UPDATED: Since my speculation about the post-credits scene turned out to be absolutely correct, I have removed it now as an actual spoiler. Hey, perhaps they should have shown it to us and we’d know what not to say.
Lord knows we critics can’t be fans too, and we totally saw it for “free” with the only obligation being that we then have to take a couple of hours out of the day to write an article about it, because that’s how we make a living and stuff. This may be a larger topic for another day.
But I’m not bitter. With or without whatever comes next, Guardians of the Galaxy is a fully entertaining and visually overwhelming experience. Is it a game changer? Depends how it does – if “The A-Team in space” does better than the actual A-Team movie (both, funnily enough, starring Bradley Cooper and featuring production design by Charles Wood), we’ll be able to say yes, the Marvel brand can now allow for a hugely expensive space movie based on obscure characters and without A-list actors.
Smartly grounding us in a familiar reality before blasting off, director James Gunn gives us Quill at around age 10, watching his mother die from cancer in a hospital bed (that she says “take my hand,” and he doesn’t, makes it irritatingly obvious that the climax of the movie will involve him having to take somebody’s hand, but oh well). Running away from the hospital, he’s teleported into a spaceship that suddenly shows up because reasons – later we learn that it was a bunch of space-rednecks, led by a blue Michael Rooker, who wanted to eat him. Because that totally happened a lot in the ’80s.
Once we flash forward to the present, things get dangerously close to Chronicles of Riddick levels of ridiculousness, as we’re barraged with names of fictional planets and races that sound like a small child is making them up as he goes along, but the saving grace is that the orphaned Peter, who also calls himself Star Lord, uses sarcastic humor as a defense mechanism, and is our surrogate to make fun of the weirdest stuff that happens – like when a talking raccoon and a walking tree show up to collect the bounty on his head.
The primary villain in the film is Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), presumably so named because he keeps telling people that he accuses them. Part of the Kree empire, but willfully ignoring the peace treaty they just signed, he’s also a religious fundamentalist whose family was killed, and he plans on killing exponentially more to make up for that fact. All that’s keeping him from doing so is that there’s a big bad more powerful than he is – Thanos (Josh Brolin), the mad titan seen at the end of The Avengers. But Ronan has a way around this that involves snagging a magical orb and then ignoring Thanos for the rest of the movie (seriously, the big purple dude doesn’t have much more screen time here than in Avengers).
Our central team of heroes forms in order to get the orb themselves – which astute comic fans long ago figured out is one of the Infinity gems, along with the Tesseract and the Aether – for varying reasons. Quill initially wants the money, but then realizes beating Ronan is just the right thing to do. Assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana) works for Ronan and Thanos but wants to double-cross them both and get the gem to safekeeping. Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voice of Vin Diesel, with wonderfully comedic facial expressions that have to be animation because Vin has never done anything close to them) just want money too, while the surprisingly literate and overly literal Drax (Dave BOO-tista, cheer-worthy here) seeks to kill Ronan. It’s a bit like The Avengers, except they’re all criminals.
If the plot sounds fairly simple – hey, there’s a ball; catch it! – it’s because it has to be in a movie that overwhelms you with literal universe building and ginormous visuals at every turn. You’ll want to go for the 3D Imax on this one, unless you’re prone to motion sickness; a climactic battle involves swarms of spaceships to numerous to count, and quite likely impossible to make out on a smaller screen, while the 3D makes great use of scale to show how tiny the Guardians’ “Milano” spaceship (named after Quill’s favorite actress Alyssa Milano, according to Gunn on Twitter today) really is compared to the vastness of whatever planet or catastrophe they’re up against.
Dave Bautista is quite the revelation here, having previously acted in little but direct-to-video action cheapies, and failed to connect with fans in his recent WWE stint. It reminds me of when I was a kid and thought Andre the Giant was a terrifying villain; after watching The Princess Bride, I found he suddenly became one of my favorites. Kids today are going to feel the same about Big Dave, who masters an impressive vocabulary delivered in utterly unironic deadpan. Rocket is clearly meant to be the breakout character, and while I dig the little guy, Cooper’s voice has just a touch of “trying-too-hard” that feels a bit off. Consider me more of a Groot guy, as Vin Diesel brings back memories of The Iron Giant, while the CG animators have great fun with both his ever-morphing body and the baby-like way he moves his face. Saldana, usually so great, doesn’t get much to do but fight, and she’s good at it.
The action in general is quite impressive – we don’t normally think of Gunn as a director of this kind of large-scale choreography, but he’s good at it, occasionally using the time-slowing techniques of former collaborator Zack Snyder to great effect. The only time it gets a little away from him is during the final battle – say what you will about George Lucas, but look at, for example, the way he staged the star fights in Revenge of the Sith: you know at all times where Anakin and Obi-Wan’s fighters are in relation to everything else. The equivalent scene in Guardians is a bit more of an Independence Day-style clusterfuck, where you sort of know what’s supposed to be happening, but more often just sit back and figure the story will have to work itself out eventually.
And this is a minor but significant nitpick: outer space in the Marvel universe doesn’t require space suits – Star Lord’s special helmet is sufficient to keep the cold vacuum from destroying a person utterly. Yes, I get that guys like Thanos are magic and super-powered, and I give him a pass, but what’s Drax’s excuse? There’s kind of an explanation for Gamora, and some extremely after-the-fact possible rationalizing for Quill, but a single line to the effect of, “Hey, there’s limited atmosphere here” would make it easier to swallow right off the bat.
I’ve heard reactions on this one vary from the aforementioned “game-changer” to “same old Marvel movie formula,” and I’d respectfully suggest that it’s not quite either. Visually, it has some of the most epic stuff since we last saw Asgard, and galactic capital Xandar is a colorful place with a look distinct from most other sci-fi cities. Narratively, it features criminals who, while doing the right thing in the end, are not fully repentant. It also makes clear the stakes of mass death and shows people disintegrating, clearly responding to Man of Steel syndrome. At the same time, James Gunn’s signature sense of humor is present through and through, most notably in a joke about semen and blacklight that will probably, mercifully fly over children’s heads while making them wonder why their parents are howling with laughter. Ronan’s a bit of a lame-ass baddie when compared to Thanos – he’s more Malekith than Loki – but I’m on board with the idea of not having the archvillain be the first threat the hero faces.
It worked pretty well for that one movie with Heath Ledger.