Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★
Just when I thought plots that have something to do with the destruction of a world or a universe are beginning to taste disgustingly stale, “Guardians of the Galaxy,” directed by James Gunn, arrives at the party to offer a slightly stilted spin on what we have learned to expect from modern superhero movies. No, its place is not alongside the best of Marvel movies—the likes of Bryan Singer’s “X2: X-Men United,” Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man,” and Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers”—but the picture is goofy, energetic, and colorful fun from top to bottom.
Because its characters are so different from what the Marvel-verse has put forward thus far, they are instantly one of the more memorable of the bunch. Consider the diversity of their appearances: a wise-cracking raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a multipurpose tree (voiced by Vin Diesel), a muscle head (Dave Bautista), an orphan with green pigmentation on her skin (Zoë Saldana), and a human abducted from Earth the night his mother passed (Chris Pratt—a perfect fit for the lead role). But the material does not simply rely on its characters looking different. Each is given a defined personality so when they clash it is interesting and when they get along there is emotional resonance.
Its strength is not the action sequences. They are relatively standard which makes the final third feel especially drawn out and boring at times. While the special and visual effects are beautiful, the final battle is almost weightless—which is odd because an endangered civilization is supposed to be at stake. Another reason why it does not work is because the residents of Xandar remain distant—we learn very little about their customs, culture, attitudes, or way of life. Thus, when the planet is threatened, we are not moved. We are aware that Xandarian lives would be lost but the level or significance of the loss remains up the air. At least with other works that involve Earth being destroyed, we are able to relate immediately.
Its strength is not in the representation of the villain either. Ronan (Lee Pace) is supposed to be this fearsome figure who has killed millions or even billions—including worlds. When intergalactic beings hear his name, they cower. But, to me, he is a big, bad bore. We learn one thing about him: Just like any typical growly villain, he craves power. But why is he interesting? The screenplay does not address this question and it is a most critical miscalculation. As a result, he is forgettable.
Why not write a villain like Loki, someone who we cannot help but wonder what he is thinking (or scheming) every time he is in front of the camera? The most powerful villains are not necessarily the best villains. The best villains are the most intelligent, most cunning, those who we love to hate but love nonetheless. In a way, the best villains tend to define our heroes. Take a look at Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” with respect to Batman and The Joker’s twisted symbiotic relationship.
So what is the picture’s strength? That would be the moments in-between. I loved it when a character would break into a dance in the middle of an event that is supposed to be dead serious. The bantering among the characters are wonderful to listen to not only because of the words in the script but because they capture the tone, mood, and pauses exactly right. And just when we think a romantic connection is going to happen between the green-skinned lady and our central protagonist with a penchant for ‘70s hits, it takes a left turn—and then another sudden left just when we are starting to get comfortable.
“Guardians of the Galaxy” works because it knows how to flirt with the audience. In some ways, it is a parody of Marvel movies that came before—but not so bloody obvious about it that we are taken out of the experience completely. Instead, it establishes a universe that is silly but serious enough that we can respect and look forward to more frolicking off-beat adventures.