Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy: Two More Cents in the Hat

As film writeups go, this one seemed an inevitability. Like much of the rest of the country, and parts of the world depending on release schedule, I spent two hours of this past weekend checking out Marvel's latest offering: James Gunn's opener to the pantheon of Cosmic Marvel, Guardians of the Galaxy.

I will admit before I begin-I'm not entirely up to speed with Guardians as a comic. Prior to this point, my introduction to much of the cast was care of Marvel's Annihilation miniseries. Anyone who's read that will agree that its take on the characters are different enough that it can't really be used as an adaptation primer here.

So, this one's just taking the film as it comes.

A lot's been made of this movie in the months leading up to its release. Besides the general hype it's gained -because hey, it's Marvel- it's also a pretty wild card to play. Granted, this wouldn't be the first lesser known Marvel's jumped up to the big leagues with a big budget movie- just ask Iron Man. Still, a whole new setting, with heroes that most non-comic readers have NEVER heard of before, with a team of characters that includes a gun-toting raccoon and a talking tree? Yeah, Marvel was showing some serious stones on this gamble.

Who are you kidding? Chances are, you're still gonna pay to see 'em.

Well, relatively serious. Let's face it, by this point they've built in enough hype that even if this movie just turned into two hours of Stan Lee dancing on Jack Kirby's grave, it would have still made bank.

...okay, that was a little TOO cynical and dark, even for me. Especially since, for as much as I will argue that Marvel's reputation has made this movie pretty fool-proof at the box office, I still genuinely liked it.

Moving away from the mess left behind at the end of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, this movie takes us in the plane of Cosmic Marvel. There are still some shout-outs to past movies -such as return appearances of Thanos and The Collector (Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro respectively)-but for the most part, this is currently its own playing field away from the Avengers circle of interest.

"You don't remember me? Welp, not my fault you can't be bothered to stay through the credits."

At the forefront of this is Peter Quill (Chris Pratt, continuing his career rise in top form) a human who was taken from Earth early on in life by a space pirate- a Ravager named Yondu (Michael Rooker in a sadly underrated performance from the sound of other reviews.) Yondu raised Peter, and Peter took on the self-styled nickname of Starlord to follow in his footsteps. We see early on when he steals a mysterious orb that puts him on the hitlist of infamous fanatic Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace.)

Confused? Sorry about that. The film's not really gonna help you any more than this summary. It's really a movie that you just learn to take in stride.

Anyway, Peter decides to cut Yondu out of the deal and pawn the orb for himself. This idea goes about as well as can be expected, as Yondu puts out a bounty on him that puts him in the crosshairs of bounty hunters Rocket Racoon and Groot (Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel.)

I'm gonna be honest. I'm just gonna stop trying to summarize the plot here, because otherwise I'm going to wind up taking you through the full plot. It's one that's kind of tricky to summarize. At this point all you need to know is that Quill, Rocket, Groot, and their other companions-the assassin Gomora (Zoe Saldana) and vengeful warrior Drax (Dave Bautista) all find themselves caught up in a galaxy-wide manhunt for this orb, and must band together to protect it from those who would use it for destructive purposes.

One thing I will give this film, as both a strength and a weakness, is that it really never stops. On the one hand, this means it maintains an energy that really does help those two hours fly by. It keeps the action sequences moving and really makes the whole thing pretty entertaining. The tradeoff being it makes the first part of the movie feel incredibly rushed. After a pretty well done intro, with an amusing opening credits sequence in which Quill dances through an abandoned city in search of the orb, the movie stumbles over itself in its hurry to get all the main cast together. For some characters, it actually kind of works out: Gamora, Rocket and Groot do have their reasons for trying to find Quill established, even if their tracking him down DOES feel a little too quickly convenient. It does lead to a rather amusing sequence that plays like a bizarre game of keep-away as Quill tries to escape both groups before all parties involved get arrested. By comparison, Drax's initial entry into the movie has him just sort of show up and then he's part of the story. Which is a shame since Bautista's definitely trying to make this role work, but the writing really doesn't do him any favors. Especially since he's playing a character, who, by design, takes everything literally. This makes for some nice exchanges humor-wise, but it also means the writers have made him into a character that's prone to exposition dumps.

Their greatest weapon is the sheer disbelief that fills their foes on realizing that this will be what kills them.

Fortunately, most of the problems in terms of pacing and rather clumsy exposition are mainly limited to the first half of the movie. By the time they get the team all together and everyone's on board, the writing improves considerably. It's still not without some later flaws, mostly more in embracing narrative tropes, but it's still not a bad story overall-Just one with a weak delivery at points. Of course, the script also makes up for that with a quick sense of humor . With the hit and miss nature of how comedy can be played in Marvel movies, Gunn and co-writer Nicole Perlman manage to avoid having the jokes fall flat, and also avoid overdoing them to the point where they overrun the more serious moments of movie.

Plot aside, the movie is still a very enjoyable blockbuster. The cast are easily this movie's high point. For a team without prior intros a la The Avengers, this cast introduce themselves and their dynamics fairly well in the space allotted. Even more impressive considering two of them are really mostly just vocal performances. While the whole team delivers, the two standouts here are probably Pratt and Diesel. Pratt gives Peter a very easygoing likable air that really helps audiences warm up to the character. On top of that, he plays that off of the other members of the team well, with a mix of outgoing nature and sarcasm that has earned him a spot in the 'lovable rogues' gallery hall of fame. As for Diesel, it's appropriate to note that this movie comes out fifteen years after Diesel's appearance in the animated movie The Iron Giant. Once again, he has taken a character who has an ultimately limited vocabulary and managed to make them into the heart of the film purely through his delivery. Paired with an almost unrecognizable Cooper as the perpetually angry Rocket, the two make a good demonstration of why voice acting isn't as simple as so many write it off to be.

"Getting ready to start attack ru--wait. Wait. Cancel that. Disney's still working on building the Death Star. Not this time, guys!"

The supporting cast are a bit more of a mixed bag. There's a lot of talent going in this feature. Besides Pace and Rooker, we also have Glenn Close, John C. Reilly, Josh Brolin, Karen Gillan, and Peter Serafinowicz all turn in satisfactory to strong performances, though the script doesn't do all of them favors. I went into this movie uncertain of how to feel about the casting of Brolin, and based on this film I'm still not sure. He doesn't come across too badly, but he barely gets to do anything. So we're stuck waiting until Marvel decides to bring him back up to the front again. Likewise, Close, Gillan, and Reilly are all offering pretty good performances on characters that the script really doesn't do much with and this really hurts in Gillan's case. The movie talks up Thanos's reputation as a powerful person who isn't one to be crossed easily, but no one ever really seems to act like it, much less his two adoptive daughters (this is also a problem for Gamora, but since she gets a bit more beyond that role anyway, Saldana is getting the better deal of the two.) As for Pace…Pace in this movie gave me flashbacks of Christopher Eccleston in Thor: The Dark World. They are both talented actors who are essentially reduced to looking intimidating and not much else. Pace has the presence to do that well, but it's hard not to feel frustrated because he can do so much more.
Of the entire supporting cast, Rooker is easily the one to beat. I'll concede that his take on Yondu isn't that far from his stint as good old boy Merle from The Walking Dead, he makes it work well with the character. His quasi-murderous father-son bond with Quill is one of those areas where it really manages to work for him: on the one hand, Yondu is justifiably angry at being cut out of the deal, but he also shows moments- particularly at the end - of even being proud at seeing how Quill's turned out under his tutelage.

Similar background, similar personality, similar second in command, even a similar plot for revenge.
...he prettymuch IS just Malekith Jr.

Besides the colorful cast of characters, I should mention that this movie's set design as another standout. From the intergalactic prison known as the Kyln, to the Collector's offices, to Ronan's crypt-like warship, the filmmakers clearly had a field day coming up with the varying different locales for this movie. It's a big part of what helps this film maintain its space opera flare and has invited a lot of Star Wars comparisons. The scenes in the Kyln are particularly worth noting here, if only for the number of little actions one can pick out throughout the inmates in each scene. The cast are fun, but there's also fun to be had in the various worlds they get to have their adventure in.

Helming all of this, Gunn's direction makes for an interesting guide. As a card-carrying Troma veteran, he proved a very unexpected choice for this job when he first got announced. To his credit, he proves game enough to handle the challenges presented in putting this together. Probably some of the best touches are those involving Quill's 'Awesome Mix Tape', a collection of songs from the 70s and 80s that make a good balance of plot relevance and tone for many scenes. Amusingly, for as much as the ads have emphasized the use of the song Hooked on a Feeling, its one scene in the movie is arranged in a way that almost mocks the heavy use in marketing (rather than be used for a key moment, the song plays as we see Quill repeatedly tazed by prison guards before he and the others are processed for imprisonment.) The use of the tape, as well as Gunn's credentials in general, help give the movie a fairly distinct flavor among Marvel's fare - it's a space-faring adventure movie and a comedy rather than a traditional cape and mask superhero film. Even their group name is first appointed in jest, as though to say this isn't what you'd expect of a Marvel movie.

All in all, Guardians of the Galaxy is a pretty damn fun movie for the latter days of summer. I can't rightly say I agree with the assessment of it as the best Marvel movie to date, or even the best of the year (I'd still argue Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the overall better made of the two films.) For what it is, it's still a very fun first step into a new playing field for Marvel. It has things to improve upon, but it's a very enjoyable start for the new chapter.

So yeah...well spent ticket price. Now my summer is mainly just down to seeing if any theaters around here will be picking up The Zero Theorem or not.

In the meantime, next entry of Summer Reading coming soon.

Till then!

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