Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy
Marvel Studios expanded their universe this weekend with a rag-tag band of misfits, the Guardians of the Galaxy. Virtually unknown characters paired up with a fledgling director (James Gunn) to fight a nebulous villain millions of miles away from the safety net of Marvel’s established hero franchise, The Avengers. It was a risky bet, wagering the hard won credibility of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe, for the hip kids) on such a tenuous premise. But it worked. Guardians not only earned on par (or higher) than their better known brethren, they opened the floodgates to a wider universe of Marvel’s lesser known properties.
Losers for the Win
Guardians of the Galaxy follows the exploits of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), an unlikely hero (actually a bit of a sarcastic cad who pilfers space tombs for profit) who was abducted by a motley crew of space profiteers when he was just a young boy. Whisked away from Earth, Peter has become a morally flexible and musically challenged man, eager to make his fortune by any means. His latest caper has him stealing an artifact of immense power out from underneath the noses of his very own pirate brethren, and as he soon realizes, they are not alone in seeking the item. Ronan the Accuser, a wanted war criminal, desires the orb as well, and dispatches his top assassin, Gamora (Zoe Saldana) to retrieve it. A pair of bounty hunters, Rocket the Raccoon and Groot the sentient tree, are also in hot pursuit. Add to this melee a psychotic criminal named Drax the Destroyer who is after Gamora and Ronan, and there you have it: the collection of misfit characters who will become the Galaxy’s only hope against destruction.
The B Team
The cast of Guardians is perhaps the most unlikely element of the story: Chris Pratt is known more for his comedic talents than for leading man material; Brad Cooper and Vin Diesel, more suited to a big Hollywood blockbuster, provide only voice talent; and Dave Batista is a wrestler turned thespian who has yet to have a break-out role. Zoe Saldana is the only actor who seems at home on this roster (and to have the chops for such an action extravaganza), and happily Marvel gives her a large role in the film. Unhappily, Marvel paints her green and continues to have a glaring deficiency with people of color, unless you count blue, green, and purple as valid. It’s sad to see that Xandar, the shining civilization of law and order in space, is almost completely monochromatic.
This line-up on paper is worrisome, but the result is not: the chemistry between the stars is one of the strongest points of the film. Saldana is strong, complex, and confident, and shares equal responsibility with Pratt for moving the story forward (without becoming a sex object or love interest, which seems impossible these days) . Chris Pratt is both heroic and funny, more in the mold of Jackie Chan than Tony Stark. The second string of Groot, Rocket, and Drax are memorable (especially Cooper’s Rocket, who scores many of the films laughs with his sharp tongue instead of his diminutive size). The good guys are talented, but not god-like, helping the audience to relate to them. The villains, such as Lee Pace’s Ronan and Karren Gillan’s Nebula, could have used more set-up, but with such a large cast of characters and locations to introduce, you can understand Gunn’s need for brevity.
Holes in the Fabric of Space
The film is not without its faults. The aforementioned lack of development of the bad guys (and the completely faceless army of baddies they employ) leaves you wondering about the greater conflict that is repeatedly used as motivation for Ronan. Likewise, the motivations of many of the characters, such as Drax and even Gamora, are boiled down to a one sentence motto that they repeat as needed, instead of providing any in-depth background. The characters are strong when they interact, but two dimensional as separate entities.
The action sequences are hit or miss. The escape from the prison sequence is rousing, but the space chase later in the film is a blur of light and motion (akin to Man of Steel) that causes more nausea than thrills. Luckily, Gunn evens out his pacing in the final act, and the climax feels intense and busy, without becoming schizophrenic.
Trip the Light Fantastic
Ultimately, Guardians of the Galaxy succeeds on the tension and humor the heroes create amongst themselves. The outside conflict becomes almost an afterthought, a convenient means to the ends of establishing these five characters as a team, and a team you can count on for an entertaining ride. Guardians advances the MCU in probably its largest leap to date: the shadowy menace of Thanos is now out in the open, the menagerie of strange and mystical items that have been littering many of the early movies have gained relevance, and the die is cast for a struggle that will be larger than either the Guardians or the Avengers have bargained for. As a fan of the lore and the characters of the wider Marvel-verse, it’s heartening to see the doors flung wide for “lesser” characters to shine.