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Friday, August 1, 2014

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

James Gunn directed two feature films before Guardians of the Galaxy: Slither, an enjoyable riff on classic B-movies, and Super, a brilliant black comedy about the ethics of superheroics and the emotional aftermath of a breakup.  Gunn, who came up in low-budget schlock studio Troma, is powerfully drawn to outcasts and oddballs.  All of which is to say, he's not at all a natural fit for the fairly conservative Marvel mold.  Thankfully, Gunn doesn't break himself trying to fit into that mold - and Marvel doesn't ask him to.  While Guardians is unquestionably a Marvel film, Gunn gives it more personality than all of Phase 1 combined, and in the end adds a little piece of loopy action charm to the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Guardians of the Galaxy is basically Big Trouble in Little China for the superhero age.  And that's wonderful.

The film's biggest strength is in its casting.  The Guardians themselves are nearly perfect - surprise MVP? Wrestler Dave Bautista as Drax, who surprises with near-perfect deadpan comic timing - and they're surrounded by a strong supporting cast on all sides.  Gunn and co-writer Nicole Perlman make Chris Pratt's Peter Quill the emotional center of the film, with a cold open in 1988 that informs who Quill is in a quick, emotional sequence, but most of the cast gets at least a few moments to slow down and just be people.  The disappointing exception is Zoe Saldana's Gamora.  Saldana is pleasantly confident and gets a handful of laughs, but there's not much under the surface - and for a woman the film talks about like she's a great warrior and assassin, she sure needs to be rescued a lot....

While Guardians does share some of the formulaic weaknesses that all the Phase 2 Marvel films have had, Gunn manages to undercut most of them.  The plot hinges, as it seemingly must, on an all-powerful whatsit, a world-destroying MacGuffin that drives the action, and while Gunn uses it to pit five or six different groups against one another early on, by the end of the film, it's devolved to 'Good Guys need to stop Bad Guy from using it' territory.  Similarly, it follows Marvel's preferred plot formula, action beats falling precisely when you think they will, but Gunn makes it feel fresh.  The sheer variety of the action scenes, which range from enormous space-opera dogfights (a la Star Wars) to one-on-one melee combat, helps prevent things from getting stale.  And, I have to say, Star-Lord's final confrontation with Ronan was like nothing else in Marvel's filmography, and I mean that in the best way possible.

It can't fix everything, though.  Lee Pace tries (and occasionally succeeds in) giving Ronan a genuine sense of menace, but for the most part, you could easily swap him out for Thor: The Dark World's Malekith or... one of the other Marvel villains who surely must exist(?) without anyone really noticing.  Has Marvel learned nothing from the super-success of their only decent villain to date, Loki?  It seems not.

And you should be prepared to be bombarded with stuff for 2 hours; Guardians doesn't just introduce us to our five main characters, all of whom are well fleshed-out characters, but to our three villains - Ronan the Accuser, Korath the Pursuer, and Nebula - to space cops Nova Prime and two Nova Corps officers, to the Ravagers, a group of space pirates led by Michael Rooker's Yondu, Benecio del Toro's oddball Collector, and, of course, our first real appearances from Thanos.  The design for all these characters - Karen Gillan's Nebula in particular - is fantastic, but outside of the core group of Guardians, these aren't characters so much as plot obstacles.

The most pleasant surprise of Guardians of the Galaxy is, as I hinted at above, how good it looks.  Much has been made of the somewhat dry visual style of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and while Guardians isn't exactly Terrance Malick, nor is it Joss Whedon's 'point-and-shoot'.  The film makes some fairly excellent use of 3D (the first of the Marvel films to do so), particularly in an early sequence where Star-Lord is exploring a desolate planet in search of a valuable artifact, but even in 2D, the world-building is spectacular and the character design is the right kind of memorable.  These are costumes and aliens that should look ridiculous, but the design, the way they fit into the world around them, it all looks fantastic.

Guardians of the Galaxy is a winning film, bursting with charm if not always with originality.  For a massive, expensive production from one of the most successful film studios of the last 50 years, Guardians feels homegrown thanks to a ramshackle cast who seems up for anything and a director with a lot of love for fringes.  It isn't going to reinvent the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it does open it up to be a bigger, weirder, more wonderful place, capable of telling different kinds of stories with different types of heroes.  Guardians of the Galaxy is classic pulp sci-fi at its most endearing, if not always at its best.

Rating: A-

Marvel Studios' Guardians of the Galaxy opens in theaters everywhere on August 1st. As a sort of post-credits scene to this review... yes, there is a post-credits scene to Guardians at the very end of the credits, but it's brief and, unless you're a pretty hardcore Marvel nerd, largely meaningless.

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