Above all, Guardians of the Galaxy is notable as the most auteur-like (yeah I said it) film within Marvel Studios’ ten-headed monstrosity of a pop-culture phenomenon. It is very much the product of James Gunn’s pen and camera. That it also happens to be the best film of the bunch is not necessarily linked to this fact, but you know, the connection is there after all. While Marvel’s other films have varied from ehhh to pretty good, right from film number two they seemed more interested in building up a brand than functioning as unique, thoughtful films with identities on their own. None are out-and-out bad, but fatigue set in fairly early, and only the original Iron Man really maintains its spark and, above all, its character-focused sense of nervy, anxious fun today (I also have a soft-spot for Shane Black’s profoundly messy second sequel for the character).
If one didn’t know before-hand, however, they might not have guessed this to be a film of the Marvel Brand. In fact, its chief asset, thankfully, is that it is so gleefully out of touch with modern filmmaking sensibilities. This is about as far as one can get from the current-crop of blockbusters that mistake dour and dourer for brands of filmmaking nuance, or the sort of blasé every-day action films of Marvel’s output. What it is happens to be something long-missing from blockbuster filmmaking: just a rollicking, damn good time. It is a movie, plain and simple, and makes no bones about being a movie. Its joys come in zany and slightly less zany varieties, and stands proudly as it lives very much in its silliness. It has a few moments (and characters) of pure, unadulterated exposition that serve no purpose in a film where “world-building” and “narrative complication” are not exactly strengths. But by and large the film is terrifically content to jump headfirst into its chaotic present-tense off-the-cuff-ness, where events cheerfully blend into further events with little need for logic of rationale or explanation. The film exists in perpetual movement.
And yet, it all comes down to character. Everything that happens in the film is ultimately grounded in the believable personas of the five left field heroes at its center, and the film works because it stays true to them amidst all the zaniness. And it makes complete sense that this is very much a film about character and teamwork when considering that the film’s narrative ultimately boils down to “big meanie bad guy wants to take over the world and has to find a gem that happens to have fallen into the hands of one man and several people who want to kill him for some reason but must now team up with him to thwart the evil big meanie bad guy”.
Of the five central titular characters, four are extremely well-constructed. The relative loser is Zoe Saldana’s Gomorrah (not because of her performance, but because of writing) with another lame attempt at saddling a female with the boring “stoic, serious” role in a film that undoes any valid claim to having a positivist “strong woman” argument going for it by clearly valuing the sillier male characters more. The others are all keepers though. Chris Pratt captures main character Peter Quill’s (Star Lord’s) Han Solo-esque cocky incompetence matched to a humanist core (pointedly intended less as another carbon-copy Han Solo rebel-with-a-heart-of-gold than a commentary on kids who grew up watching Star Wars and defined their lives as the characters – the film makes fun of Quill for his put-upon rebel artifice even as it champions for it). Dave Bautista is used surprisingly well as Drax the Destroyer, given a role that aims for endearing comic relief more than anything else (the character knows not sarcasm, and has a number of dead-pan lines reflecting his ultra-seriousness, utilizing Bautista’s semi-wooden-ness smartly and with intent rather than as a draw-back).
The standouts however are the pairing of Rocket the Raccoon (voice of a cock-sure, smarmy Bradley Cooper) and Groot (a living tree character voiced by Vin Diesel). Not only are both astounding feats of design, but they develop into real, human characters despite being respectively a genetically modified raccoon and a tree beast – they clearly care for one another, and Rocket especially fills out the Han Solo role with even more aplomb than Star Lord, having a greater arc and emerging as less a cartoon for mockery than a conflicted, haunted character. Groot meanwhile is just…astounding. He’s the sweetest, most innocent character in the world, and the film gets an almost unbelievable amount of mileage from his three word vocabulary (voiced, stunningly, by a Vin Diesel who gives real human emotion to the character by putting a different feeling to every repeat phrase to fit the context of the character’s thoughts). But, naturally, it’s the team that works best, and the core of the film is how the characters come together and work off of each other, rather than as individuals. Not only do they develop a bond in their shared loner/outsider status, but their snarky, rapid-fire chemistry often mirrors screwball comedy more than anything else.
Elsewhere, the film maintains a cheeky wit and a snarky sense of cotton-candy exuberance, rooted not only in character but the film’s conscious throwback stylings. As mentioned, even if it looks modern, this is not a “modernized” film in spirit. It is grandly in line with the smaller ambitions of many late 70’s and early 80’s sci-fi films that took joys in the simple acts of pitting likable characters together and observing the results like a grand experiment in social mores and interaction. The film revels in its retro aesthetic, recalling the films (thankfully) more in style than explicit references. Although the early 70’s pop songs add a nice, slightly subversive touch (especially in the film’s bravura standout opening credits sequences I won’t spoil here, which captures more than any scene Gunn’s tongue-in-cheek sensibility as well as his spastic, ever-moving direction). And Quill has a couple of golden lines referencing 80’s and 70’s culture.
Nevertheless, the film isn’t without its problems. One, two, and three are Ronan (Lee Pace), Nebula (Karen Gillan), and Thanos (Josh Brolin). The film’s three actors play their roles without enough menace to leave an impression, and are afforded too little screen-time to survive in-tact (this is a busy film, and the slow moments, or more appropriately the moments that move from ecstatic jet-propelled joy to a mere giddy cavorting gallop, are left, rightfully, for the protagonists). Elsewhere, the film doesn’t know when to say when – the ending is by no means a mis-fire, but it’s far too grandiose and somewhat clinically effects-heavy to register with the impact of the more character-focused sense of off-the-cuff un-cool the rest of the film had. You know what they say about letting a fun-time director into a toy-box full of shinier, new toys…too much of a good thing can double-back on itself. The sense of left-field aplomb and paying-no-attention-to-expectations glee the film has, which is very much a product of its shiny new toy-box mentality, gets somewhat overwhelmed by that very sense of joy toward the end.
Still, Guardians of the Galaxy builds up so much goodwill during its first three fourths that it would take a monumental misfire to stop it dead in its tracks. The film fires on all fronts, and a merely competent ending isn’t about to completely cover-up its spark of sheer invention. Above all, the word here is “refreshing” – this is the big budget picture the cinema world needs now, far more than any serious-minded affair. Now, I don’t think the film is here to signal a new wave of Marvel blockbusters (or blockbusters in general) that are as excited with their pure existence as this film is. But I can remain hopeful, and right now in 2014, we at least have the Guardians of the Galaxy.