I have to admit to being completely on the fence since Guardians of the Galaxy was first announced.
For starters — I’ve never been a hardcore comics kid, nor am I particularly a fan of Marvel’s brand of popcorn plasticity. The MCU pictures are only slightly interesting from a filmic outlook, while Guardians as a property is a complete unknown entity to me. A talking raccoon and a tree in locked in cosmic battle with a horde of spaced invaders? Sounds like something more fit for the side of an 80s metal band’s tour van than a multiplex silver screen. Then James Gunn was announced as director/co-writer and my interest level was raised (though I still can’t cop to being completely conned). Slither is a damn good rehash of Fred Dekker’s Night of the Creeps and Super is so dark and personal that it’s hard to dismiss (though I still don’t know if I’ll ever be able to say I’m a “fan” of the film). Could Gunn actually retain his Troma roots? Or would the somewhat boardroom-authored MCU Universe excise what made his previous output special in favor of their factory-line assembly process. Thankfully, the answer is the former, as Guardians of the Galaxy is 110% a James Gunn joint to, to the point that it might be the only Marvel movie to retain its author’s somewhat auteurist voice, marking the first time the filmmaker was valued over the brand.
To be completely frank, Guardians is much more Serenity than Star Wars, capturing a ragtag spirit reminiscent of the MCU shepherd’s own short-lived space opera. Chris Pratt plays Peter Quill like a cross between Andy Dwyer and Captain Mal Reynolds, a vagabond n’er do well who also just happens to be pretty damn handy with a pair of space lasers. And the legion of nitwits he leads against the tyrannical Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace)? Straight out of the Whedon playbook. You’ve got the wordy bruiser (Dave Bautista as Drax the Destroyer), your lethal lady (Zoe Saldana as Gamora) and your secret weapon (Bradley Cooper as Rocket the Raccoon, who steals the entire goddamn movie). The only real Lucasfilm touch here is the mono-phrased Groot (Vin Diesel), who is basically the group’s Chewie. Separately, they’re all a bunch of “losers”, but together they become an unstoppable unit. With that forged familial feeling comes serious spark, as all five bounce off of one another fantastically. Not since The Avengers has a movie assembled a team worthy of its title, as the final thirty minutes of Guardians is nothing short of an adrenaline shot, coupled with a side of nitrous oxide.
Getting the team together is another story entirely. Much like The Avengers (or any other band-building picture), the first thirty minutes, in which the disparate bits of the puzzle are pieced together, are a touch wonky. While definitely not the interminable slog the MCU’s biggest hit to date starts out as, Guardians feels more like a dance that can’t quite find the steps to its own rhythmic dance. Following an emotionally wrenching tease and the best title sequence the brand has ever seen comes a rather rote series of chases, during which Quill (and everyone else who wants a piece of him, including Gamora, Rocket and Groot) dash after Guardians’ central MacGuffin, a magical Orb containing the powers of the Universe (or something — I wish these movies would stop sticking with this sort of inane plotting). Once these space pirates finds themselves locked inside of the prison from Face/Off (nobody’s going to tell me it’s not the prison from that John Woo classic), the movie really finds its footing, as the gang is forced to come together in one place and achieve a shared goal — namely getting the fuck out of dodge.
A lot is going to be made out of the film’s Reservoir Dogs aping, AM Gold soundtrack, but I alternately loved and hated the dive bar jukebox that became the film’s score. At first, it seemed like a nice gimmick that again gave the film a sense of self that helps separate it from the rest of the MCU. But once Gunn starts to use the music (and the cassette tapes from which it comes) as a plot point, the needle drops cease to be idiosyncratic and transform into something of an annoyance. On one hand, the tunes are a nice, pure cinema way to flesh out Quill as a character. On the other, the songs begin to take the place of actually writing Quill as a character. It’s the modern over-reliance on MacGuffin creation that’s become all the rage in Hollywood screenwriting — the invention of a “mystery” object whose origins the audience just has to know (only, in this case, the music becomes a kind of emotional MacGuffin whose genesis can be guessed from the film’s opening frames). And while Guardians of the Galaxy is certainly one of the more visually entrancing entries into the MCU (with an excellent use of 3D that actually justifies the ticket price bump), it actually utilizes the gimmick in such a crass way at one point that I removed my glasses from my face as I picked my jaw up off the floor. I mean — did we have to see a cancer patient’s hand extending past the screen’s limits, reaching out to us in the audience? That seemed like a joke only Michael Haneke would find funny.
Still, it’s hard to be in a bad mood at all when a modern mainstream blockbuster dares to be as deliriously bonkers as Guardians of the Galaxy. What other big budget space adventure is going to feature meaty role for Michael Rooker, looking like Tobias Funke while still sporting his trademark backwoods brawler accent? Or the “blink and you’ll miss it” cameo appearance from Gunn’s old Troma mentor, Lloyd Kaufman? It’s the little things here that add up to the film’s eccentric whole. Meanwhile, Gunn smuggles in a weird bit of metaphor regarding the neverending Israeli/Palestinian conflict, as Ronan The Accuser’s backstory seems steeped in a war that is all too real away from the big screen. Guardians of the Galaxy is a true rarity — MCU or otherwise — as you can actively feel it bucking against the system while simultaneously conforming to it. It’s Johnny Rotten in a business suit, ready to spit in the faces of execs at the big EOY presentation before telling them just how much money they’re about to make.
After only a single viewing, it’s hard to determine whether or not Guardians of the Galaxy is the absolute BEST Marvel movie to date, but it’s certainly not out of line to say that it’s in the running. The flaws are glaring, aforementioned and otherwise (Benecio del Toro’s The Collector character is in the movie so little that you’ll honestly question why they even bothered beyond setting up future films). But the heart and soul it delivers are both so blindingly bright that you forget all about those measly bumps in the road. Here James Gunn has truly done the impossible — he’s brought a bunch of untested characters to the public consciousness and made them his own, while still sticking to the Marvel playbook enough that those unfamiliar with his work really won’t know the difference. In a weird way, Guardians of the Galaxy becomes the first truly subversive Marvel motion picture, as a wacko director managed to sneak in the mansion’s backdoor and rearrange all of the furniture while no one was looking. Yet, in the end, even the execs are going to love the new feel of their living room, as Gunn has delivered a bonafide crowdpleaser bound to make a veritable shit ton of money at the box office. Give this man the keys to the kingdom, as he’s proven himself with one film to be the best director Marvel has hired yet.