Countdown to Infinity War: Revisiting Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
When Marvel announced their post-Avengers movie schedule in 2012, I expected some titles to be on the list. I expected a Black Widow movie. I expected Power Man and Iron Fist. I had expected Daredevil. Bear in mind, this was years before we got the news that these were going to be Netflix shows, so my assumption was that we would see movies about characters who had been around a while, and who had had respectable runs in their own titles and in team books.
When the schedule got posted online and I saw Guardians of the Galaxy on it, I was sure it was a fan trolling me. I mean, really? Guardians? Guardians?!
Hey, don’t get me wrong, I loves me the cosmic Marvel stuff. I’m on board with giant Celestials and Galactus and even Hercules tooling around in his black and orange outfit with his robot sidekick. Uatu the Watcher was always a cool character. I love the Kree, the Skrull, the Shi’ar, all of it. Hell, back in the day I remember picking up that Star-Lord one shot Chris Claremont and John Byrne hammered out between awesome issues of X-Men.
While that dark and dour Civil War nonsense was going on in the comics, as well as its aftermath, Marvel was also publishing the Annihilation series and its tie-ins, where just about every cosmic Marvel hero got involved in a war to stop Annihilus, who was so metal he captured Galactus and was using him as a weapon.
This was the event that resurrected the Guardians concept of space heroes brought together to be pretty badass, and being based out of the head of a dead Celestial. And I ate this stuff up. While we had one set of comics where heroes were being terminally un-fun in dealing with all that moronic infighting, there was this whole other series of comics that reminded us of why we loved the medium so much.
Still, as much as I imagined it would be neat to see a movie based on some of these properties, I never dreamed Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige would be insane enough to pull the trigger on it. And if he was that crazy, I couldn’t imagine he would know what to do with this intergalactic sandbox. If 2013 was the year of crushed hopes, 2014 was the year of low expectations giving way to a pair of awesome films that delivered beyond my wildest dreams. The Winter Soldier had me reeling, and then Guardians of the Galaxy knocked me right out of the ring.
The plot: Peter Quill, wisecracking, pop culture referencing human…
…finds himself thousands of light years from home and allied with a group of aliens, including the proud warrior woman Gamora…
…Drax the Destroyer…
While distrustful of one another, and possessing their own motives and desires, the team must unite to face off against and defeat the menace of Ronan the Accuser.
Can these misfits become the guardians that the galaxy needs?
Okay, okay, smart-aleck-ing aside, I loved the hell out of Guardians of the Galaxy despite what I thought right away were some obvious similarities to one of my favorite TV shows of all time, Farscape. But to be fair, and I mentioned this in an earlier article, a lot of these archetypes are not new, in that Buck Rogers had covered much of the same ground. Personally, I felt the similarities were less a rip-off of Farscape and more an homage to an outstanding series. And in fact, James Gunn acknowledged his love of Farscape and how it inspired him, even going so far as having a sweet cameo for Ben Browder in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2.
So, with that completely out of the way, and with me making no mention of Farscape for the rest of the review (cross my two Timelord timey-wimey hearts!), why does Guardians of the Galaxy work so well? Let’s start with the fact that at its heart, it’s a comedy. Up until now, the Marvel movies had been pretty straightforward superhero stories. Yeah, there were comedic elements in all of them, even The Incredible Hulk, but for the most part they were pretty serious in how they approached the source material. Where Guardians is concerned, it’s the opposite; this is an action-comedy with a sprinkling of the serious thrown in.
James Gunn does a spot-on job of balancing the two disparate tones; at no point does a viewer feel like laughing at a character who’s going through a moment of crisis. And at no point does it ever feel like Gunn is taking themes such as loss and death lightly. While this is the hallmark of an experienced director with a clear vision, it also helps that his cast is up to the task of making his vision a reality.
The look of this film is magnificent, with a bright color palette for its ships, alien makeup, and backgrounds that feels like Gunn is giving Warner Brothers and especially Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder a big middle finger in regards to Man of Steel’s utterly bland and destaturated color scheme.
Gunn isn’t afraid to borrow from some of the best and most over-the-top elements of the comics, either, such as Knowhere, the head of a dead Celestial that serves as the Guardians’ base of operations. While Guardians is based on a comic book, Gunn is well aware he’s directing a sci-fi epic, and he’s not afraid to think big.
It was interesting to see how the inhabitants of Knowhere mine the alien skull of material… much like miners did the dead Goolong in that Farscape episode “Home on the Remains”. Oops, sorry. That’s the last time I bring up Farscape, I promise. Pinky swear.
Gunn handles action as well as he does humor, with the violence and adventure being a joy to watch. I know I’ve bitched and complained before about the whole faceless minions thing, but Gunn focuses most of his attention on the singular villains, and the cannon fodder takes a backseat for much of the film, except for the big fight in the third act where I think they’re put to decent use as they attack Hala and the Nova Corps rise to defend the planet.
Now, on to the cast.
I hardly ever watch sitcoms, so prior to Guardians I had no idea who Christ Pratt was, so unlike most of the leads in previous Marvel films, I had no idea what to expect.
Pratt is likable in his role of Peter Quill/Star-Lord, the charming rogue who seems to be out for number one, but when it comes down to it, he’s a decent person capable of great heroics. He’s never too much of a prick as to become unlikable, and he has some very funny moments. But for me, I think my favorite scene is between him and Yondu, where the carefree façade drops and he gives his foster father a piece of his mind. A lot of what feels like sincere rage explodes out of Quill at the man who stole him from his home and expects him to be grateful for it.
Pratt is damn good as a lead, and I’m glad to see his presence in this movie has netted him more high profile roles.
I’ve been a big fan of Bradley Cooper going back to his work on Alias where he played reporter Will Tippen. If you’ve never seen Alias, I recommend watching seasons one through four, although Cooper appears principally in the first two. I thought he was fantastic in films like The A-Team and The Hangover, but when I heard he was voicing Rocket, I kind of shrugged my shoulders. Let’s be honest, Cooper gets by partly on his looks, so the idea of him taking on a role where said looks wouldn’t be an asset? I wasn’t exactly sure how that would work out.
Fortunately, Cooper proves he’s not just a pretty face. Rocket is a dick, but a lovable one. Cooper imbues the character with a lot of personality, but let’s give credit where credit is due in that the CGI animators did a fantastic job of creating Brad’s alter ego. Between Cooper and the animators, we have, like Quill, a character who never quite crosses over the line into the realm of outright, insufferable dickery.
I’ve been a fan of Dave Bautista for years, going back to when he was a wrestler in the WWE. He had been plagued with injuries and quit while he was ahead to pursue a film career, which was a smart move on his part. He does exactly what James Gunn wants of him, which is to play both a frightening murderous badass and comic relief. He pulls off both effectively…
…but I gotta say, as a fan of the Guardians of the Galaxy comic, the one predating the movie by a few years, I miss the old Drax.
Okay, maybe not that old Drax, but at least the one that appeared in the Annihilation series.
There had been nothing at all funny about that Drax, the man who came back from the dead to kill Thanos. But in the film, we got a goofy guy who didn’t seem very bright. Bautista does his job well, and yeah, I laughed at points, but man, I just wish we could have seen another version of the Destroyer than the one we got. Still, I’ll give Gunn credit in trying something different with the Destroyer, in that he thinks literally and has difficulty grasping metaphors. All too often, movie aliens just act like humans with funny foreheads, so it was nice to see one who doesn’t. Drax’s thought processes simply aren’t like the others’; one moment he’s calling Gamora a whore (which she rightly takes objection to), and then moments later he blasts Nebula while saying, “No one talks to Drax’s friends like that!” Maybe if Dave had been allowed to cut back a bit on the slapstick, Drax would have been a more palatable character to me.
It must be difficult to be the lone straight man… er, straight person in a group of clowns, but fortunately, Zoe Saldana is up to the task.
Gamora is as tough as any motion picture heroine we’ve seen before, and Zoe imbues her with a fantastic personality, that of a woman on a mission who finds herself stuck with what she views are imbeciles and lowlifes and the dregs of the galaxy. Still, despite her being largely serious, Saldana has one of the best lines in the entire movie:
As for Groot…
Look, let’s be real here, Vin Diesel wasn’t given a lot to work with here, seeing as how with only one exception, all he says is “I am Groot”. Granted, he’s able to add a little inflection here and there, but for the most part Groot is characterized by facial expression and body language, and once more the animators are more than equal to the task. I love Groot, and he and Rocket make the best sci-fi duo since a certain pair of droids graced the screen.
Now onto the antagonists.
Remember what I said earlier about Bradley Cooper not being able to rely on his good looks to pull off his character? That goes double for Karen Gillan.
I became a fan of hers when I watched her on Doctor Who and thought she was a credible actor, but I didn’t realize how good she was until she basically got ugly for this film. It reminded me of what Rebecca De Mornay did for her part in Runaway Train, or Charlize Theron for Monster. Nebula comes across as a psychopath jealous of her sister and more than willing to do whatever it takes to supplant her in Thanos’ eyes. I really enjoyed her in this film, and I was happy as hell she didn’t die in the end.
However, I can’t say the same for Lee Pace’s Ronan. In the comics, Ronan is a complex character; he’s a high ranking member of the Kree Empire’s elite who isn’t really evil. He’s an antagonist against the likes of the Fantastic Four, but only when he perceives the heroes have crossed his people. In the Annihilation series, he’s actually one of the good guys. But what we get in this movie is a weak two-dimensional villain who, like Malekith in Thor: The Dark World, has an utterly uninteresting fanatical drive. I think it would have been far more interesting if Ronan had been more of an adversary hunting for the same thing as the heroes, and who perhaps later on down the line winds up becoming an ally against Thanos. Imagine if the film had been a three way dance between Nebula, Ronan, and the Guardians, all attempting to secure the Infinity Stone? Instead, we get a weaksauce villain whose passing at the end of the movie is met with a shrug.
Benicio del Toro’s Collector is just plain weird and I love him for it.
So often we get aliens who act all too human, and his Collector looks and feels like he comes from a very, very different place, like, I don’t know, maybe a planet-sized New Orleans. But I think Feige missed a golden opportunity to have the Collector make an appearance in Thor: Ragnarok; Del Toro and Jeff Goldblum could have had some golden moments trying to out-weird one another.
Finally, Michael Rooker’s Yondu is surprisingly and pleasingly nuanced.
He kidnapped Quill, but we don’t know why until the end of the film, and then we discover that for reasons unknown he didn’t fulfill the contract to deliver the boy to his employer. He comes across as a man who didn’t want a kid, but who still felt morally obligated to fulfill his duties to raise Quill the best way he knew how, which means Peter grew up as a bit of a shiftless jerk as a result. Considering I expected Yondu to be pretty much one-note, it was great to see he had depth, and I was hoping by the second film he would join the Guardians… just like Captain Crais joined the crew of the Moya in Farscape after trying to kill the heroes for over a season. (Oops, sorry again.)
When it comes to the music, everyone seemed quite taken with the movie’s soundtrack, which is full of classic pop songs from the ’70s. It’s a great collection of tunes, most of which I had heard at one time or another growing up. But while I think James Gunn did a great job in assembling the songs, credit too should be given to composer Tyler Bates, who crafted a pretty solid score. Sadly, his work is overshadowed by all the love shown to the pop music.
Despite what I thought were some missteps in regards to a couple of the characters, Guardians of the Galaxy is a fantastic film, and a modern sci-fi epic. While it’s obviously inspired by other sources and I’ve been pretty smart-assed about pointing them out, I won’t deny that other successful franchises have liberally borrowed from different literary and cinematic works as well, so I’m not holding that against James Gunn or Kevin Feige. The fact that Guardians is so damn awesomely fun certainly helps with my attitude in that regard.
Now as to the comic, when the Guardians of the Galaxy made their return in the Annihilation event, they looked pretty badass…
…but by 2014 or so, they were starting to look, well, cartoonish.
This time saw a lot of changes in the comics, as Marvel retooled a lot of their titles to better reflect the look of the movies. White WWII Nick Fury was sidelined and his Samuel L. Jackson lookalike son took over, Phil Coulson was introduced into the comics, and the Guardians were looking more and more like their movie counterparts as the years went by.
I understand market realities, and Marvel wanted potential fans to recognize the characters from the movies. It doesn’t mean I have to like it, though.
Next time: It’s 2015! Can the following year’s movies live up to their predecessors?