Sunday, August 3, 2014

Movie Review - Guardians of the Galaxy


Guardians of the Galaxy is the latest offering from Marvel Studios.  Unlike all the other Marvel releases it does not center on any of the big names like Iron Man, Thor, or Captain America.  The Guardians have been a third-tier act for Marvel; the comic book series has been canceled and re-started more than once, and other than showing up on an episode or two of the Marvel animated series Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes and Avengers Assemble, they have been a small potatoes collection of characters with a cult following at best.  So for Marvel to go with them for a major motion picture looked like a real gamble, and a sign that Marvel had run out of household names for future films.  The Guardians are a ragtag quintet consisting of one Earthling, Peter Quill aka Star Lord and four aliens including a walking, talking tree named Groot and a walking, talking raccoon named Rocket.  The only way this movie got made is if Marvel itself is doing the backing, which it is.  This would be the equivalent of doing a baseball movie about middle relievers. On paper it looks like you're asking for trouble.  But at the same time there's opportunity.  Since the Guardians are not high level characters that everybody knows about, you don't have to deal with all knowing fanboys scrutinizing every detail or pretentious movie critics comparing it to the stories about the same characters they saw decades ago (this is a major stumbling block to movies with Batman and Superman; too many critics want their Christopher Reeve movies and their Adam West TV shows instead of the current films and it shows in their reviews).  You have lots of freedom to just come up with a good story and a good movie.  Now yes, even these characters have some traits you have to stick to, but it's not the same as having to start Captain America in World War 2 or with Bruce Wayne losing his parents.  The timing is perfect, too; since the Avengers film in 2012 there hasn't been a Marvel film that wasn't a sequel of some kind (Iron Man 3, Thor: the Dark World and Captain America: the Winter Soldier).  Critics are openly lamenting about there being too many superhero films and the hipster set is already writing thinkpieces about how we're at peak superhero.  If there was ever a need to show something unique, this was it.


OK, but how was the actual movie?  In a word, excellent.  Director James Gunn and the Marvel team took the freedom and lack of expectations and hit a home run.  Guardians of the Galaxy isn't really a superhero film at all; other than it being set in the Marvel Universe there aren't any connection between the title characters and any of the Avengers we've already met.  The entire film save the first five to ten minutes takes place in outer space and on distant planets far away from the reaches of SHIELD or Stark Enterprises. The story starts when Quill (played by Chris Pratt) is abducted by aliens minutes after his mother dies from cancer; 26 years later he's a space scavenger traveling all over the galaxy finding (more like stealing) artifacts from abandoned worlds and selling them for cash.  While stealing an mysterious orb he runs afoul of everyone from the minions of an alien named Ronan to the legitimate authorities in that part of space.  After being caught along with Rocket, Groot and Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who were all trying to catch him for different reasons, the four are imprisoned and soon meet an alien named Drax (the WWE's Dave Bautista) who becomes the fifth member of their impromptu alliance.  They escape and then try to find a place to sell the orb while avoiding Ronan and his forces.  The fragile team has to overcome their own selfish motives and impulses to ultimately do what's right or else Ronan will find the orb and use it for his own destructive purposes.  Each member has his or her own distinct personality and each actor/actress does a bang up job in conveying it, even the voice actors behind Groot and Rocket, Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper.  Bautista, the biggest risk in terms of casting, does his part in portraying the vengeful but sad Drax the Destroyer.  There's a lot of humor as well; Pratt is a riot as the goofy, wisecracking Star Lord while Cooper and Diesel turn Rocket and Groot into a hilarious 2014 version of Han Solo and Chewbacca all the way down to Rocket being the only one who can interpret what Groot is saying.


The music is excellent as well.  Quill's most prized possession is a old walkman with a tape labeled Awesome Mix, Volume One that his mother made for him and it serves as in-movie DJ of sorts.  If you don't come out of the movie with Blue Suede's "Stuck on a Feeling" in your head you might be the only one.  The pairing of song with film works even better for this one than when Marvel went all AC/DC for Iron Man 2; like that one you'll find yourself looking up the soundtrack as you head home from the theater.  As far as a grade, I had to think about it because I was suffering from the same nostalgia as the critics who piled on Man of Steel.  My first sci-fi adventure was the original Star Wars trilogy.  Those films hold a special place in my heart that clouds my judgement when it comes to talking about them, so as much as I liked Guardians I was not totally blown away like so many of the people whose reviews I've read.  But from a purely objective standpoint, this was clearly better than all the Star Wars prequels and was better written than everything than Empire Strikes Back.  On the Marvel scale, I've seen some people call it the best of the lot.  I haven't formed a final conclusion on that front; I'll have to see how Winter Soldier holds up to repeated viewings before I make a final judgement.  But not matter how I decide I definitely won't debate anyone who wants to put Guardians at number one on their list.  There was some questioning as to why Marvel announced the Guardians sequel at Comic Con, before the movie even opened, but it's obvious now that they knew they had a winner on their hands.  This gets 5/5 from me. 

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