I really didn't think this one was going to work.
Marvel has had such a string of hits that it's really easy to forget just how unknown many of their franchises were to a mass audience. Iron Man and Thor had always been second-tier, Hulk was seen as damaged goods after the failure of the Ang Lee-helmed film and Captain America was a dudley-do-right whose history necessitated the first film being a period piece. There are reasons that any one of those franchises could have struggled to find an audience, to say nothing of the risk of having all those franchises feed into one film with all the heroes? It had the potential to be a mess.
And yet it did work. I've always felt that Marvel owes a great deal of their mass appeal to two guys: Robert Downey Jr. and director Jon Favreau. A look at the box office backs that up - the first two Iron Man movies far outgross their cousins in the solo Marvel Studios outings. Once they all came together in The Avengers, the next films in the series saw their box office receipts soar. Robert Downey Jr. was the gateway drug, not just to the Iron Man character, but to the whole Marvel Universe. Miscast Tony Stark and maybe none of this would have worked.
So when the most hard-core of the geek faithful insisted that Guardians of the Galaxy was sure to be a slam dunk, I wasn't ready to drink that Kool-Aid. A solo film populated with weird characters that included a talking tree and talking raccoon and none of the familiar Marvel touchstones? Honestly, it reminded me of my own excitement in the year that preceded Green Lantern's release. As a fan of that comic franchise, I was thrilled that the early trailers and stills suggested that they'd really worked hard to translate the mythology and the characters to the big screen. Of course, none of that helped get asses in the seats, and the film's other flaws ensured that word-of-mouth wouldn't bring people in.
The hiring of James Gunn to direct and rewrite the script also inspired little enthusiasm. In the geek echo chamber, this was a brilliant move and he was the "perfect" choice. This perplexed me given his resume. Super was one of the most unpleasant films I had endured in recent history, a violent superhero movie for people who thought Kick-Ass was too cuddly. In fact, my dislike of it was so extreme, it moved me to revisit Kick-Ass to determine if either I'd been overly kind to the earlier film, or if my tastes had changed in the intervening time. It turns out neither was the case. Kick-Ass still worked for me; Gunn's nasty brand of violence that insisted it was humor didn't.
(To be honest, I don't think Gunn would find that reaction offensive. You don't make a movie as knowingly harsh as Super and know you've done it effectively if you don't have some viewers aggressively resisting the film. If you've made a movie like that and everyone loves it, you probably did something wrong or played it too safe. )
I was mostly indifferent to Gunn's Slither, a Troma-inspired horror film that didn't strike me as particularly inventive beyond some novel casting. I can see people being entertained by it in a guilty pleasure way, but for me Troma has always been on the same plane as Asylum's brand of intentionally-bad cheesiness. You don't see many people calling for Sharknado's Anthony C. Ferrante to direct Howard the Duck, do you?
And yet, I really enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy.
I don't think it's my favorite Marvel movie. The political thriller of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the superhero camaraderie of The Avengers are both more to my tastes as a viewer, but it's impossible to deny how much of GOTG - from casting to production design to visual effects - not only works but works well.
The ensemble is a key reason why this movie works. Every one of the five hero characters is well-defined, with clear motivations. Chris Pratt's Peter Quill is a fortune-hunting hot-shot outlaw. He's pretty much what you imagine the love child of early Indiana Jones and Han Solo would be, and if you think it's hyperbole to compare Pratt to Harrison Ford at his peak, then you must be completely unfamiliar with his work. In films like these, sometimes the human characters run the risk of getting blown off the screen by the more colorful aliens. Pratt more than holds his own and as a fan of the guy since Everwood, it was a real treat to see him finally become a movie star.
Quill has stolen an orb and then ends up crossing the man who sent him, which leads to a bounty being placed on his head. Rocket Raccoon and talking tree Groot are both keen on collecting that bounty while alien woman Gamora is out to claim the orb before it can fall into the wrong hands. Their first confrontation lands all of them in prison, where the bulky alien Drax recognizes Gamora as an associate of Ronan, the man who killed his family. Though they're initially at odds, the five team up to break out of prison and then are stuck cooperating in order to accomplish their goals.
Quill's just trying to stay alive, Rocket wants profit, Groot is a follower, Gamora needs to keep the orb out of the wrong hands and Drax wants Gamora as bait for the guy he really wants to kill. Not only does everyone have a clear goal, but each goal is integral to the story and both advances and complicates the plot. In ensemble pictures, it's hard to balance that many different characters and flesh them all out, but damn if GOTG doesn't make its leads a fun group of reluctant teammates who are just a gas to hang out with for two hours.
Rocket is going to be the character most people come out of the theater gabbing about (a rodent with a machine gun has that effect), but I think Drax might have been my favorite. There's a running gag about his inability to understand that metaphors are not meant to be taken literally. It's a joke that might have been too obvious on the page, but Dave Bautista somehow finds just the right comedic vibe to make that gag land. Groot's also a lot of fun and impressively the schtick of him only being able to say one phrase ("I am Groot") doesn't wear out its welcome. I feel like Zoe Saldana's let down a little bit by the script, which supplies her with a motivation but too often makes her the straight man (She's not bad by any means, but in retrospect, Gamora's role turns out to be less meaty than it initially appears.)
If there's a relatively consistent blind-spot in the Marvel movies, it's that their villains are often either weak, dull or both. Ronan, though played well by an unrecognizable Lee Pace, feels like a walking plot device in search of depth. Thanos is mostly there to look foreboding and be motivation in the background for a lot of character moves. He has slightly more influence over events than an off-screen Jabba the Hutt did in the first two Star Wars movies, but not by much. I liked Karen Gillian as Nebula, but her character doesn't get quite enough to do either.
Marvel really needs to step up their game on their villains, because that column contains their biggest "miss" ratio. Winter Soldier acquitted itself well, but Thor: The Dark World had a main villain who most people probably couldn't name by the time they reached their car in the theatre parking lot. Iron Man 1 and 2 both had fairly unmemorable baddies, as did Hulk. Loki and the Mandarin are two solid wins, but I'm really ready for a new bad guy who will leave me excited for an encore.
Another quibble is that the climax falls again on the trope of the city destroying battle. Considering the backlash both Avengers and Man of Steel faced for their end battles, it was amusing to hear a throwaway line indicating the city was evacuated just before a massive spaceship crashes on top of it. That nitpick aside, all of the action plays well. Much of that credit goes to Gunn, who ensures the plot moves briskly, even as the film has to continually check in with several groups of characters.
I am a little perplexed by the refrain that this was a "pure James Gunn film" because I see little resemblance between this and the two films he's directed. Stylistically they're completely different and Guardians tones down the gore and violence that seemed like a hallmark of Gunn's earlier films. People might be reacting to the humor, but I don't know if that's unique enough. If you didn't know Gunn directed it, you might be tempted to describe the film as Whedon-esque in tone.
The humor does help the film stand apart, though. I personally felt that the script went to the well at least once too often with gags revolving around Quill's walkman and its mixtape. There's a neat character beat in there about why this has such sentimental value for him, but there are only so many laughs to be wrung out of the incongruity of aliens encountering '70s pop. It works the first few times, but a tiny bit more restraint might have helped.
(This week, I will be burned at the stake for noting this stuff. In two years, every Marvel geek will have moved on to the new hotness and will be acting like GOTG was never as good as people claimed. Exhibit A: Fanboys suddenly shitting on The Avengers two years after proclaiming it to be the best superhero movie ever. Exhibit B: Fans excited that Batman Begins finally took Batman "seriously" now complain about Nolan being "embarrassed" by the comic book elements. Disagree with me now, but I'll see you in 2016 when the conversation shifts to where this film fell short.)
Also, when viewers of The Avengers said how it took them out of the film to see "Robin from How I Met Your Mother" as Fury's right hand, my reaction was, "She's an actress. Suck it up." (Of course, I've not seen much HIMYM.) Because of that, it probably serves me right that every time "Kirk from Gilmore Girls" showed up, I was distracted beyond belief. (Yes, I know that's James Gunn's brother Sean.) He struck me more as someone playing an alien thug in an SNL sketch than an actual alien thug in this movie's world. He seemed detached from the reality of the moments he was in and between that and the Kirk association, his scenes kept pulling me out of the film. (Burying him in make-up might have helped here.)
In the end, Guardians of the Galaxy does what any good movie should - it entertains. Marvel has defied the odds and launched a franchise off of some of their most obscure characters. It's an achievement that has me hoping that at least one of the release dates yet to be filled will be for a film that's similarly bold in concept and character.