The landscape of blockbuster filmmaking is changing quickly, with every studio trying to follow Marvel’s lead and create an intertwined ‘universe’ for their characters that can span endless, interconnected sequels and side-stories. Sony is trying to do it with Spiderman, Fox has been doing it with X-Men, and all signals even point to Legendary doing it with Godzilla/King Kong. Thanks to Marvel, “cinematic universes” are the future of big budget movies.
Earlier this summer I praised Fox’s X-Men: Days of Future Past for demonstrating how to keep a franchise from going stale by injecting it with inventive ideas while remaining tied to the series’ past. That was in response to my feeling that Marvel’s universe, which includes the Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America movies, has grown formulaic and stale. They are good, fun movies without a doubt, but I found Iron Man 3 and even the heavily-praised The Avengers and second Captain America films to be highly overrated. They have become so mindlessly repetitive that they can only rely on visual dazzle to win over audiences.
With James Gunns’ Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel acknowledges the need to shake up the formula and introduce fresh, interesting new blood. And they do so, big time. The movie is so extraordinarily likable, stylistically daring, and mercilessly energetic that it instantly barrels its way to the top of the superhero pile. It’s the best Marvel movie since the original Iron Man started this whole thing back in 2008, and it signals more than anything else Marvel’s unwillingness to settle into a safe groove for too long.
The key to Guardians success is its blending of old and new. Within the story itself, this is reflected by protagonist Peter Quill, who is abducted from Earth in 1988 and has since become a self-proclaimed intergalactic outlaw. Quill spends his time exploring uncharted planets for treasures he can steal for money, but his most prized treasure is a Walkman, the one thing that keeps him firmly tied to his home planet.
Similarly, the movie holds onto some familiar elements from Marvel’s past, namely the tone which mixes campy action, snarky humor and doses of melodrama. Chris Pratt’s Quill definitely contains echoes of Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark. And yes, the plot is just as generic as any of the others, except instead of The Avengers cube, the MacGuffin here is an orb (way to change things up, Marvel!)
But the movie also looks and feels firmly like nothing else Marvel has ever attempted. In fact, it looks very much like nothing anyone’s ever attempted. It’s a space epic, so there are of course shades of Star Wars, but the world here is so much more colorful and inventive. The designs of planets, characters, spacecraft and everything else are visually stunning and the CGI is the best that the company has ever crafted.
The action looks good too — it’s always smooth, visceral and comprehensible. But the ideas that fuel these visuals are just as innovative. For example, in one aerial battle thousands of spaceships link up to create a stretchy, luminescent shield. There’s also a long sequence that takes place in the severed head of a giant sentient being that has become a brain tissue mining hub. Unlike some of the most recent Marvel movies, Guardians of the Galaxy puts just as much stock in ideas as it does in its effects.
My biggest problem with The Avengers, Iron Man 3 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier was their final action scenes. In all three of those movies, the ‘big finale’ was a huge, mindless CGI fart (for lack of better diction) that felt inconsequential and fake, and took away from the dynamic emotional core that all of those movies had going for them. They were hardly any more sophisticated than what you can find in Transformers movies. My biggest worry was that this movie would fall victim to the same problem, but thankfully it avoids it. There are moments of heart and humor even during the most bombastic sequences.
It feels like these movies inch closer and closer to being straight-up comedies every time, and Guardians is easily the funniest of the bunch. As someone who has never watched Parks & Recreation, I first noticed Chris Pratt in the underwhelming Jason Segel comedy The Five Year Engagement. At the time he felt like a complete Seth Rogen knock-off, but oh how times have changed. Between this and his starring vocal role in The Lego Movie, this is Pratt’s year and he has certainly won me over, convincing as both comedic powerhouse and action hero. As Quill, his scrappy playfulness sets him apart from Tony Stark, though he’s certainly just as hilarious in terms of comic delivery and expressiveness.
Quill teams up with a crew of insane characters with hilariously specific quirks. Dave Bautista plays Drax, a lovable muscular teddy bear who doesn’t understand metaphors and whose overdramatic word choices bring Thor to mind. Rocket, voiced very skillfully by Bradley Cooper, is a raccoon; his partner is a living tree named Groot, who can only proclaim his name. The script takes full advantage of these weirdos, with jokes that acknowledge how random these characters are while taking them seriously at the same time.
Zoe Saldana plays Gamora — her ‘quirk’ is that she’s green. Other than that, she’s humorless, overly serious and clearly just there to be the generic love interest. While I’m sure the script is partly to blame for how boring she is, I still don’t understand why Saldana keeps getting cast in big roles like this. In this, as in Avatar and the Star Trek movies, she lacks any sort of charisma, charm or sense of humor. But her character isn’t the only problematic one. The villains in this movie are incredibly boring and boilerplate evil. Marvel needs to learn to put as much thought into its antagonists as it does its protagonists.
The heavy bent on comedy doesn’t hinder the film from containing moments of genuine emotion. While sometimes it feels overly manipulative and redundant of similar ‘fake-outs’ in The Avengers and Iron Man, there are scenes in here that make you genuinely care about each and every character, aside from Saldana’s of course. There’s a scene where Rocket lashes out at being called ‘vermin’ that comes out of nowhere and adds a surprising depth to a character who on the surface seems completely one-dimensional. His go-for-broke attitude ends up making him a scene-stealer.
With Guardians of the Galaxy, James Gunn blends humor, heart and visual spectacle in a way that is not just in keeping with the standards of the past Marvel movies — it surpasses them. It’s detailed, vivid world feels alive and believable despite how out-there it is.
Whereas the rest of the Marvel franchise (annoyingly) almost necessitates seeing all of them to understand everything, this film feels like a singular entity. Yet the characters are so lovable that a sequel feels desirable, not just inevitable. A month ago I thought that Marvel needed to take note of X-Men’s success, but I spoke too soon. Somehow Marvel remains ahead of the game, and best in class.
Score: 4 out of 5