickey out of the hands of the bad guys (snore).
 
Furthermore, this is yet another Marvel movie where said bad guys barely rate. Thanos (Josh Brolin) is little more than window dressing, and Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) is only a marginally better version of Malekith, the super shitty baddie from Thor: The Dark World. However, I will give the film one thing -- it does include Yondu (Michael Rooker), who, in just a few scenes, becomes the most interesting non-Loki antagonist the Marvel movie universe has to offer (for those keeping track of the Star Wars parallels, he's kind of the film's Jabba the Hut).
 
I could probably go on and on about the film for quite a while, but all you need to know is that it works like gangbusters, mostly because the central characters are so fun to watch together, but also because it has a lot of heart. There was a real chance for disaster here -- two of the five leads are a tree who constantly says "I am Groot" and a short-tempered raccoon -- but writer/director James Gunn and his cast and crew have really pulled off something special. A-