I know I’m late to this party, but I spent last weekend taking in Boyhood while everyone else was laughing at the antics of a talking raccoon and that dude from Parks and Recreation.
I know I’ve started a little glib. The truth is, the hype surrounding the movie made me skeptical. It currently holds the 36th position on the IMDB top 250 and was tied with Boyhood on Rotten Tomatoes. Usually, when this happens with a blockbuster, I am setting myself up for disappointment. It happened with Frozen and it can happen again.
Guardians of the Galaxy is not a disappointment. It is a fun populist science fiction movie. There is plenty to like, from the bizarrely unique characters to the very good special effects.
But so much about the film feels safe and sterile. I do understand why – the Marvel comic is not among the most well known properties and it obviously cost a great deal of money to bring this world to life. So the script had to be comfortable for everyone.
Most of Guardians is based on The Avengers’ formula of getting different characters together, realizing that they’re different, but coming together when a major city is threatened with destruction. In this case, the protagonist is Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) a human who was kidnapped from Earth in 1988. He still carries a mixtape that his mother gave him. (A mixtape? How has that lasted thirty years and several light years?) Then there’s Gamora (Zoe Saldana) a bounty hunter who is the daughter of Thanos (Josh Brolin, uncredited) and sister of the villainous Nebula (Karen Gillan of Doctor Who fame under heavy makeup). Next, we have Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), a talking raccoon who is joined by Groot (Vin Diesel) a living tree. Finally, there’s Drax (Dave Bautista) who seeks to avenge his wife and child. They’re trying to stop Ronan (Lee Pace) from using a MacGuffin (actually something called an infinity stone that is a remnant of existence from before the big bang) and destroying the universe.
As I typed that preceding sentence, I realized just how simple the film can be described. It doesn’t feel simple at first, particularly during the first act. This is mostly because the characters are well defined. Rocket, in particular, is delightfully weird. Even the pop culture obsessed Quill is engaging, even though such a character has been copied in every decent space opera for a while now. Still, his speech about the earth legend Footloose was inspiring. And Groot – Groot is just a giant tree that can only say his name. Still, he’s very useful in a fight.
The worlds they travel too are also appropriately wonderful. When you have an alien planet that’s actually the skull of an old god, you know you’re in pure adventure territory. What’s amazing is how subtle some of these differences are. There are all sorts of subtle signs and moments that gave me the feeling of a larger world. One example involved a humanoid with an obviously alien family. There is no reference to it, but it did gave me a lot to ponder. What are alien/human relationships like? Are they tolerated on other planets? Is this planet meant to be a utopian paradise where no one questions that? What does that say about our planet? One moment, with no dialogue, left me wondering. That’s skillful film-making.
Yet it’s the characters that make the film work. There is an actual dynamic there and they do seem to be products of the world’s they inhabit. One of the biggest problems with science fiction films is the endless time that is devoted to explaining what is happening and where the characters are. Wouldn’t they already know that? Guardians of the Galaxy assumes the characters are smart and doesn’t revel too much in the exposition.
But that’s also because the plot is safe. I wasn’t kidding when I said this was basically The Avengers. The entire third act deals with the destruction of a huge city. They repeat that joke with the Hulk pounding Loki into submission (only this time it’s with a spaceship running someone over) and there is the second act conflict where one of the characters loses control and brings destruction to his team. Considering Avengers made a billion dollars worldwide, it’s easy to see the motivation they had. Still, with such great characters and an awe-inspiring setting, I can’t hate the film.
There is a reason people flock to the familiar. Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t insulting and is engaging during its run time. I certainly enjoyed it, but I have to confess it is getting rather tiring. I seem to always loop back to Iron Man in any Marvel review, and that’s because I think people are forgetting the impact of that amazing film. It was a great achievement, filled with imagination and skill. But it also broke several molds and took everyone by surprise with the thought that had been put into Iron Man and his world. I feel that’s been missing from the subsequent Marvel movies. They’ve found a routine that they’re sticking to. It works for now because they still hire skilled filmmakers who understand that appeal of the comics. But if Marvel and Disney aren’t careful, they’re going to find themselves in a lot of trouble down the road.
Maybe that Howard the Duck movie they tease in post credits scene will help. It can’t be any worse than the last movie based on Howard.