Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy ★★★★

I have been disengaged from Marvel for what feels like a long time. When I was younger, I remember seeing the slate of superhero films that the studio had lined up. Iron Man 2. Captain America. Thor. The Avengers. That last one was to be the crowning achievement. I was never the biggest comic book "nerd", but I had a small collection. Dark Horse's Star Wars comics. Superman and Flash from DC. Captain America, Iron Man, The Avengers and a ton of Spiderman comics represented Marvel. These upcoming films were a bit of a dream come true at the time. Finally, the heroes from the page would come to the big screen.

Not to sound like a snob, but I grew older and lost touch with this "dream come true". I traded in adventure for art house and as I neared the release dates for these once fabled films, I found my interest was waning and almost entirely gone. Don't get me wrong, I still liked a good, silly time at the movies, but I was becoming more critical and the whole "men in tights team up to save the world" deal didn't do anything for me anymore. I skipped Iron Man 2. I skipped Captain America and Thor. The Avengers enjoyed a rapturous reception and broke all kinds of box office records, but I never got the enthusiasm to see that, either. When I did view Marvel's output on DVD much later, the experience was underwhelming. They worked in humor, they were somewhat colorful, but I couldn't shake the bombastic self-seriousness that the stories flaunted. The little quips were well and good, but the villains and stakes were boring. Even with The Avengers (the best of these), I couldn't get into it. I couldn't get properly excited. I didn't feel the rush that these things formerly inspired in me.

Now...I wasn't planning on seeing Guardians of the Galaxy. It definitely looked different, but not enough so that I was eagerly anticipating it. This is where the fine people of letterboxd and the film watching community beyond come in. Star Wars comparisons were being made, "best Marvel film" was proclaimed. "Movie of the summer!" "Hilarious!" Everything led me to believe that this was something truly unique. Funky characters. Space. Self-reflexive humor. I had to see it. This was the film I'd been waiting for Marvel to do but had given up on a few years ago. Unfortunately, in my rapidly increasing curiosity, I devoured all I could over the last week. Trailers. Clips. TV Spots. Reviews. I avoided spoilers, but the point is: I was genuinely excited to see how this turned out. Still, I was a little (a lot) overexposed to everything and so, a few of the big moments lacked the freshness they would have had if I'd seen it earlier. This is what happens when you wait a week to see a hyped film, folks.

Guardians of the Galaxy has many problems, but damn it, this is more purely enjoyable than anything Marvel has done since Spider-Man 2 (long before all the "Phase I", "Phase II" crap). First of all, it builds a big, colorful world and puts big, colorful personalities in it. The planetary environments are beautifully designed. They're obviously artificial, but they abound with little treasures in the objects and aliens that fill them. It's weird and a little eccentric, but I love that about it. The Guardians, themselves, are terrific. I'd watch this rag tag assemblage over the Avengers any day. Every one of them has an endearing quality that I could see sparking a ravenous following. With The Avengers, the consensus for favorite character seemed to be the Hulk with quite a few Iron Man holdouts. I've never heard someone stand up for their love of Black Widow, say, or Captain America as the best of the group. When it comes to the Guardians, each personality is exciting and any one of the five can be called a standout (except for maybe Gamora, who I think is a bit under-utilized). For the record, Rocket is my favorite. He's an adorable little creature with an angry, sarcastic edge and I found him positively magnetic, but there's plenty to love in Drax's deadpan straightforwardness, in Peter Quill's (a.k.a. Star Lord's) goofy naïveté, in Groot's sincerity or in Gamora's steadfast self-reliance.

Each of the heroes get a moment to shine and they hold up remarkably well individually, but when they're together, the energy is infectious. The comedic banter between characters and the little references sprinkled within it is probably the film's best aspect. The actors' timing is perfect, the jokes are zippy and in these scenes, the film doesn't hesitate to poke fun at itself. When the team rises one by one to accept their duty to put a stop to Ronan the Accuser, Rocket reluctantly rises last just before making fun of how ridiculous they look: "a bunch of jackasses standing in a circle". Now, that's what I'm talking about! More of that, please. And there is more, but not as much as I'd have liked (but I'll get into that later).

Speeding along as quickly as the jokes is the story. Man, does this thing move! I didn't realize how deeply rooted I was into the film until there was an indication that the climax was about to begin. I couldn't believe it. The movie was almost over already! Most films like this tend to be bloated, boasting two and a half hour, almost 3 hour runtimes. Guardians of the Galaxy isn't without a little of that bloat (there is some busyness to contend with), but you really don't feel it. Our heroes' objective is always clearly in view and any side characters introduced have a reason for being there and (for the most part) don't come off as pointless detours. However (and that's a big "however"), the film falters in tone thanks to one, very prominent element: the villain.

Ronan the Accuser, Nebula, Thanos and everything associated with their involvement in the story feels incongruous with the rest of the film. I thought I was watching a different movie whenever it would cut back to them. The film kicks off with Peter Quill doing the Indiana Jones routine, treasure hunting on some desolate planet, carelessly dancing through a stone structure with Redbone's "Come and Get your Love" playing in his ear. This is the tone that the film flirts with but struggles to fully embrace. There are many scenes that reflect this same spirit, but just enough tonally contrasting sequences to drag it down. And with this, I am not including the characters' more heartfelt moments. Everything to do with Rocket's self esteem, Peter Quill's childhood trauma or the source of Drax's rage is extremely well-handled, balanced evenly with the aforementioned self-referential humor. Ronan is just such a soul-sucking presence, though. He broods endlessly in his jagged spacecraft droning on about acquiring the orb of thus-and-such to have the power to rule and destroy the blah, blah blah. He's dark and has no distinctive traits outside of the played out "bad guy who is evil just because" trope. I had hoped that his character would be more playfully used, perhaps built up as cartoonishly evil to the point of outright parody. Maybe that approach would piss off the fans of the comics, but for me, it would have served the film's self-referential vibe much better than the charisma vacuum, stock baddie we get instead. I know Marvel wants to tie them together with The Avengers, but I'd much rather see the Guardians progress as their own thing, free from the confines of sewn-together external characters and plot lines.

Whether I like it or not, this is the conflict we are handed in Guardians of the Galaxy, and it leads to enough thrills to satisfy any fan of Marvel's brand of superhero action. A pod chase through a junky criminal world delivers loads of entertaining mayhem and a few individual characters' triumphs toward the end get the blood pumping, but a good deal of the action fails to break from the mold Marvel has established in past films. Not the best camerawork, not the most effective editing and only a few kills that smell of something new. All the time, I wanted it to go all out, to foster the mad energy and defiant nonconformity I knew this story was capable of. I haven't seen any of James Gunn's previous work, but from what I hear, it's much more bloody and much more vulgar. You get the sense that Guardians displays a partially tamed James Gunn, but like with Gareth Edwards and this year's Godzilla, a distinct directorial voice is clearly heard amidst all the studio calculation. Here is a film with more "inappropriate" humor and ballsy choices than any other Marvel production in recent memory and the (subjective) fact that it still captures more genuine heart with that sharper edge than all of those others films ought to be seen as a major achievement.

Guardians of the Galaxy isn't a perfect beast and I didn't expect it to be. It's flaws are of the familiar variety, but its charming personality and fresh humor signal a welcome change in the Marvel formula that I hope continues into future films. A step in the right direction is the most important thing to take away from this. I'm not sure that it's "the best" anything or even some kind of Star Wars for a new generation. I haven't gotten there yet. It's well-made cotton candy to Marvel's array of fatty happy meals. A little lumpy in places, but how sweet it is! The film ends on a high note. "Ain't no Mountain High Enough" fades into Jackson 5's "I Want You Back" as a feel-good character montage wraps up. As it cut to credits, I said something to myself. Even if it was temporary, "Marvel...you got me back."

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