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At this point, there are enough Marvel films so that they serve a quasi-Rorschach test of what we value in our summer blockbusters. Fans have their unique set of preferences, and the thoughtful ones will realize their preferences say something about them, instead of the other way around. For example, I loved Captain America: The First Avenger and didn’t care for its sequel, which means I generally prefer unique cinematography and emotional character movements over an attempt to shoehorn a classic genre (i.e. conspiracy thriller) into a superhero yarn. Guardians of the Galaxy, the latest from the comic book studio, has the good sense to step aside when it matters and let weirdo director James Gunn hold the reigns. Parts of it are too alike to other Marvel films, perhaps to a fault, but Guardians has a heart in a way that most superhero movies do not.

Film by film, Marvel is building toward a showstopper that features the Infinity Gauntlet, which is dangerous jewelry that lets its bearer have absolute power. That sounds really cool, yet an unfortunate consequence of its long game is a series of stories where rag-tag heroes and a megalomaniacal villain fight over a boring, uninspiring MacGuffin. In this case, a skilled thief named Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) steals an orb (it’s part of the gauntlet). Bad guy Ronan (Lee Pace, in a thankless role) also wants the orb, so he sends his assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana) after Quill, but she plans to betray her boss. An anthropomorphic raccoon named Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and his inarticulate giant tree friend Groot (Vin Diesel) want Quill’s bounty, but lose interest once they realize is orb is more valuable. Drax (Dave Bautista) wants to kill Ronan, so he follows the orb because it will lead to him. The orb takes this group from prison, then halfway around the galaxy and back again.

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Gunn clearly realizes the logistics of the plot are tedious at unoriginal, so he peppers the film with jokes, action, and actual character development. Guardians of the Galaxy is the funniest movie under the Marvel name, and it’s no small part to the chemistry between the actors. The titular Guardians are classic archetypes, yet there’s a specificity to the performances that makes them original. Between this and The Lego Movie, Pratt is a perfect straight man, the sort of hero who can give and receive a perfect one-liner. A lot of early attention was given to Cooper and Diesel, who quickly move past the conceit of their roles and get at how they would think and feel.

To my surprise, the biggest laughs come from Bautista: I mean this in the best way possible, but he speaks like an actor in a mediocre Shakespeare production. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger before him, Bautista uses his limiting acting ability to his advantage, and the way Drax takes everything literally puts him somewhere between The Terminator and Eldar Conehead.

In terms of action, Gunn does not focus on choreography and instead looks for big, appealing gestures. There are several sequences of hand-to-hand combat, and while they’re clunkily edited, there’s a forcefulness to it so that we care about the outcome. The best action involves Groot, whose powers offer one big surprise/laugh after another. And this is a space opera we’re talking about, so there are large space battles in addition to more intimate violence. Like several other Marvel films, there’s a climax where a big wide floating craft crashes into a city, and Gunn has the wherewithal to film at a greater distance from his predecessors, so at least the effects look different (there’s also an interesting scene where a fleet of starfighters form a beautiful, glowing membrane over the craft). In its most overt reference to Star Wars, the climax is a three-pronged attack, and Gunn cuts away whenever one sequence gets too boring (it’s a lot like the end of Return of the Jedi).  

And whether it’s an impromptu dance sequence or the near-destruction of a planet, Gunn uses a soundtrack of 70s hits, including Blue Seude, David Bowie, and The Runaways. The reason behind the pop music is clever – it’s Peter’s last connection to his family, and Earth – and the juxtaposition of image and music is nostalgic, as well as a means to upend certain genre clichés.

The best thing about Guardians of the Galaxy, the thing that puts it above most other Marvel films, is how the characters are allowed to be vulnerable, and have feelings. There’s an early scene where Quill shouts, “That song is mine!” and Pratt plays the line for dormant pain, not the laugh. Gamora has less fun than her follow Guardians, but there’s a complexity to her motivations that deepen her choices. Still, I felt the strongest connection to Rocket. There’s a harrowing scene where Rocket is drunk, and it’s touching how an inherently violent creature awakens reserves of self-loathing through a casually stupid insult. There’s also a scene where Rocket is sobbing – literally sobbing, without any irony – and the raw grief is the closest thing Marvel has gotten toward emotional catharsis.

These moments are nonetheless fleeting, as Guardians of the Galaxy dutifully crosses off all the necessary items from the Marvel checklist, which include annoying cameos and an underdeveloped villain. They’re so easy to spot now. The good news is that Gunn and his cast are bored with the checklist, too, so the film mostly feels spontaneous, like everyone is having fun when the bigwigs aren’t looking.

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