Having found unprecedented cinematic success making films about b-list superheroes with little prior mainstream currency, Marvel Comics decided to expand their shared movie universe in surprising ways. The summer of 2014 saw a film based on spacegoing comic-book c-listers, the Guardians of the Galaxy. The Guardians have their origins in a 1969 comic-book team that fought the Brotherhood of the Badoon, alien conquerors of earth in the thirtieth century. The name was later taken by a ragtag group of contemporary heroes battling it out in the far reaches of the galaxy. The new team includes Groot, a creature that first appeared in an early Marvel horror comic, and Gamora, the assassin from the definitive 1970s Cosmic Marvel saga, the decade-spanning story of Adam Warlock. They take their lead from a displaced Terran, a rogue who calls himself Star-Lord.
Guardians of the Galaxy opened to incredible advance buzz and strong reviews. Some critics have compared it to the original Star Wars and the impact that film had, a long time ago in a theater, far, far away.
Honestly? Guardians makes for fun summer movie viewing. If features spectacular effects, while wisely devoting a good deal of time to developing its unusual characters. I liked it, and encourage people to see it, if they want some pop-SF, comic-book spectacle served up with laughs. But the new Star Wars? I'm not feeling that.
The plot follows fairly closely the action-movie version of the Save the Cat Beat Sheet, and owes more than its fair share to Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark and their too-numerous imitators.1 In short, a ragtag band of characters assemble due to a MacGuffinesque item.2 Others seek the item's power, most notably the murderous Kree fanatic, Ronan the Accuser. Ronan, dangerous in his own right, has cut a deal with the genocidal Thanos-- a character poised to take center stage in either the second Guardians flick or the third Avengers outing. The Collector3 also desires this item, though his role in the film remains limited and, I suspect, for some viewers, a bit confusing. Star-Lord's former employer, played by The Walking Dead's Michael Rooker, also pursues our protagonists, while the galactic military hopes to stop all of these disparate characters. In any case, the title characters first come together for personal gain, but soon realize they must become heroes, or the galaxy may not have a future.
The film benefits from a strong cast. Chris Pratt's background in comedy serves him very well here. Despite the character's tragic backstory, he spends most of the movie delivering flippant lines and establishing his roguish but likeable personality. Zoe Saldana as the obligatory Female Living Weapon plays nicely off her teammates. She, likewise, has darkness in her past, but she prefers wisecracks over Dark Knight angst, making the most of lines like, "I am going to die surrounded by the biggest idiots in the galaxy," and the serious inquiry, "who put the sticks up their butts?" More literal-minded laughs go to Dave Bautista as Drax, a loose cannon on a team of loose cannons-- who would puzzle over being described that way. He simply doesn't grasp metaphor, a fact that results in several amusing exchanges. The team's most engaging members are a world-weary, genetically modified raccoon named Rocket and his muscle, the plant-man, Groot. Bradley Cooper invests the GCI procyonid with a convincing personality, while Vin Diesel works wonders with a vocabulary limited to the statement, "I am Groot."
The laughs go a long way to selling the film's world, which must be taken with several grains of salt. We're in an old-school space opera universe.4 You know, thousands of worlds, mostly populated by humanoids, interact in outer space. The various aliens share family structures, levels of technology, gender norms, and compatible DNA. Societies generally resemble ours, except they have FTL travel, bigger guns, and World's Fair architecture. Certain individuals have special superhero weapons against which no one has developed a reasonable defense. And, despite the high tech, life-and-death scores often get settled with fisticuffs. Battalions of expendable, barely-competent Red Shirts and Imperial Stormtroopers, meanwhile, guard the most precious things in the galaxy. These conventions can be very silly, but Guardians, like The Avengers, gives us likable characters and fun sequences that allow us to accept the fantasy on its own terms.
Guardians, of course, also boasts a spectacular classic rock soundtrack. The music not only establishes the tone nicely, it actually serves an important purpose in the world of the film itself.
So, don't get me wrong. I enjoyed this film. I like the quirky characters. It succeeds in being the fast-paced Summer Movie it wants to be. But I was more invested in the ragtag team that assembled as The Avengers a few years ago onscreen-- and Guardians, for me, lacks the power and (comparative) maturity of Marvel's strongest superhero film to date, Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Cast and Crew
Chris Pratt as Peter Quill / Star-Lord
Zoe Saldana as Gamora
Dave Bautista as Drax
Vin Diesel as Groot
Bradley Cooper as Rocket Raccoon
Lee Pace as Ronan the Accuser
Michael Rooker as Yondu Udonta
Karen Gillan as Nebula
Djimon Hounsou as Korath the Pursuer
John C. Reilly as Rhomann Dey
Glenn Close as Nova Prime
Benicio Del Toro as The Collector
Laura Haddock as Meredith Quill
Christopher Fairbank as The Broker
Josh Brolin as Thanos
Fred as Cosmo the Space Dog
Stan Lee as cameo
Nathan Fillion as another cameo
Written by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman
Directed by James Gunn
1. I know that both of those films were imitating old serials and myths and such, but they remain incredibly fresh in their use of those influences, and both stood apart in their historical context. I'm not a huge fan of Lucas's Jedi saga (I enjoy the original films), but people who grew up with A New Hope and its sequels, prequels, and spin-offs cannot understand the reception and impact of Star Wars in 1977, especially in post-Watergate North America.
2. It is not, perhaps, a true MacGuffin, but it does make the plot happen.
3. Thanos was introduced to the Marvel Cinematic Universe during The Avengers credit sequence, while audiences received their first view of Benicio Del Toro's Collector during the credits to Thor: The Dark World This film features a post-credits sequence that will either thrill or terrify comic fans, depending on their disposition. Non-comic-readers may be entirely confused.
4. You know, I never entirely got this. Golden Age science fiction, in both its pulp and more literary forms, often featured truly otherworldy creatures. Yet SF comics focused on humanoid aliens from central casting. I understand why movies and television would do this, and I certainly see how it serves motion picture space opera, even in the present, effects-rich era. But comics could and can depict anything, and don't always rely on showing recognizable human facial expressions to communicate character and feelings. As originally conceived, Marvel's broader universe demonstrates a lack of imagination, despite the frequently imaginative developments that occur within its cosmic boundaries.