Sunday, August 3, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

Making a space opera film is never an easy task.  When the dominant force in that genre happens to be a film series no less monumental than "Star Wars", the cornerstone of modern Western Nerd Civilization, finding success is probably only a fraction easier than actually going up into space and staging real star battles.  Many have tried, many have failed.  Dare we remember such titles as "Wing Commander", "Lost in Space", "The Chronicles of Riddick", "John Carter", the Star Trek reboot, and perhaps the greatest disaster of all modern space opera, the Prequels.  Over-ambition, incompetence, lazy scripting, and Jar Jar Binks have left the genre a wreck of ruin and very bad Rotten Tomatoes scores.  Marvel's own attempt at a space opera film seems to be nothing more than hubris, an attempt to prove that they can succeed where "Green Lantern" so legendarily failed, they can make a superhero blockbuster out of anything, even space.

"Guardians of the Galaxy" is an especially ambitious film, attempting to sell millions of tickets to a show about a comic book that most people have never heard of.  This is not merely a movie about a relatively obscure superhero like Ghost Rider, who is not well-known by the general public but still beloved by comic book fans, this is a movie about a comic book series that even the nerds do not really know.  The comic book series, "Guardians of the Galaxy" only dates back to 2008*, which means it is only as old as the Marvel Cinematic Universe itself.  It has been reasonably popular, but that didn't stop Marvel from ending the new series in 2010.  So this was a difficult, expensive genre full of high expectations, using a mediocre series that nobody remembers.  Perfect recipe for Marvel's first flop, right?

Well, unfortunately for Warner Bros executives but fortunately for everybody else, "Guardians of the Galaxy" is a good movie.  It's a sillier more sarcastic take on the space opera formula than we've seen already, featuring a universe full of Han Solos, some being small talking raccoon cyborgs, with nary a Luke Skywalker in sight.  More importantly for Marvel, this has been a masterpiece of marketing, taking an obscure title being directed by Troma alum, James Gunn, and making it into a major nerd tentpole release - essentially this year's "Pacific Rim".  This is the 21st century:  "nerd" now basically mean"everybody under forty".  That means this was going to be a huge release.  It was a strategy that played up the cheesy weirdness, played up the comedy, and really focused on the rocking Seventies soundtrack.  Now "Guardians" has broken August records for most asses in the seats for one weekend.  However, ignoring that the Internet Collective Hivemind has decided this is the Best Movie Ever, just how well does "Guardians of the Galaxy" add up as a movie?

If there is anything that modern space opera films have gotten wrong its a detachment with their B-movie roots.  "Star Wars" did not start out being the Cornerstone of Western Literature, it began as a goofy space movie thrown together as a throw-out back to shitty serials of the 1940s.  It unleashed an entire generation of lovably awful B-movies such as "Message from Space", "Flash Gordon", "Battle Beyond the Stars", "Starcrash", "The Last Starfighter", and "Howard the Duck".  They were all trash, they were all silly effects and lasers on wacky soundstages, and nobody was afraid of those facts.  Yeah, sometimes the movies were not very good, but there was an honesty there, one that has been lacking in the over-production of modern Hollywood blockbusters.  The Marvel cinematic universe has had it's times of over-production and general un-fun-ness (see "Thor 2") but generally it has been honest with itself and its audience, making fun movies that properly fit into their genre.  "Guardians of the Galaxy" is an exciting prospect since its coming out right on the heals of a new Star Wars generation, when it can show that production - which is also owned by Disney - exactly how to put on the rubber forehead make-up, exactly how to be colorful and nonsensical, and still be a lot of fun.

I'm thinking that we need Marvel Studios to take care of the next Final Fantasy as well.
The plot of "Guardians" is the usual Marvel nonsense involving a surly supervillain collecting a magical McGuffin stone of some sort then attempting to take over the Earth/Asgard/the Universe.  But far more interesting than the actual mechanics of the plot are the characters themselves.  The Guardians team basically are just five galactic beings who happened to be in the same place at the same time and shared the same antagonist, so these misfits joined together as an unlikely team to save the galaxy.  They actually do not have an official name until the villain mockingly grants them the title "Guardians of the Galaxy" in the climax.  Those five include Gamora (Zoe Saldana) a green alien ninja babe, Rocket Raccoon** (Bradley Cooper) a talking cyborg rodent with a New York accent and a penchant for explosions, Groot (Vin Deisel) a kind tree monster who is only able to say three words:  "I am Groot", Drax the Destroy (Dave Bautista) some blue and red muscle whose species cannot comprehend metaphors or humor, and the only connection to Earth, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) a human wanna-be space rogue who insists that he be called "Starlord" much to the amusement of everybody.  This group must somehow form a family while also stopping the bad guy from blowing up a planet.

Pretty much all you need to do is just list off the cast members to sell me on this movie.  Tree man?  Raccoons?  Green women?  I'm there.

Most of the film involves these five disparate personalities bouncing off each other as the film takes a very sardonic view of its own universe.  The characters either are completely ridiculous scoundrels, such as Rocket or "Starlord", or serious straight men to be shocked by the comic relief's behavior.  Peter Quill starts the movie off dancing to his walkman, has a red-skinned chick with a Russian accent in his cargo bay that he forgot about, and then double-crosses everybody to sell the McGuffin orb of ultimate power.  Rocket creates elaborate plans involving mass destruction and the theft of artificial body parts.  Drax meanwhile can never quite comprehend any metaphor or tease, so reacts furiously to being called "a princess".  And poor Groot just wants everybody to be happy, be it growing a flower for a little girl, or murdering a dozen men for his friends.

Raccoons really have to work hard to be intimidating, but I think Rocket is pulling it off.
Those expecting a James Gunn movie in the vein of "Super" or "Slither" are bound to be highly disappointed.  Disney and Marvel money has put him on his best behavior.  There's no tentacle rape from God here.  His largest contribution has been to the overall wacky tone - never quite vulgar or disgusting but still edgy - and the addition of Seventies pop hits into key scenes.  Quill's prized possession is his Walkman, given to him by his dying mother the day he was kidnapped by aliens as a kid.  This was actually Gunn's only change to the story, and for that he managed to get a co-writer credit.  Gunn also pulled some strings to give "Slither"-star Michael Rooker a major role as a blue alien mercenary with a magical arrow.  And along with the typical Stan Lee cameo, we also got a cameo from Troma master, Lloyd Kaufman.***

Even though "Guardians" has a unique energy of its own, and a unique soundtrack, there is something of an issue in that the movie's visuals never feel very original.  We've moved a great deal beyond the sterile emptiness of the Prequels, but still some locations feel far too clean and relatively uninteresting.  There is an acceptance of cheesy here, but not quite enough.  The story makes almost too much sense - it needed to be more ridiculous.  I like the multicolored humanoid denizens of this universe and the wacky aliens wandering around in the background but something is definitely lacking in terms of actually feeling this world.  It may be due to the script, which dumps you straight in the middle of an intergalactic conflict with no real understanding or care for either side.  Why do the heroes constantly have to tell me how important it is to save Planet Whatever?  Because we've spent five minutes of Planet Whatever, and mostly its full of jerks and John C. Reilly.  I don't care about Planet Whatever, but the script demands that the characters do.  When really it would have been more fun if the heroes were just out for plain out profit, grand heroics being mostly an accident.

And here's our villain:  Captain Buzzkill.
The real problem I have though comes from the choice in villain.  While the heroes are this chaotic and lovable bunch, all of them ranging from decent to superstars like Groot and Rocket (who will make toy manufacturers cream in their pants), the villain is this terrible blue fundamentalist loser in funky make-up played by Lee Pace.  Days later I cannot even remember his name.  Was iT Rasslon?  Razzle?  Rodan?  Who cares?  All he does is brood and act angry with no humor at all, he's the worst part of the movie by far.  What's worse is that Razzle-Dazzle is surrounded by more interesting villains such as Karen Gillian as a bald half-cyborg ninja, Benicio del Toro as a rich maniac with frosted hair, Djimon Hounsou as his main enforcer, yet its this jackass we focus on.  All of those more interesting characters are completely wasted.  (I can understand keeping Thanos, a huge purple God, out of the picture, since he's being set up as the Marvel Uber-Villain.)  Razzie isn't quite as boring as the Dark Elf King from "Thor 2", a figure of no personality of any kind, but he belongs in a dreary 1980s cartoon, not this movie.  Just do the math:  magical tree with a heart of gold does not equal boring Smurf-colored Islamic State bad guy.  Sorry.

I guess it is impossible for Loki to star as the villain in every Marvel movie, but a man can dream, can he?

The flaws, luckily, do not ruin "Guardians", which is perfectly strong enough, miserable energy-sucking villain and weak plot ignored.  Really this was the toughest story Marvel needed to tell for this universe, needing to establish all five of the leading heroes and set the tone for the future movies.  I am very excited that the small missteps here and there can be easily corrected, and "Guardians of the Galaxy 2" potentially could be one of the best Marvels films out there.  This is exactly the kind of tone and subject matter I love to see.  Just get Iron Man up into space and we would have the most awesome film ever.  But more importantly, the characters in "Guardians" are fantastic, with serious heart and impressive moments.  Groot especially is probably the tie between the whole movie, be it dancing or saving the entire team, he is one truly awesome tree.  And this was a truly awesome movie.

I think Marvel has finally won me over - it has been simply too many good movies for me to not be excited about what they're bringing next.  These guys have revolutionized the blockbuster.

* Technically the 'Guardians of the Galaxy' name is decades old, with the first team of that name showing up in 1969.  For many years they were D-squad Marvel heroes, doing nothing of real importance, until in the 1990s they were given a dedicated series for a short time.  However, that old team is filled with such people as Vance Astro, Yondu Udonta, and Starhawk, none of whom are present in this film and most likely will never be relevant to the Marvel film universe.  The 2008 series starred a completely new team of space heroes, and though there might be some thematic connections (plus some incomprehensible time travel bullshit explaining the reboot), it has nothing to do with the old Guardians.

 ** Rocket, not Rocky Raccoon, so tragically he is not a Beatles reference.

*** Definitely the universe is imploding in on itself when the House of Mouse, the most family-friendly company on the planet, lets in Lloyd Kaufman, probably the most vulgar non-porn director of all time (though Kaufman has made his share of porns).  Will there be a big-budget Marvel reboot of "Toxic Avenger" now?


  1. There is an arc in the comics involving Rocket and Gideon's Bible.

  2. Actually Rocket's co-writer has pretty much admitted he thought of Rocky Raccoon when coming up with Rocket.