[Review] - Guardians Of The Galaxy

With Guardians of the Galaxy, I feel that Marvel finally has an answer to the increasing number of complaints concerning how bogged down the MCU movies are becoming in each other's business. A shared universe is one thing, and Easter Eggs are another, but the over-reliance on inter-connectivity has resulted in movies that are incapable of standing on their own. It is no surprise that the least effective films Marvel has put out, Iron Man 2 and The Winter Soldier, were the ones so weighed down in table setting that they lost their own identities in the process.

There hasn't been a Marvel movie as purely driven by it's own desire to exist, and exist well, since the original Iron Man, until now. Guardians isn't just a good Marvel film (though it is, probably the best they've done in ten films). It isn't just a good science fiction space opera (though it is, wearing it's influences on it's sleeve). And it isn't just a good James Gunn film (though, again, it is; easily his best to date). Guardians is a good film. It's Star Wars in '77 good. It's Back to the Future in '85 good. It's "this will be to some kid in the audience what those films were to us when we were kids" good. If you've never seen a Marvel film before, you won't notice, or care. If you don't like superhero movies, you won't notice or care. It's not a perfect movie, far from it (and few are). But damned if it isn't the best science fiction comedy starring a talking raccoon I've ever seen.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains something good, something bad, a bit of both, but no spoilers (for once).

I think maybe the best way to describe Guardians is that James Gunn has succeeded in making the anti-Marvel movie, within and with full support of the Marvel system. A common complaint of late has been the sameness of all the Marvel films. Despite them making a big show of hiring eclectic directors with a range of styles and comforts, those styles and comforts tend to get washed out during the process, leaving only a glimmer of the artist's original vision on screen. The Favreau style looks like the Branagh style looks like the Russo style. Gunn somehow managed to avoid all that, I think by benefit of not really having a style. If you look at Slither and Super (or his segment in Movie 43) his direction lacks an obvious signature. It's not that he isn't talented behind the camera, it's just that the camera is little more than a vehicle for his scripts, which is where his true genius lies (and I'll be getting to that).

So, with a larger budget than he's ever had access to, Gunn is able to play with his direction, and find a comfort zone that fits him best within this environment. And somehow, that resulted in him not simply aping the Marvel zone of comfort. There isn't anything particularly revelatory in his adopted style, but there isn't anything intrusive either. The mark of a good direction is the invisibility of their hand, while maintaining and enhancing the experience. Gunn has done that. His angles, his choices in the editing room, his obvious enjoyment of crane work all create a scope that feels broad and deep, while still focused and attentive. Action sequences are filmed at a distance, and sequences of all kinds are allowed to play out. There isn't the action standard of repeated epileptic cuts. Gunn is far more comfortable moving the camera in balance (or, actually, in counter balance) with the action than disjointedly repositioning and picking up from somewhere else.

He can do this because of the exactness of his vision. Before cameras roll, he knows exactly what needs to happen, where it is happening and what needs to be focused on in order to make it the most effective. He has an animator's eye, where if something is in a shot, it's either doing something or its a waste of time and energy. For proof of this, all you need to do is watch what is going in the background. There is always something happening, always some movement, some fluidity. The environment is organic and responsive, instead of static filler colour. That, and for the most part, it's all real. I have said many times before, something physically present will always succeed over something assumed to be there. And I think filmmakers are finally coming around to this idea. How else to explain the explosion of mo-cap performances? George Lucas had his casts talking to tennis balls, and it shows. Now, actors like Andy Serkis or Sean Gunn (James' brother, who provided the stand in for Rocket) are there, giving a digital performance for everyone else to react to.

And rather than just slather the screen with CGI, Gunn is one of the enlightened directors (along with Guillermo del Toro) who insist on things actually existing on set. Lucas did it that way forty years ago because it was the only option. Filmmakers do it now because they understand it looks better. This movie has extensive amounts of prosthetic and makeup work, as well as huge sets, all of which are augmented by digital touchups. What it does is create an immersive and believable world, because everything is reacting to actual physics, not just lines of code. Which isn't to say that the CG that is present isn't good; it's top of the line stuff. Even four years ago, Rocket wouldn't have been able to be achieved with the level of quality that he was presented with here. Photo-realism and increased emotionality in the digital performances help to sell the hard stuff, like talking trees and wise ass raccoons.

Speaking of which, the movie succeeds because it has a script that is solid. Gunn put together the most mature character piece that Marvel has seen without a Whedon on the byline. And he faced a challenge that only Joss has faced before: assembling a team. In every other Marvel film, the relationships come pre-established. Here, as in the Avengers, Gunn is forced to bring these characters together. Unlike in the Avengers, where team building takes a back seat half way through once a shared enemy appears, Gunn has to keep working to keep these guys together until the credits roll. It is a complex and differentiated group of characters, and their joining together never feels forced. It feels like work, and when there are successes among them, they feel earned. It is as complex and genuine a character piece as Marvel has ever done. These aren't archetypes or cookie cutter characters. They have motivations, they make mistakes, and they get on each other's nerves. And at any point, the pressure could become too much and everything could go to hell. It feels like a real relationship.

Part of that is how surprisingly dark and sad the film is. It is amazingly emotional and kudos to Chris Pratt for extending himself outside of the Andy Dwyer wheelhouse that he was so obviously hired for. But it isn't just the human that gets the hero's journey. Every single one of these characters is in a bad way, a "loser, in that, we've lost stuff" as the film describes them. They are each of them emotionally broken, tormented individuals on the raggedy edge of society because that is the only place where their self destructive behaviour can exist. And this tragedy never leaves them. There are heartbreaking moments in this film, for both sad and happy reasons. I wouldn't have ever thought a raccoon could make me cry, but Rocket sure as hell came close. What balances all of this is that the movie is funny as hell. And not in a jokey kind of way; in a very natural, everyday kind of way. Characters like Pratt's Quill use humour as a defense mechanism, but also as the court jester, pointing out the absurdity of the situation. Others, like Dave Batista (the film's biggest surprise and success - sorry Groot) derive the humour from the Leslie Nielsen-like straightness of the performance. And every character, even Lee Pace's villainous Ronan, cracks a little wise in that everyday sort of way that everyone but the most humourless prudes do.

There isn't a fault among the performances. Pratt proves himself a real actor, not just a clown or overly sarcastic action hero. Zoe Saldana is not the standard issue ass-kicking hottie, but a tormented and repentant leader (her Gamora gets the least amount of attention of the five mains, which is still an amazing amount of development). Batista, as I mentioned, comes out of nowhere and blows you away with his performance of Drax. Bradley Cooper is pitch perfect as the quick thinking and blunt Rocket. And Groot... well, Groot is just adorable. Everyone thought that Rocket would be the breakout character, but it is impossible not to love Groot. And because of his monosyllabism, the performance is less to do with Vin Diesel's line readings and more with what the animators gifted the space ent when they were building him. It's a largely silent performance that screams off the screen. Gunn has succeeded in being that thing I love most: a subversionist, without being a parodist. Each of these characters could have easily conformed to a pre-existing standard (the lovable hero, the Amazon, the bruiser, the happy meal toy), and Gunn painstakingly avoids all of that. These are better characters than simple definitions.

That being said, it's not all sunshine and roses. The first and third acts are fantastic, though the third at is almost entirely action and the characters get less of a chance to shine until the proper climax of the film, when you realize that there is a way for a hero and villain to have a final confrontation that isn't just a fist fight. But the second act, pretty much everything that happens on Knowhere, drags. It's exposition heavy, and is far too needlessly Star Wars-inspired (Thanos appearing as a hologram on Ronan's wall extends beyond an Empire reference, but is far too serious to be a parody). All of the stuff with the Collector (a far briefer role than I was expecting of Benicio del Toro) is clunky, as the audience has Infinity Stones explained to them, both establishing the macguffin for this film, and for the larger MCU. The film is at least self aware enough that attention is called back to these moments, by Quill working off a pre-1988 pop culture manifest (he correctly identifies the Stone as an "Ark of the Convenient, Maltese Falcon sort of thing"). But conforming to a standard and then pointing at it and saying "isn't that crazy" doesn't win you back points.

And, like most Marvel films of late, the villains get no where near the development the rest of the characters do. Ronan gets more background than the Dark Elves did in The Dark World, but that is still precious little. He's avenging the Xandarian treatment of the Kree, which gets very little elaboration, forcing the audience to make up their own motivation based on Ronan's shouts (I went with an analogue to how Europeans treated Native North Americans). Nebula (Karen Gillan) shares most of her story with Gamora, which results in Nebula not being much of anything at all except a reflection. And the script isn't the most original sci-fi story ever told. As I said, it wear's it's influences on it's sleeve, too much at times. Ronan's plot is basically the same as Nero's in Star Trek '09, but with slightly more motivation and a better performance from Lee Pace. Star Wars is all over the place, in the spaceship dog fights and in the general structure. And there is more than a little Serenity, proving that Whedon's space cowboys are now just as influential as the big boys. Quill's ship, the Milano (nice pre-'88 reference that), is equal parts Firefly-class and Millennium Falcon, a reliable old rustbucket that gets the job done. And that "something good..." line I used above is as analogous to "aim to misbehave" as anything else (though the film manages to mostly avoid one-liners and catch phrases, thank gods).

But Guardians works, and it works amazingly well. And most of that comes from being whole, and being it's own thing. It could care less that there are Iron Men or Hulks out there; these guys exist in their own world. And Gunn has built entire, wholly realized worlds from the ground up, for these complex and evolving characters to play it. It is a reminder that even big budget tentpoles can be good and enjoyable if they are made with care and singular intent. And it reminds us that in the desolation of a summer movie season that is desperately low on quality, there is still some joy to be had in the big, simple things.

Just like Kevin Bacon.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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