The best thing about James Gunn’s “Guardians of the Galaxy”—the latest Marvel universe picture—is that it introduces a new universe and a new set of characters. And even though it’s inevitable that there will be a “Guardians/Avengers” crossover in the near future, this first installment remains an isolated affair. There are no cameos from other superheroes and there aren’t even any mentions of Tony Stark or Bruce Banner in passing. If you’re like me then this will be a relief. I know I can’t be the only one who’s tired of all the interconnectivity of the Marvel movies (for the sake of this review, I’m only talking about Marvel Avenger movies, not Spiderman or X Men).
There’s nothing inherently wrong with trying to bring together multiple superheroes but Marvel has treated the whole affair as a big budget television show rather than a movie franchise. Most of the “movies” serve the sole purpose of teasing the next episode. I’d argue that we didn’t really get a complete movie until Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers” in 2012. And now, with “Avengers 2” on the horizon and Marvel into Phase 2 (with movies like “Thor: The Dark World,” “Iron Man 3” and “Captain America: The Winter Solider”) we’re back to where we were. Each new movie just another episode. There are good things to be found in some of these episodes. “Iron Man 3” and “Captain America” are competently made movies but there’s just nothing that memorable about them. They follow the same watered down superhero template; there aren’t any major surprises because Marvel has everything planned out until far in advance.
Anyway, getting back to the movie at hand. I hope Marvel explores the universe set up in “Guardians” as an isolated incident more in the future as opposed to quickly mating with The Avengers’ universe. Gunn’s movie feels more like “Star Wars” than a previous Marvel flick. It takes place in a galaxy far far away (presumably) and the viewer is plopped down right into the middle of an intergalactic struggle between the Nova Corps and the evil Cree forces (essentially, the Rebel Forces vs. The Empire). From there we’re exposed to an array of colorful alien characters from a variety of different worlds, with goofy names and elaborate costumes. And of course, there are the Guardians themselves, the intergalactic misfits and outcasts that have to put aside their differences and fight the empire.
First up the leader and sole human member Peter Quill aka Starlord, (Chris Pratt) a laid back outlaw who’s a cross between Andy Dwyer and Han Solo… though he’s basically Luke Skywalker. Next, there’s Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a green skinned alien orphan who’s the adopted daughter of the main baddie Thanos. Then there’s Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a loud-mouthed mutant raccoon that doesn’t take crap from no one. He’s like Han Solo if, instead of being frozen in Carbonite, Darth Vader had spliced his DNA with a raccoon’s. Then there’s Rocket’s trusty sidekick Groot, (voiced by Vin Diesel) a mutant tree whose arch nemesis sadly isn’t an intergalactic lumberjack. To bring it back to “Star Wars”, he’s a less intelligent and less compelling Chewbacca. He’s a tree that can only say his name. The only “Star Wars” characters not here are the droids C-3PO and R2-D2; in their place is… Drax The Destroyer (WWE wrestler Dave Bautista) who’s essentially Dave Bautista painted blue, talking in pidgin English.
Speaking of weirdness—did you not just read the previous paragraph? --“Guardians of the Galaxy” is probably the weirdest Marvel superhero movie to date. I mean we’re talking about a team of heroes that consists of a talking raccoon and a talking tree. That makes a character like Thor look like Agent Colson. And that’s not even all of the weirdness. For example, there’s also a blue skinned alien bounty hunter played by Merle Dixon from “The Walking Dead” that has a flying arrow weapon thing he can control by whistling. As ridiculous as all of this may sound, it works heavily in ”Guardians” favor. I was never bored during the entire movie. The sheer bizarreness of the world and the characters kept my attention for the full two hours. This is something I can’t say about the other recent Marvel Avenger movies (“Thor 2,” “Captain America 2,” I’m looking at you).
Granted, it can get messy and convoluted. Unlike “The Avengers” we weren’t separately introduced to the Guardians and instead of easing us into this new strange universe Gunn just sort of pushes us into the lake. It’s messy and a little disorienting, but at least it’s watchable. At least it strives to shake things up. To get away from “Star Wars,” it was like watching Andrew Stanton’s underrated “John Carter” in 2012.
I haven’t talked much about the plot and that’s because it’s the worst, most forgettable part of the movie. The central conflict involves getting a special orb that contains a special stone that can either save or destroy the universe. It’s always about getting some kind of object; even in “The Avengers” everyone was after a special staff. Aren’t there any other conflicts or MacGuffins out there? This would be more tolerable if the central character interaction was better but The Guardians, as nutty as they may be, don’t have the same chemistry down that the Avenger’s had and since we’re being introduced to them for the first time their development throughout the picture remains fairly weak.
Part of this might also have to do with the acting, which ranges from forgettable to hammy to flat out terrible. Not surprisingly, the WWE wrestler gives the worst performance but even seasoned actors like John C Reilly or Glenn Close in minor roles--done up in goofy costumes and makeup--turn in really hammy performances, while talented actress Zoe Saldana is nearly forgettable as Gamora. Pratt is the only one that stands out and even he tends to overact most of the time. In fact it’s safe to say his character in “Guardians” is just as animated as his character was in the animated Lego movie from earlier this year. He’s fun to watch, especially if you like him on “Parks and Recreation” but he doesn’t quite feel like a superhero franchise lead. At least not yet.
Tonally the movie is extremely silly. Which is saying something considering the general tone in Marvel is already pretty silly. “Guardians” feels like a PG comedy, which is also saying something since the movie’s actual rating is PG-13. There’s a moment where Peter literally dances to eighties music-- F.Y.I., the movie has lot of eighties pop and rock music, from the likes of David Bowie and The Runaways—to distract the main bad guy. I laughed a few times but most of the humor felt directed at people younger than me. Nothing necessarily wrong with that except as an adult I couldn’t get as emotionally invested in the characters and their plight, as a seven or ten year old might. There’s not much weight behind what happens. As silly as it is, I don’t think James Gunn wants the viewer to take it entirely as a comedic work and yet the comedy overpowers all of the attempts at serious emotion. A side story involving Peter’s mom (who died of cancer when he was kid) fails to make any kind of an impression.
Overall, I think “Guardians Of the Galaxy” works well on a macro level but not so much on a micro level. I liked that Gunn throws us into a brand new universe with its own mythology without reference to other superheroes. Narratively however, the movie’s underwhelming but I think that in future installments—assuming The Guardians stay in their own universe—if the world is further explored, the characters are better developed and the kiddie humor is toned down slightly there could be another great or near great Marvel movie (after “The Avengers”).
Even though I’ve lost interest in most of the Marvel cinematic universe I remain cautiously interested in what The Guardians might do next.