Monday, August 4, 2014


Though hardly finished with earthbound heroes like Captain America and Iron Man (and Thor, whose realm is Earth-adjacent), Marvel has opened up a new wing of worldbuilding far removed, in distance anyway, from the cinematic Avengers space we’ve come to know. Trading in superhero tropes for standard space opera stuff (you’ve seen bits and pieces in Star Trek, Star Wars, Farscape), Guardians of the Galaxy finds a ragtag group of intergalactic misfits who spend the runtime gradually learning to work together and earn the moniker of the title. It’s often fun, but it also proves Marvel Studios is happy making good movies, but has little interest in making great ones. They’re too homogenous for that. This one goes to the other end of the universe and finds on its variety of alien worlds a plot that moves and sounds much like any other movie in their roster. It has brightly proficient images, appealing goofiness, and personality that disappears once the obligatory CGI chaos takes over.

In typical Marvel Studios fashion, the characters are intriguing and well cast, then swallowed up once routine effects explode and collide around them for far too long. Before then, though, it’s charming to meet a dopey space pirate (Chris Pratt), a likable underdog as the rare human in these distant parts, having been abducted by aliens as a child. He’s after an orb that’ll get him big bucks. Too bad that a rogue green warrior princess (Zoe Saldana) wants the orb as well, and a pair of bounty hunters – a talking raccoon (Bradley Cooper) with anger issues and a sentient tree (Vin Diesel) with only three words to his vocabulary – are after him. They all get thrown in a maximum-security space jail where they meet a hilariously literal red-and-grey brute (Dave Bautista) who joins them when they soon escape in order to keep the movie moving.

They are a likable ensemble working sarcastic asides and zippy punchlines for all they are worth. The group gets drawn into the cosmic MacGuffin chase for the orb, a haphazardly formed team of mercenaries caught between the galactic government and blue-skinned baddies bent on smashing solar systems or something. I don’t know what the villains are up to, other than growling at each other and trying to blow up anyone who gets near them. Good thing the heroes set about making things right through the usual clamor. If you think the strife and conflict won’t make reluctant allies fast friends, you’ve never seen a Marvel movie. At least director and co-writer James Gunn and screenwriter Nicole Perlman seem aware of the best aspects of these things: the odd asides and strange half-campiness in the margins. For a while, Guardians is built almost entirely out of them.

This is a movie that contains humanlike aliens in every primary color, robot prison guards, a deadly glowing purple stone, a whistle-powered arrow, and a deep space mining colony built in the enormous skull of a long-dead cosmic being. It also has a collection of character actors (from Benicio Del Toro to Michael Rooker, Glenn Close to John C. Reilly, Djimon Hounsou to Lee Pace) putting on funny wigs and funnier accents. Aliens tend to speak in British accents – years of genre fare taught us that – but this movie adds backwoods roughneck drawls, airy Euro lilts, and one that sounds exactly like a pleasant, amiable John C. Reilly. Wigs, on the other hand, come in pompadours, elaborate braids, and beautiful baldness. It’s a treat for fans of scenes dense with sci-fi bric-a-brac and actors swanning around having a fun time being there.

And so, with a solid cast and decent goofy sci-fi appeal, the movie gets by on charm and mood, with a relaxed approach to escalating tension by contrasting it with the ensemble’s prickly group dynamics, snappy banter, and appealing personalities. Smart aleck dorkiness sits next to obliviousness of an alien kind. It’s cute. The raccoon gets a little annoying – mostly for the pinched voice Cooper’s attempting – but the Guardians of the Galaxy are charmers. If all the film is intended to do is put out good vibes – an oldies soundtrack played off a literal mixtape doesn’t hurt – and introduce characters for a new franchise, it gets the job done in the standard slick, bland Marvel house style. It’s new sights and fresh faces shot, edited, and mixed like what we’ve seen before. Gunn brings to it his typical queasy mix of tone as displayed in his horror movie Slither and awful dark vigilante comedy Super. He wants us to think Guardians is both serious and silly, with chaste plotting dusted with out-of-place vulgarity, with bloodless bloodshed both joke and hurt. A rough fit, but it’s got a good beat, a bright look, and is still of a tonal piece with the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The brain trust couldn’t cook up a fresh storytelling approach to go with its new locales, feeling the need to hit the standard plot beats. It’s a weird concept told in a totally conventional way. You could set your watch by the time the false climaxes, periods of doubt, determined scheming, and tearful emotional conclusions will appear. Then it all culminates in the same old endless rounds of weightless carnage and staggering body count that’s sadly expected and hard to take. The charm and knowingly goofy demeanor disappears as the movie glazes over and goes through the motions with a sense of “this is how we end these” instead of “here’s a natural conclusion to this story.” So here are hordes of anonymous figures slaughtered. Here's a one-on-one fight with the villain that goes on and on and on. Now here’s a ginormous spaceship leveling a metropolitan area. Again. Like last summer. And the summer before that. Marvel is consistent, churning out product with fun diverting detail that disappears once the fireworks start firing. It gets the job done, and I liked it more than not, but it wore me out.

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