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Ain’t no thing like me, except me.

Guardians of the Galaxy
(2014)

(SPOILERS) The smart money was on Guardians of the Galaxy being Marvel’s first underperformer. An unknown property (until everyone had Googled it) with a decidedly non Earth-bound setting and a focus on levity that made even the previously most frivolous exchanges in their previous movies look po-faced. And a talking raccoon. It was daring to be rejected. I certainly wasn’t convinced, much as I liked the idea of a talking raccoon. James Gunn’s Slither didn’t tickle me the way it did many a geek, and the first trailer failed to wow (again, it appeared I was in the minority) with an uncertain sense of scale and an all-too brazen, post-Tarantino approach to “cool” (plaster it with retro-hits). It looked like it was trying too hard. At times the finished movie is trying too hard, at others it isn’t trying hard enough, but it’s mostly great fun and very funny, and a much-need mould-breaker in terms of the places Marvel is willing to go. The main complaint is that it could go further; you can see the suits reining Gunn in, making sure he fits their template, when he should have been allowed to bust loose and fully deliver on the tale’s anarchic impulses.


It’s easy to be wise in retrospect, and the huge opening weekend of Guardians (with a sequel announced even before opening night; there’s confidence) now seems like a foregone conclusion amid an underperforming summer filled of all-too familiar tent poles. Guardians was something different, in tone and spirit if not in narrative, and that was surely enough to ignite interest above and beyond the Marvel brand. Marvel arguably laid the groundwork back with Thor, gingerly testing the waters for full-blown fantasy (Iron Man is – relatively – very grounded in comparison) and then successfully marrying accumulated disparate worlds in Avengers. But for all the smart-mouthed knowingness Joss Whedon brought to the studio (and he apparently recommended Gunn who, lest we forget, has two live-action Scooby Doos on his CV), Guardians represents a significant step further out there. It doesn’t actually break the fourth wall, but it is seriously flirting with the idea at times. How can it not, with a talking raccoon as a central character (whether or not its presence in the story can be “logically” justified)?


The unbridled nature of much of Guardians leads back round to the question of why the hell Marvel got such cold feet over Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man. What could have put the willies up them about his take that made it so beyond the pale when sat beside the near-wild abandon often displayed by Gunn? We know there were fundamental differences in the notes, which Wright didn’t accept somewhere along the way, and its probably safe to say these weren’t about sense of humour or visual style. With the former, they’re getting a funny man to do a rewrite and a comedy-associated director to pick up the fallen megaphone; with the latter, why would you employ the guy if not for his distinctive flourish? So no, it must be down to approach to story on some level. And that would make sense, because as far as story goes Guardians is about as generic and conformist as they come. You could pretty much prise the characters from the plot and refashion it as an instalment of Thor without anyone noticing. Big cosmic goings-on, a big nasty cosmic godlike being who wants to get hold of a big cosmic weapon that promises dominion, and an assortment of warrior underdogs rise to the challenge of beating him. It could be Thor: The Dark World.


As such, the movie probably has the most fun in the “assemble the team” first half. It certainly reels under the weight of the identikit grafted-on CGI battlefest that consumes the third act. But even from the off, it’s clear some elements won’t stick well. The prologue has young Peter Quill plucked from 1988 as his mother dies (it’s as nauseous as it sounds), before jumping 26 years to his piratical life and Indy-inspired theft of an orb of unknown properties. Which pits him against the bad guys, results in a price being put on his head and so leads to his imprisonment. Where the gang forms and (naturally) they slowly evolve from self-interested rogues to rogues acting for the greater good.


The attempts to furnish characters with serious motivation don’t really wash. Quill (Chris Pratt), or Starlord as he likes to be known (a running, almost anti-Snake Plissken gag where no one has heard of his preferred title), is devoted to the memory of the mother he lost, but it’s unnecessary junk backstory and only gets a pass because Rocket Raccoon (as voiced by Bradley Cooper) provides a withering dissection of such motivations later on. Very noticeably this isn’t directed towards Quill, but the less important Drax (Dave Bautista). Quill is also foolishly provided with a destiny, which detracts from the bit-of-a-jerk, bit-of-a-prat persona that Gunn would probably rather highlight. Quill has a very high opinion of himself, his ways with the ladies, a capacity for self-mythologising and a music obsession that treads the line between mockery and getting on board with him being “cool”. It’s an aspect where Gunn occasionally comes unstuck; when he’s mocking conventions he manages to make the movie itself cool, but when he attempts to do “cool” stuff he occasionally ends up with something faintly embarrassing. Look at the climactic confrontation, where Quill distracts the villain by doing a cheesy dance (why not, I guess; it’s almost quite clever, except that you feel it’s been done before somewhere) and then the Guardians join together to overcome the devastating effects of the Orb in a rousing moment that, well, isn’t really very. It’s moments like this when you realise how well Gunn has unified the picture visually and tonally, given the dictates of standard heroics.


Still, there’s a feeling that Quill, by falling midway between Indiana Jones, Han Solo and Jack Burton (and then, at the end, Luke Skywalker) is being all things to everyone. Really Quill is a cool guy, great at fighting, a hit with the chicks, with just a teensy bit of Jack Burton window-dressing. And, while Pratt is breezy and funny, the raves about him being the next superstar feel a little premature (Jurassic World will be attempting to cement this). He’s quick and witty, but he doesn’t have the encompassing presence that, say Kurt Russell. Added to that, many of Quill’s gags rely on pop culture references, which is aiming low and hitting the target. Maybe I’m being unfair comparing Guardians to Big Trouble in Little China, but that kind of genre deconstruction came to mind a number of times during the movie. Gunn and Marvel are content to allow the side characters to summon that sort of spirit, but when it comes to the lead they succumb to more traditional poses.


It’s the supporting cast, then, that make this the funniest Marvel movie so far. Leading the pack is Rocket Raccoon, perfectly captured by Cooper’s cocky verbal quick-fire and some wonderfully expressive CGI. A visual cartoon and yet at once “believable”, Raccoon’s an unapologetically free spirit (“You just wanna suck the joy out of everything” he tells Zoe Saldana’s Gamora when she instructs him that no one’s will be blowing up any moons), with a genetically enhanced intelligence only matched by his capacity for mischief (sending Quill off to fetch a prosthetic leg for a joke). And yet he also embodies the only real heart of the movie (in an affecting, rather than a cloying or artificially enforced manner), opining how he didn’t ask to be made, “torn apart and put back together over and over and overturned into some kind of monster” and breaking into tears over the loss of his beloved muscle Groot.


Most would probably agree Vin Diesel comes across a chipper chap (except those who accuse him of blood sacrifices, that is) but few would suggest he’s one of the brightest acting talents on the scene today. He has a certain inverted charisma, an extremely shiny baldhead, and he rightly recognises Riddick as a character to make the most of, but he’s done nothing to suggest much range over the years. So how is it he has delivered two great vocal performances as animated characters? First as the titular The Iron Giant, before anyone really knew his name wasn’t some odd brand name of a non-specific clothing range, and now as Groot, the eight-foot tall sentient tree that only ever utters three words (well, four by the end of the movie)? Vin’s dedication to his art has been noted by the director, that he wanted to make sure each “I am Groot” meant exactly what it was meant to mean. And to be fair, even if his multi-take passion was probably excessive (I’m sure Sir Tony Hopkins wouldn’t have laboured over it), Groot is a wonderfully expressive character, and his bond with Rocket is touching (“Well he don’t know talkin’ good like me and you” explains Rocket of his pal’s succinct nature), as is his wide-eyed innocence. At once joyous at dispensing with bad guys and upset at a bar game where small rodents are eaten, he has a vast quantity of soul. It’s a case of actively being happy his self-sacrifice turns out not to be final, although I could have done without the cabbage-patch kid look-a-like baby Groot bopping in the just-into the credits scene. It’s way too cute and annoyingly crowd-pleasing, almost as if it was thrown together after preview screenings yielded adoring Groot groupies responses.


Many of the characters that aren’t actually CGI or Chris Pratt are painted a funny colour. It’s an endearing recall to the days when aliens in movies and TV were just actors sprayed orange or blue, and it feels wholly right. Drax is lumbered with an Inigo Montoya-ish past and a quest for revenge that, as mentioned, allows for some amusing plays on conventions while toeing the expected line. Bautista (who also appeared in last year’s Riddick) deadpans his way through the proceedings with aplomb, but it’s the jokey character tick that really sells him to the audience (let’s face it, no one cares about his corny quest, as Rocket all but says). When Rocket announces, “Metaphors go over his head”, he responds, “NOTHING goes over my head! My reflexes are too fast, I would catch it”. That, and the line “Don’t ever call me a thesaurus”. The cod-Shakespearian style is a great touch, as he manages to be both erudite and literal (like Spock but less cerebral and more muscly).


The other painted Guardian is the only girl in the gang. Saldana’s Gamora is kick-ass, in true Whedon style, and Saldana is as likeable and lovely a screen presence as ever, but there isn’t very much to distinguish her character aside from some cool moves. It’s one of the Marvel problems. She’s – almost – in the Leia role of reacting to the dashing rogue. One might label it a “guy writing for girls” thing, but it was co-written with Nicole Perlman so Gunn can’t take all the blame (I did like “I will not succumb to your pelvic sorcery”). When it comes to the sequel, it’s the nominally “classic” male-female leads that need the work; the other three are great.


And it isn’t as if they’re the only problematic spots in characterisation. I’m not sure what Lee Pace is on at the moment, but with this and elves and vampires it appears that he is massaging his bank balance rather than his acting chops. Ronan is an utterly banal villain, but name a really good Marvel villain. No?  He can’t really be singled out then but if there’s one thing you can usually rely on in whacky movies, it’s whacky villains. Rodan is a mighty snooze, while the lantern-jawed Thanos (an uncredited vocal from Josh Brolin) is a no more interesting a boss just because he sits on a mighty throne. I liked ex-Amy Karen Gillan more as Nebula, not least because she looks quite alluring all blue and bald (the best bald female alien since Ilia in Star Trek: The Motion Picture… not that there have been a whole lot); unlike Gamora the failure to serve her sufficiently as a character at least appears to arise from an intention to have her as the silent, threatening type. Djimon Hounsou has absolutely nothing to chew on.


Again, though, it’s in the gaps between major protagonists and antagonists that Gunn has his fun. Michael Rooker as Yondu, the Ravager who ripped Quill from his home and treated him kind-of-not like a son, has a ball delivering an instantly recognisable Michael Rooker performance. You can tell Gunn likes the character as he gets one of the few memorable action scenes in the final act, taking out a horde of Kree with a whistle-directed arrow. Benicio Del Toro mugs like he hasn’t since Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as the Collector. John C. Reilly makes a rather dull good guy role upbeat and appealing. It’s not all good. Glenn Close is there to take a big fat cheque for a couple of minutes of prestige actor slumming it; she does the job. Peter Serafinowicz is a bit shit, really. He’s asked to play an Arnold Rimmer type and he does as he’s ordered. I’m sure it was funnier on the page (“I can’t believe I’m taking orders from a hamster” might be the worst line in the movie). He should stick to Darth Mauling in blockbuster sci-fi.


The by-numbers CGI overload of the last half hour or so is put in perspective by how creative Gunn is with his action in the first third. He not only pulls off some visually memorable moments in a “classic” sense (Quill first appearing in his mask, the freezing in space), and does so with a heightened colour palate and a zest and boldness in the framing and staging (the action is clean and clear throughout, so kudos to him), but conjures sequences that are both narratively creative and humorous to boot. The opening venture has Quill crooning to a reluctant lizard before escaping in an edge-of-the-seat and kinetic rollercoaster pursuit. When humour dictates the action, Gunn as director is onto a winner, because he knows just where his markers are.  Even the idea of a joke, rather than anything in the scene (Quill going back for his tape) is effective. So it is that the most satisfying sequence occurs early on, as Quill, Gamora, Rocket and Groot congregate for a batty slapstick back-and-forth as they attempt to capture the orb and/or Quill. It’s such a sustained piece of comedy and action, it reaches a rarefied plane of giddy enjoyment. The sort of thing Spielberg in his prime would have been proud of. It’s all the more disappointing then that the picture forsakes such visual wit long before the conclusion.


It’s a good sign a movie will do repeat business when you know there are so many funny moments you can’t even begin to list them (there are also more than a few duds, of course). A few choice ones include the cosmonaut dog (who, obviously, survives; Gunn knows not to actively alienate his audience), the “percentage of a plan” scene, the Howard the Duck cameo (Seth Green uncredited; now, making a Howard the Duck movie a hit, that would say something about Marvel’s Midas touch). Although, if the Howard cameo had come at the end of Winter Soldier I’d have been really impressed; after 120 minutes of a talking raccoon, one more anthropomorphic motor mouth doesn’t really astound. In contrast, I think it’s a safe bet no one will come away from Guardians raving about the final battle Marvel threw millions at.


So, in its unique way, Guardians of the Galaxy exemplifies the possibilities of Marvel while emphasising its most restrictive elements. When so much is so creative, it wouldn’t really be appropriate to try to excuse the blandest of Marvel movie plots so far as intentional (so as to hang so much craziness on it, presumably). It didn’t need to be. Where does this leave the superhero stock of the year so far? Well, Winter Soldier was great until it lost its nerve, Spidey I know has been announced as the new Batman & Robin but I liked it even if trails in a distant last pace, and Days of Future Past achieved that rare thing; a really solid storyline. Perhaps that’s why it peeks out just above, despite being part of a tired franchise. Guardians may be wisecracking rodent face of things to come, but if so it needs to let its writer loose on the story beats and not just the characters and dialogue. Push the envelope, guys. All third acts don’t have to be same. One day, a Marvel movie might actually surprise with what transpires.


***1/2

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