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Bit late with this review, but I like to be thorough; also I didn’t know Lauren Bacall and Robin Williams were going to die in the space of a day 😦 Anyone who hasn’t seen the film yet, you know the score – Spoiler City ahead; avoid. For everyone else, hi; We Are Groot 🙂
The opening gambit of the Guardians of the Galaxy film franchise was something that I, along with a lot of people, had been looking forward to for some time.

This high level of anticipation can in some instances make you very receptive to a movie; it could also, however, have the opposite effect and create expectations that can’t be met (I’ve taken to calling this ‘Phantom Menace Syndrome’). So after all the fuss, build up and anticipation, was the long-awaited Guardians of the Galaxy movie worth it and does it live up to the hype? Short answer: yes. Longer answer, “Yes, with a but…”

Guardians of the Galaxy was about as enjoyable as I expected – that is to say highly enjoyable. But story-wise probably a little below the quality level I had hoped for.

There are specific problems and weaknesses with this movie, but for a film that not only needed to initiate the cinematic incarnation of the GOTG mythology but also act as the point-of-entry to Marvel’s Cosmic Universe for the majority of cinema-goers entirely unfamiliar with it, this film had a very difficult task from its very inception. It was bound to fall short on a few levels. That said, it has hit the mark on the levels that count the most – to be an enjoyable, entertaining film, and to effectively establish point-one in the transplantation of GOTG and its cool-as-fuck characters from comic-book page to cinema screen.

This is probably one of the most enjoyable films I’ve watched in a long time. Guardians of the Galaxy awoke my inner seven-year-old, making me wish I actually was seven years-old and able to watch it through the eyes of a seven-year-old; because I know I’d have loved it that much more (and then would want to buy all the toys; especially the Rocket and Nebula action figures).

Comic-book legend Jim Starlin, creator of Drax the Destroyer, Gamora and Thanos, has said it “might be Marvel’s best movie yet”; Starlin might be right.

“Enjoyable” is the key word; it’s clear this film was intended from the outset to emphasise that ‘fun’ vibe above everything else. Someone obviously made a conscious decision to center on the humour and the tongue-in-cheek approach to the movie – that  decision has everything to do with what works so well in this film. If you approach a film of this type with anything other than a humorous approach you end up with something very dry and staged and lacking the human element – you end up with Lord of the Rings (In Space) essentially or one of the Thor films. Not that this focus on humour is without precedent in the source material anyway; the GOTG comics are heavy with humour and sarcasm, so the groundwork was already there at the source. Even so, in the case of this movie, the humour is in fact its defining quality and the thing people are most likely to remember about it.

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While I think the film may have fallen short in terms of setting out the cosmic arena and its major powers and agendas, James Gunn and Nicole Perlman have done a really great job of introducing and establishing the primary GOTG players in a manner that has them already feeling like well-defined and emotive characters. That isn’t necessarily easy to do; we could dredge up dozens of examples of films and franchises that fail to accomplish that basic level of likeability and endearment.

Gunn manages to make more likeable characters of Quill, Rocket, Drax, Groot and Gamora – and to establish a more enjoyable inter-character dynamic – in one movie than four lead-in films managed to accomplish for Avengers Assemble. Whereas the Avengers film versions of Captain America, Hulk, Black Widow, Hawkeye and Thor (I’m exempting Iron Man from this list) felt like dry archetypes, the five central characters of GOTG already feel well-developed, emotive characters with an interesting inter-relationship reminiscent of the on-screen dynamics of the original Star Wars trilogy.

The Star Wars comparisons are apt, by the way; not in terms of quality or themes, but in terms of the dynamic. Rocket Raccoon and Groot in particular provide that Artoo-Deetoo/Chewbacca type oddball cuteness to the dynamics that serve to endear, while Starlord/Gamora fall into the mock-antagonistic Han/Leia role. Those kinds of dynamics are very helpful in a film of this kind where viewers might otherwise find themselves completely lost amid a confusing cosmic backdrop populated by ill-defined villains and agendas.

Watching this movie frequently made me think that in terms of tone, this is the path Uncle George perhaps should’ve looked to take in the first two Star Wars prequels (I always sensed he was trying to go in that kind of direction in parts of Attack of the Clones, but didn’t quite pull it off). In fairness, however, Lucas had a much harder job to do story-wise than Gunn and Perlman had here.

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Most of the things in the trailers that put me off were quickly rectified; which just proves how misleading it can be to pre-judge based on a trailer. I had worried Star Lord was going to end up an arrogant, unlikeable type – like Ryan Reynolds in Green Lantern, whose utter lack of likeability ruined any chances that film had of working. “Frat boy” was how one of my friends described Chris Pratt’s Star Lord when he saw the second trailer and he cited it as a reason he wasn’t particularly interested in the movie.

But almost immediately as the film was underway it was clear Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill has turned out to be one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s best casting choices. The fact is that the Peter Quill of the comics isn’t always a very well defined character and he possesses the capacity to both annoy and endear depending on who’s writing him at any given point. Chris Pratt’s Star Lord is likeable, wholly watchable, and moreover has a degree of pathos and emotional core, particularly because of that opening sequence with his mother.

Pratt’s Starlord feels like a cross between two of the most popular and iconic characters of the genre, Han Solo and James T.Kirk; and he pulls it off really well, embodying that character perfectly, on a par with Robert Downey Jnr’s Tony Stark. Getting Starlord right was always going to be absolutely pivotal for this enterprise to work; and both Chris Pratt and the writers have pulled it off, putting across a lovable rogue (as opposed to an irritating rogue like Ryan Reynolds’ stomach-turning Green Lantern).

I also had expected not to like Zoe Saldana’s Gamora either; I’m a fan of Gamora from the comic books, and the version we first saw in the trailers didn’t look or feel right. But over the course of the film she began to grow on me. I still don’t think Saldana’s take really captures the essence of comic-book Gamora as well as possible (she has traditionally been much wittier, much sharper-tongued in the comics; sort of like a cosmic Domino), but it isn’t terribly far off the mark either. It’s at least passable – enough so that it didn’t bother me or interfere with my ability to enjoy the film. And Saldana’s role here was essentially to play the straight-man allowing the others to provide the humour and eccentricity.

Again based on the trailers I didn’t expect to like this version of Drax either; but Dave Bautista’s Destroyer is surprisingly endearing in the end. Again it’s the humour that rescues the character (the recurring gag about him not being able to get metaphors is one of the funniest things in the film), preventing him from being something either silly or annoying. There are obvious differences, both aesthetically and character-wise, between this Drax and the comic-book Drax, but I’m not sure the comic-book Drax would’ve worked on film without some surgical re-imagining. What works in comic books isn’t always what works on film.

I definitely wouldn’t have expected Drax to be such an effective source of humour, but it’s the subtlety with him that works, as contrasted to the louder Rocket Raccoon. He feels like an almost Shakespearean presence in the mix and it was probably the most pleasant surprise of the film.

Rocket Raccoon: [about Drax] Metaphors go over his head.

Drax the Destroyer: NOTHING goes over my head!… My reflexes are too fast, I would catch it.

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As for the two characters I was always confident wouldn’t be a problem – Rocket and Groot – both were enjoyable to watch. Groot in particular could’ve been very silly, but actually remains a likeable, plausible presence throughout, despite his limited dialogue. Limited dialogue, in fact, can often help create a better character than those who get the lion’s share of speeches (think Boba Fett, Darth Maul, Blink from X-Men: Days of Future Past, etc).

That silent-movie quality of a mostly visual character can be more emotive, more expressive, than any amount of dialogue. As it happens, Groot probably does provide the most emotive moments of the film.

As for Rocket, who was the character most expected to steal the show, I’m not sure he does steal the show. As far as the animation goes, it’s terrific stuff; but we’re far down the rabbit hole as far as all that stuff goes by now. I had reservations from the start about Bradley Cooper voicing Rocket and voicing him in a different accent to the original source material. I guess this was done to maximise palatability to the US audience, but I don’t imagine the US audience would’ve had any problems with a non-American accent and don’t imagine they need to be condescended like that; I mean if people are generally happy to accept a talking raccoon then I’m sure the accent is no problem.

However, this isn’t a major critcism, just a minor gripe; Rocket Raccoon, as presented, works fine, particularly in conjunction with Groot. Those two, with their Han/Chewie dynamic, are going to be fun to watch over consecutive films, just as they are in the comics. And actually my complaining about the accent is no reflection on Bradley Cooper’s actual work.

Elsewhere I could take or leave Yondu, Korath and pretty much all the Nova Corps; like in most of the Marvel cinematic projects, there tends to be a difficulty in making the supporting characters and villains interesting or entertaining. While this isn’t as bad an example of that as say in the Thor movies (I seem to be the only person who finds the cinematic Loki a very dull adversary), it’s still a factor here as well.

However, Ronan the Accuser (come to think of it, I don’t think he’s called that in the film; I’m just used to calling him ‘the Accuser’), although not particularly afforded any depth, is menacing enough, and Thanos, though he only appears briefly, is suitably rendered/depicted, enough so to be an intriguing presence (though I’m not sure how well he’ll translate with much more screen time in subsequent films). Although making Ronan a figure of more or less pure evil doesn’t quite track with my understanding from the comic-book precedents, I have to say that Thanos really did look and feel like the Thanos of the comic books, which afforded me a brief moment of fan-boy pleasure.

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Amid these supporting characters the one that stood out and worked best is Nebula. Though she isn’t anything spectacular in this film, she is visually engaging (in a Darth Maul sort of way) and generally interesting enough to make an effective villain.

It might’ve helped that I’d made it a point to read the lead-in Guardians of the Galaxy Prelude comics, particularly the Nebula-centered one, a few weeks before seeing the film; but actually I think I would’ve had the same opinion anyway. Her fight sequence with Gamora was begging for lightsabers to be digitally animated in, however; and there is an obvious likeness between Nebula as presented on-screen and the Clone Wars villainess Assaj Ventress – though Nebula, for the record, pre-dates Ventress by a very long time. I actually happened to be watching an episode of the old Silver Surfer animated series the other night and it featured both Drax and Nebula; I have to say that, purely in visual terms, I prefer the newer interpretation of Nebula to the more classic one.

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Ideally I’d like to see Nebula better developed in subsequent films, furnished with greater dimension, particularly in her relationship with Gamora, which at this point is all implication and no depth and, depending on how its written, could end up being something really interesting or something vacuous and silly. It actually would’ve been awesome if more of the Gamora/Nebula backstory, as focused on in the prelude comic, had been worked into the film.

Meanwhile the motif of Quill’s cassette tape of 80’s hits from his mother is a winning device, imparting to the film both a very different sort of soundtrack (one that you wouldn’t think would work for a film of this type) and an effective emotional undercurrent. It also allows for some of the film’s funniest moments, particularly Quill’s early dance sequence in the Indiana Jones opening and the end-credits moment of the Groot sapling dancing to the Jackson Five. This is all stuff that on paper I wouldn’t think would work; but what works in a film is all about how the concepts are executed on screen and not about how they read on paper, look in storyboards or sound in pitches.

The same could be said in regard to the GOTG movie as a whole. It just works. It probably shouldn’t; but it does.

Highlights are scattered across the film, it being difficult to pick out particularly outstanding moments and more a case of the overall tone and feel of the movie being a generally winning formula. Looking at the film overall, probably its first third is the most entertaining. Grown-up Peter Quill’s opening sequence, irreverently dancing his way to stealing the orb, sets the tone of the film perfectly. The four-way pursuit/fight sequence on Xandar is also a highlight; a perfect mixture of action and humour that was reminiscent of early sequences in last year’s Star Trek: Into Darkness. That sequence felt like something right out of the comic books, more so than anything else in the movie.

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The big aerial battle sequence on Xandar is of course highly watchable and generally superbly done; but nothing of this sort is particularly life-changing anymore in our post Star Wars lives. That said, it’s probably the most spectacular and eye-pleasing effects spectacle in any of the Marvel films to date (notwithstanding, in my opinion, the future-based action sequences in X-Men: Days of Future Past). Although as a minor observation, the whole surrounding the Dark Aster in the energy-net thingy (I forget the actual term) was massively reminiscent of something from TNG‘s Encounter At Farpoint (Trekkie reference alert). What I did particularly like about it, however, was that it was a space-style battle sequence taking place within the planetary atmosphere and in full, nicely textured daylight, which is something I don’t recall having seen elsewhere before.

So OK, now inevitably mention must be made of some of what doesn’t work so great about this film.

As far as the film’s weaknesses go, the biggest is again that I think there’s an issue when it comes to fleshing out the broader cosmic arena. The impression is that the filmmakers chose to simply present the galactic environments and settings as if everyone would be alright with it and not need an explanation; this was no doubt to avoid getting bogged down in Lord of the Rings style exposition that would’ve slowed the film down too much. That’s fine, but I wonder if non-comic reading cinema-goers would’ve had a lot of information go over their heads. The friend I watched it with in the cinema had a whole bunch of questions for me afterward, some of which I’m not sure I answered adequately.

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I also think – although this is admittedly speaking as a comic-book fan – there was a lot that wasn’t fleshed out as much as it could’ve been. The Kree, for example, are never really explained or explored as anything beyond villains for screenplay-convenience.

The problem is, however, that Marvel’s cosmic arena is a complex, highly populated mosaic of decades’ worth of material, very difficult to set up adequately in one film, particularly when the vast majority of your viewing public has never read a Guardians of the Galaxy comic before and has no idea who the Kree are or what Thanos is about. That was always going to be a difficulty for this film and it doesn’t quite manage to overcome it.

Some of the settings in this story aren’t very well brought to life. Xandar in particular, so central to the plot, is a bit of a dead, colourless planet before Ronan ever even gets to it; a world and a society that doesn’t seem to mean or stand for anything, at least not as far we’re told. Which makes it difficult to empathise with their plight or to care what happens to them; we care about Starlord, Drax and the Guardians and what happens to them because we’ve seen and understood their personal journeys and issues, but Xandar and the Nova Corps are left as non-entities just like the Kree. Xandar is presented as a seriously dull society – more than anything like a vast bureaucratic, existentialist nightmare and the kind of society you wouldn’t want to live in unless you’re an accountant or work in real estate.

I know a lot of GOTG comic-book fans are particularly unhappy with the film’s depiction of the Nova Corps and I can see why. And it’s no good saying that comic-book followers will already understand what the Nova Corps are about or the Kree are about; because clearly the filmmakers have made various changes to the source material in the transition, such as Drax’s background or Quill’s origins for example, so in general things need to be explained a lot better and established.

On a related note, apparently the Badoon, so key a fixture in the comics, are a no-go for Marvel Studios productions because their first comic-book appearance was in the Silver Surfer, who is owned by FOX Studios at this time. I’m not sure if that would also apply to such cosmic players as the Shiar, the Skrulls, The Watchers, etc.

But it’s a rather perverse situation, as a number of key elements of GOTG’s cosmic tapestry will have originated in the pages of Silver Surfer or Fantastic Four, which may place a glass-ceiling on what these GOTG movies are able to do.

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But ultimately the primary goal of a film like this is to win over the general cinema-going public and score enough of a crossover commercial success so as to ensure studio support for future films. In that much, Guardians of the Galaxy clearly does the job. And having established its cinematic presence successfully, perhaps future films will be afforded the scope to explore and expand the cosmic arena more meaningfully. In truth, I never expected to see everything from the Skrulls and Galactus to Moondragon, Starfox or the Supreme Intelligence thrown in or referenced in this movie.

It is also an issue, as said before, of what works in a comic-book setting over a number of years not being necessarily what will work in a two-hour film; ideas that flourish in comic-book form can end up looking silly and unpalatable in film form. Guardians of the Galaxy mostly manages to avoid that problem, but it tends to do so by limiting the potential areas of liability rather than dealing with them. And even then there are a few slip-ups with Korath for example or even Ronan the Accuser at certain moments coming off as cheesy (though not as badly as the characters in the Thor films).

There is a problem with the Marvel Studios films in general that beyond the primary characters the respective filmmakers seem to struggle to make the supporting characters engaging; it was the case with Avengers Assemble, it’s been the case with both Thor movies. The only exception I can think of is Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull in the first Captain America, who, though not particularly well written, was fairly enjoyable to watch. This GOTG movie struggles with that a little too, though perhaps not as badly as the other examples I’ve mentioned.

The problem is you have characters like Ronan, Thanos or Loki, who have rich comic-book histories, but when you transplant them to cinema with its different rules and necessary parameters they’re not as interesting; instead they come off about the same as your average Star Trek film villains (think Ruafo in Star Trek: Insurrection, for example, or Tom Hardy’s Shinzon in Nemesis). In fact, no, the Star Trek villains come off better because they’re usually furnished with more substantial motivations and dimension, whereas most of the villains in these Marvel movies aren’t as well defined and end up feeling more like chess pieces than meaningful characters.

Moving on, Yondu and the Ravagers were a little too reminiscent of Mad Max for my liking, and the character Yondu is himself a highly reinterpreted version of a largely forgotten character from the vast Marvel annals, a founding member of the original Guardians of the Galaxy. I could’ve probably done entirely without Yondu and the Ravagers as depicted.

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The introduction of one of the Infinity Gems, however, promises epic things to come in subsequent films (as does the appearance of the Celestials), possibly necessitating the introduction of Adam Warlock (and, let’s hope, Pip the Troll!). I’m aware that a “cocoon” like object apparently seen in Thor: The Dark World has sparked the theory among fans that it might represent the cocoon that Adam Warlock emerged from way back in the dusty archives of Marvel Comics continuity, and that the same object is seen in The Collector’s collection in this film; admittedly I didn’t spot that, but I’m really bad at spotting little things like that in the cinema (it took me ages to spot the Millennium Falcon in Revenge of the Sith by slowing down the DVD playback).

Adam Warlock, if he does get brought into the cinematic universe, will be very difficult to cast, but generally The Infinity Gauntlet, Infinity Crusade and other related story events from the past have been some of my favorite parts of Marvel lore; it would be very difficult to translate those types of storylines into cinema, so my attitude towards that notion are halfway between guarded and excited. It’s unlikely that the Infinity storylines will be brought into any of the imminent Marvel Studios productions and might be something instead that’s being planned for further ahead. And Marvel Studios are planning far ahead; that much is clear.

Elsewhere the setting up of the mystery of Peter Quill’s father suggests another conscious straying from the source material, as readers of the comic books already know who Quill’s father is and he isn’t an angelic “being of light”. That and a few other elements felt a bit too forced, and generally a few things in the story felt too much like staging; like moving chess pieces about for future storytelling purposes rather than organic developments – but again, that seems to be a recurring feature of these Marvel Studios movies.

Of course this kind of constant staging and chess-piece moving and inter-connectivity of different franchises has been part of how comic books work for ages; but there’s something more irritating at times about it being done in films.

This film, however, felt the least forced in that regard and the most genuine. But it doesn’t steer clear of that entirely; and the ending is a bit of an anti-climax. Not the actual ending as in the final scene – that was perfectly measured for tone (“Bit of both!”) – but I mean the somewhat silly-looking showdown with Ronan; doesn’t quite live up to the two hours of scene-setting.

As with a lot of sci-fi and fantasy, there are the usual little niggling irritations; how does Starlord breathe in space, for example? How come Starlord and Gamora are both fried to shit out in space, but the moment they get back into a ship they’re perfectly fine again? How come when Yondu takes about an hour to do his whistle-dart thing the two dozen or so soldiers don’t just shoot him in the face?  It’s waaaaaaaaay worse than Stormtroopers failing to ever hit their targets – at least the Stormtroopers are shooting. And although the humour and the 80s references generally really impart something enjoyable to the film, it occasionally stretches to annoying; such as the ‘Footloose’ references and the “we’re like Kevin Bacon” line which is more cringeworthy than endearing. All things in appropriate measure, after all.

I’m not going to bother trying to track all the trivia and in-references at this point, such as Beta Ray Bill’s skeleton, Cosmo the Dog, Howard the Duck, etc, as other, better informed, bloggers are doing that elsewhere. But as is to be expected, the GOTG film is riddled with them, some of them interesting, some of them just standard by now; though the Adam Warlock cocoon speculation does intrigue me.

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All in all, as this review demonstrates, Guardians of the Galaxy is a bit of a mixed bag; there are weaknesses in character motivations as far as the villains and supporting characters are concerned, and there are weaknesses in this opening depiction of the vast cosmic arena. And there are several things I could nitpick about. But for all of that, my overriding sense of the film is how much I enjoyed it; and that surely is the cardinal point in the end.

For a film that had the job of initiating a new franchise and setting the stage for the cinematic exploration of Marvel’s cosmic arena, Guardians of the Galaxy does the job and it does it with a great sense of style, a refreshing sense of humour and a spring in its step.

It’s biggest strength by far is its five main characters and that in essence is the most important thing to have gotten right. Drax, Starlord and Rocket are a joy; while Gamora and Groot are an effective presence, and Nebula promises better intrigue to come.  It delivers a thoroughly enjoyable film along the way; certainly not perfect, not especially thought-provoking or meaningful in the sense that something like Days of Future Past is, but enjoyable and leaving (most of) us desirous of more; while it isn’t thought-provoking or life-changing, it is pure escapist SF fantasy at its best.

Flawed and lacking in places, yes, but it opens the party with a bang and is dripping in style and giddiness, managing to be both endearing and exciting. And I really want a Starlord mask now; not since Mace Windu’s purple lightsaber have I coveted a film prop so much. And dammit, I can’t get ‘Hooked On a Feeling’ out of my head; I don’t even like that song.

In conclusion, good job; more please.

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Comments
  1. thetruthisstrangerthanfiction says:

    “Gunn manages to make more likeable characters of Quill, Rocket, Drax, Groot and Gamora – and to establish a more enjoyable inter-character dynamic – in one movie than four lead-in films managed to accomplish for Avengers Assemble. Whereas the Avengers film versions of Captain America, Hulk, Black Widow, Hawkeye and Thor (I’m exempting Iron Man from this list) felt like dry archetypes, the five central characters of GOTG already feel well-developed, emotive characters with an interesting inter-relationship reminiscent of the on-screen dynamics of the original Star Wars trilogy.”

    Very much agree! I was personally really surprised by how much they were able to develop the inter-character dynamic, especially, like you said, in a big-budget Hollywood action movie. That like, practically NEVER happens, so it was unexpected, but cool. (saw it in 3-D with my daughter..) I was also pretty amazed by just the visual aspect of it all, the cgi detail on Rocket, (so real looking!) and how it was all very colorful and “comic-booky”, but yet still didn’t feel hokey somehow. Overall, this movie was not an easy one to pull off, and they really outdid the other Marvel film adapts by a large margin. I realize they probably did cut out a LOT of backstory and historical development of the broader “GOTG cosmos”, but as a Dad, I can now sort of appreciate why they feel the need to do that, being that the younger peeps have such a short attention span, and in some ways they are running the risk of boring the audience to death by way of following Lucas’s example of making a big-budget film where they sit around and talk about trade embargos and galactic Senate hearings… 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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