[29 July 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It shouldn’t work. It doesn’t have the standard issue super heroes on display. It starts off in pain and continues to mine said subtext throughout while adding a healthy dose of irreverent humor. There’s a questionable villain with what appears to be a religious fervor mentality to his plotting and terrorizing. Most tellingly, one of the main features is a diminutive raccoon with a sassy, salty mouth.
So how did James Gunn do it? How did he manage to make what is arguably one of the Summer of 2014’s best films? Easy: he followed his own amazing muse, and Guardians of the Galaxy is the result. Spinning several fringe Marvel characters into a cohesive whole is one thing, but to do it without the mandatory pre-Avengers origins films is another. To make something that rivals Joss Whedon’s billion dollar baby is proof of the talent both in front of and behind the lens.
Instead of offering a traditional review, we figured we’d go a little rogue and deal with the movie’s many endearing elements. We could mention Zoe Saldana’s sexiness under a glorious green disguise, but she already mastered that in Avatar (where the color du jour was blue). And, so as not to be chauvinistic, we will also mention that Dave Bautista is one helluva hunk under his unusual tribal scar tattoo make-up job.
We could comment on the ancillary cast (Glenn Close, John C. Reilly, Djimon Hounsou, Peter Szymon Serafinowicz) or the various cameos, but instead, we’ll just focus on the big stuff, the ten main reasons why you will absolutely love this film (minor spoilers ahead). Granted, that may seem like unnecessary hyperbole, but when you’ve sat through three months of dour doom and gloom, a little levity goes a long way.
While the vast majority of the Marvel movies are grounded in a kind of extended reality (our world, just pushed to certain limits to allow superheroes to exist within), Guardians of the Galaxy gives us a completely alien universe, and it’s a wonder to behold. From the various factions and their visual make-up to the little details in the corners (both flora and fauna), we are enveloped in something that not even George Lucas and his ILM mavericks could create. Every frame is filled with wonder and optical awe, a space opera fantasy that constantly leaves you wondering what it’s like to live in it every single minute you are there.
Again, it’s sometimes hard to get to the heart of a superhero’s personal issues. Bruce Banner is badgered by his shape-shifting Hulk alter-ego, but for the most part, it’s a problem, not a psychological scar. Here, all the Guardians are given over to moments of grief and dark reflection. Peter Quill lost his mother to cancer, while Gamora is the daughter of an evil space overlord with destruction on his mind. Drax lost his family while genetic anomalies Groot and Rocket are the only friends each other has. Brought together, they become a band of “losers”, in that they have each lost something. It makes for moving, memorable characterizations.
This Avatar-like extraterrestrial with a wicked Southern drawl and a mind focused with laser-like intensity on his various nefarious missions might just be Guardians of the Galaxy‘s secret weapon. Granted, he himself is holding a undisclosed truth about Quill, but he’s not allowing that to get in the way of his otherwise questionable business. And then there’s the issue of his weapon of choice, a deadly arrow which reacts exclusively to his whistles and hoots, leading to a last act moment of destruction which is simply amazing to behold. Director James Gunn has said he wrote the role with Rooker in mind, and it shows. Both men are having a blast with it.
He’s been a fixture on TV since his guest shot as Ann’s slacker ex-boyfriend on Parks and Recreation turned into a regular gig. He’s also been seen in films like Zero Dark Thirty and Moneyball. But 2014 was truly the year for this 35-year-old. After starring as the voice of Emmet Brickowski in the brilliant Lego Movie, he adds to his ascending stardom with his turn here as Peter Quill. Funny, dorky, and capable of playing both champion and chump, he’s the truly human center of a situation that surrounds him with out of this world allies. Even his dopey dance moves are adorable.
As a character, he’s a living tree with the ability to alter his shape to attack/defend his enemy/position at will. When it comes to vocabulary, however, all he can say is “I am Groot”. That’s it. Yet director Gunn makes it very clear that, once you get to know the walking lumber yard, those three words take on a whole different dynamic. Toward the end, when it looks like the odds are against our heroes and all is lost, Groot utters his by now familiar line and we too begin to see the nuances in the deceptively simple statement. Never before has one phrase meant so much.
In order to hook up with The Collector (Benicio Del Toro) and collect on their cosmic find’s elephantine worth, our heroes must travel to a world settled within a dead super being’s head. Long abandoned and mined for its expensive vein of mental materials, this cranial domain is an amazing visual accomplishment. It also indicates how far outside the box this movie dwells. We see several aspects of the former skull, and there’s even a massive chase scene that utilizes various aspects to heighten the action. In a film filled with unusual landscapes and vista, this brainpan world is one of the weirdest, and best.
Sure, Tony Stark can quip away as his metallic armored fate is being sealed, and even the evil Loki can lob a joke or two at his Avenger antagonist’s direction. But Guardians of the Galaxy is a legitimate comedy, with Gunn and his co-screenwriter Nicole Perlman injecting as much wit and screwball sentiments into their otherwise standard space operatics as they can. Between Rocket Raccoon’s constant putdowns, Drax’s mindful misunderstandings (his race takes everything literally) and Peter Quill’s clueless hubris, there’s enough punchlines here to placate a dozen standard comedy writers. Between laughing and dropping, you jaw gets a major league workout in this movie.
One of the most electrifying moments in this film centers around one of those typical “suit up” moments, a sequence where our unlikely band of heroes get together and prepare for battle. In this case, while plotting what to do next, we get a scintillating music montage set to the ‘70s proto-punk classic “Cherry Bomb” by The Runaways. It’s just one of dozens of memorable moments, thanks to a mixtape made for Peter by his dying mother and this old fashioned cassette provides a soundtrack backdrop loaded with Me Decade classics, including The Raspberries “Go All the Way”, 10CC’s “I’m Not in Love”, and Blue Swede’s cover of “Hooked on a Feeling”.
It takes a unique perspective to bring a movie like this together, and all kudos go to James Gunn for turning an unlikely Phase 2 Marvel Property into a major league Summer movie player. From his early days at Troma (where he wrote the script for Tromeo and Juliet) to his breakout via Zach Synder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead, he’s been right on the fringes of legitimate superstardom for years now. Finally, after the one-two punch of Slither and Super, Gunn got his chance here and Marvel’s faith in him is well rewarded indeed. This is a statement movie, with our auteur announcing his arrival on the scene.
Finally, is there is going to be a breakout character from this film—and there’s always one—let us nominate this diminutive dynamo with a sour ass attitude. Rocket carries a massive chip on his genetically enhanced shoulders, screaming both about the constant lack of respect and the overwhelming tragedy of his existence (“I DIDN’T ASK TO BE LIKE THIS!” he shouts at one point). Like a furry Howard the Duck, he is both curmudgeon and cavalier, quick with a joke and even faster on the draw. Get ready to see every film geek young and old with a Rocket action figure on their work desk. He’s endemic of the entire Guardians of the Galaxy vibe.