Saturday, August 9, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

Alternate Title:  Your Move, DC

One sentence synopsis:    A human outlaw, an assassin, a literal-minded warrior, a genetically-engineered raccoon, and a sentient tree team up to save the galaxy from a raging, genocidal maniac in search of a superweapon.

Things Havoc liked: Do I even need to recap the Marvel films now? This is the tenth film in the Marvel cinematic universe, seven of which (counting this one) I have now reviewed, and if there's anybody left who doesn't know what this madcap insanity project that Marvel has been on for the last six years is, then they need to go find someone else to tell them about it. Ten films and more to come, and the only question remaining here was whether or not Marvel, having maintained their momentum through a series longer than the great run Pixar had in the late '00s, or either of Disney's masterpiece periods, or even those of Ridley Scott or James Cameron, could possibly do it again, this time with a series and a concept so insane I thought they'd lost their minds when I first heard about the film.

Well of course they did. Who the hell do you think this is? Warner Brothers?

Guardians of the Galaxy rocks. It is a fun, explosive, irreverent space-opera, that proves, yet again, that Marvel seems to be incapable of doing wrong. Taking a series of characters I know nothing about, and shoving them into a film that seems to be comprised of equal parts Star Wars and Galaxy Quest, this film is the cherry atop Marvel's sundae of never-ending success that has attended their entire "Phase 2" output, and if it is not the best Marvel film of this year, that is simply because Winter Soldier was one of the best Marvel films of all time, and this one "only" manages to give it a run for its money.

Part of the secret to Marvel's success throughout these films (other than the pacts with Satan) has been the quality of the crews they have assembled to produce them. It's not merely that the films have had excellent writers and directors, but that each film has been painstakingly paired with a production team tailor-made to do the type of film that Marvel had in mind to do. So it was that the original Thor somehow managed to kidnap and drug Kenneth Branaugh into directing it, Iron Man was the work of snark and slice-of-life master Jon Favreau, Arrested Development and Community's Russo Brothers were brought in to modernize Captain America, and writer's director Joss Whedon was handed the reins when it came time to do the big ensemble piece in Avengers. For Guardians, Marvel called an audible, pulling in Indie Director James Gunn to take on the writing and directing duties in his first big-budget effort. Gunn was a weird pick for a film that would appear to demand someone with hardcore science-fantasy chops (John Carpenter, J.J. Abrams, or Matt Reeves all come to mind), and yet what Marvel wanted here was not a traditional Space Opera feel, but a much more indie-take on big-budget scifi. And Gunn, whose credits include Super, Slither, and Dawn of the Dead, somehow came up this time with a script and a film that is simultaneously everything and nothing like the films it is aping. The movie is riotously funny, even with the central conceit of the characters not being taken remotely seriously despite their pretensions of awesomeness having been spoiled by the trailers. Banter between the characters, each of which is immediately given their own style and archetype of speech, meets anything to be found in the Avengers, while the design, look, and feel of the film is distinctive and colorful, as befits a space opera and yet recognizably Marvel-esque, as befits the series. I've not been a big fan of Gunn's before this, despite all the critics who rave about his potential, but Gunn has now finally made good in all the right ways, and I can't praise his efforts enough.

But what of these characters, about whom, for the first time in the history of the Marvel franchise, I knew practically nothing going in. To my astonishment, every one of them is not only characterized well, despite this really being a five-way origin story, but portrayed expertly by whatever combination of actors and animators were involved. Starlord, AKA Peter Quill (the movie insists on calling him Quill throughout, despite his best, hopeless efforts) is played by Moneyball's Chris Pratt like a cross between Han Solo and Marty McFly, a hopelessly immature child of the 80s (his music obsessions are amazing) who was kidnapped by space aliens at the age of about eight, and seems to have taken the opportunity to become every eight-year-old's vision of what a wisecracking space outlaw is supposed to be. I've never had occasion to like or dislike Pratt before this, but he is amazing in this role, as perfectly cast as Chris Evans or Chris Hemsworth were for their respective Marvel characters. Only slightly less amazing is Zoe Saldana, of the new Star Trek among other things, who plays cold-eyed assassin Gamora. Her character has the unenviable role of playing the brooding badass in a movie that slathers liberal ridicule upon the concept of brooding badass, but she pulls it off mostly by heaping unending ridicule right back on everyone else. The only shaky element among the live-action cast is WWE wrestler Dave Bautista, who despite his turn in Riddick is plainly not a professional actor. And yet here, the writing comes to the rescue, as his character of Drax the Destroyer is of a race of beings who lack a concept of metaphor, and speak in absolutely literal terms at all times. That's right, they took the fact that Drax was being played by a wrestler without acting experience, whose lines would therefore sound stilted and unnatural, and wrote it into the script. Those beautiful bastards.

But the CG characters are the ones that really steal the show, a duo that should not, under any circumstances have worked, and yet. Rocket Raccoon, a contemporary of Bucky O'Hare, one of the most ludicrous concepts that even Marvel's comic line has to offer, is by far and away my favorite character of the entire film. An anthropomorphic, genetically and cybernetically-enhanced raccoon voiced by Bradley Freaking Cooper of all people, this character is awesome itself. A foot and a half tall gun-fanatic who spends most of his time either blowing shit up, piloting warships what blow shit up, or serving as the dry, comic wit of the entire group preparatory to blowing shit up. A sequence halfway through the film has Rocket get drunk and belligerent, only to be talked down by Starlord into a puddle of tears, and just as we fear that a dreaded "narrate your own backstory" scene is about to raise its head, he responds to his crushing depression by whipping out an assault rifle larger than he is and preparing to, you guessed it, blow more shit up. Rocket is done perfectly, riding the line between Joe Pesci and the Voice of Reason, and surprisingly enough, may actually be the character with the most face-time in the entire thing. But just as amazing is Groot, Vin Diesel's turn as a walking tree, whose limited vocabulary belies rather surprising depth. Supposedly Diesel demanded that the writers translate all of his dialogue into English so that he could put the exact right tone on the... Grootish... version. It shows. Groot is the perfect counterpart for Rocket and for all the others, and if baby-dancing-Groot does not become a toy line, then someone at Marvel will have lost their damn mind.

On and on I could go, from the side-characters and cameos to the soundtrack. Lee Pace, Thranduil himself, having decided that his turn in the Hobbit was insufficiently campy, plays Ronan the Accuser in the best traditions of Ming the Merciless. So over-the-top that he winds up screaming defiant villain-speech at his own boss (when you're out-scenery-chewing Thanos, you're doing quite a thing), his character is the perfect foil for our completely nonchalant heroes, and the moments when they manage to flat out confuse the hell out of him are priceless. Michael Rooker, one of the finest character actors of all time, gets to hick it up as Yondu, Starlord's abductor/enemy/ally/father figure/pain in the ass (it's that kind of film). This is a man who once played himself in a call of duty game. He's right at home here. Smaller roles go to Djimon Honsou (who reportedly demanded a role in a Marvel film because he felt there were insufficient black characters), Glenn Close (who manages to do better than Judy Dench did in the Riddick series), John C. Reilly (not as annoying as he customarily is), and, of course, Benicio del Toro, who plays some kind of deranged outer-space Liberace with the aplomb I have come to expect from him. I don't usually mention cameos in these things, but this movie is STOCKED with them, from the obligatory Stan Lee appearance to momentary spots by Nathan Fillion, Josh Brolin, Seth Green, and Rob Zombie, all atop a pile of in-jokes and nerd-references that should keep the internet buzzing for weeks.

Things Havoc disliked: I'm sure Marvel will tell you that they knew this movie was going to be a hit from the get-go, and that nobody was nervous in the slightest about this thing, but that would almost certainly be a lie, as I think most of us are well aware, and in fact that's something of the problem this time around. The movie is well-structured and well-written... except when the Gunn's nerve fails, and he suddenly feels the need to explain to the audience what they have just witnessed. There are several points, riven throughout the film, where sentiment or concepts that are perfectly clear to the audience are ruined by the script deciding that a character needs to spell the obvious out, just in case the audience fails to get beaten over the head sufficiently with the standard Marvel themes of "friendship and teamwork conquers all". Several of these incidents hit at absolutely the worst possible moment, spoiling, among other things, one of the bigger dramatic payoffs of the film. This tendency annoyed me more than my viewing companions, but given that the Marvel films are famous for, among other things, the quality of their scripts, it was a serious disappointment.

There's also the issue of sequel-bait. We've all come to expect and accept that the Marvel films, contained within their own universe like episode of a TV show, will continue on and on, but the sequel-baiting for this film is clunky in the extreme. Not only are obvious plot hooks for the next film dragged up out of nowhere in the last ten minutes of runtime (never a good way to do things), but the same problem as before afflicts even the sequel-baiting, meaning that the hooks in question are dragged up many times, each time out of nothing whatsoever. It's awkward and ugly, and mars a film that otherwise is none of these things.

Final thoughts:   DC Comics has had a rough time of things at the movies in the last few years. Not only have they put out half of the raw output that Marvel has, but their offerings have been mixed in tone and quality, and lacked utterly the cohesiveness that is Marvel's towering cinematic universe. DC's poverty of imagination in realizing its properties on film has been palpable, and this is coming from someone who liked both Dark Knight Rises and Man of Steel. The best point of comparison from DC for this movie is likely 2011's Green Lantern, another high-concept space opera film that misfired drastically in every way that this movie aims true. And yet the point isn't so much that that movie was mediocre while this one was excellent, but that DC, having failed to do a space opera properly, retrenched themselves in the old-standbys of Superman and Batman, and will be doing so yet again in 2016 (having pushed the release date back from their original 2015 opening). In response to questions about greater diversity of characters, a Wonder Woman film perhaps, or simply anything not done by the Zack Snyder/Chris Nolan combo, DC has made many excuses, including that audiences were not ready for such things, and that the risks of doing anything but what worked in 1973 are too great. Marvel, meanwhile, just finished making a space opera about a raccoon and a walking tree, one of such qualities that I was forced to praise it immodestly, explicitly torpedoing every excuse DC has made or will make in the future regarding what is and is not possible in comic book films.

A day may come, must come, friends, when the skill of Marvel fails. When they forsake care and break all standards of quality, in favor of the mediocre and the stupid. An hour of laments, and shattered dreams, when the age of Marvel comes crashing down around us, when they revert, at last, to the mean, and go the route of Pixar or Michael Bay.

But it is not this day. This day we watch Guardians of the Galaxy. This day, we get to smile.

Final Score:  8/10

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