Monday, August 11, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy review

Guardians of the Galaxy represents an interesting and important dichotomy for me when it comes to Marvel films. Now, I generally enjoy the majority of Marvel's output. They have their weak films (Thor movies, Iron Man 2), but they have plenty of strong films too (Capt. America movies, Iron Man). The ultimate standard for which their films must now live up to is The Avengers. That film is the ultimate cherry-on-top when it comes to the overall MCU franchise. It's the film that Marvel was building towards from 2007-2011 and writer/director Joss Whedon knocked it out the park.

But of course, the more movies Marvel makes, the more you can start to see a pattern forming. Why are their good films so good? Usually, it's because the superhero is well-written, the story/plot is a well-oiled machine, and it's all executed fairly well. The film has a smart director who knows what he's doing, and what I'm starting to notice now is that it takes a director that has the ego of a Joss Whedon to successfully carve their own niche inside the Marvel machine. The director whose best able to get their POV across from their Marvel film is usually the one that's most successful.

Even then, however, it seems to me that there are a couple of things that every director just has to accept. One, a rather weak villain. Two, an action-packed third act. So far, the only truly memorable villain in a Marvel movie has been Loki and that's really because he straddles the line from being an outright baddie to a disgruntled good guy. Second to that, I guess the red dude from Captain America: First Avenger. All the other villains in Marvel films kind of have the same demeanor about them. They talk the same way, they act in the same way. There's just a certain "blah-ness" about them. So, at best, you come away from a Marvel movie being entertained by the action and the superheroes, but what you lack is a truly compelling conflict between goodie and baddie. Since The Avengers, I have given Iron Man 3 and Captain America: Winter Soldier a B. Now I really enjoyed those films, but I think they represent the new standard for the post-Avengers Marvel movies. They're really good, but their same-ness is what keeps them from being great. Both films have a weak villain and both films devolve into a rather by-the-numbers third act.

Of course, these films have to have an action-packed third act. That's what these movies are building toward and that's what audiences expect. But it just seems like these Marvel films have hit a groove, a certain complacency and they seem to think the best kind of third act is the one with the most explosions. The reason why The Avengers is an A-movie (for Marvel standards, at least) is because Loki is so damn fun to watch and the chaos of the third act is handled so well. So many superheroes to look after, and yet, Joss Whedon gives each of the characters a place to be. They each serve a purpose. But, that doesn't mean The Avengers necessarily had a unique third act, and even if The Avengers 2 has a similarly well-executed third act, if it goes through the same machinations, it simply won't be as impressive. So, that's really the problem that I'm starting to have with these movies, despite the fact that I still enjoy most of them.

It's with some great joy, then, that I can say this: Guardians of the Galaxy is the most unique film Marvel has ever made up to this point. And I really mean that. This film has style. It's a sort-of throwback style that brings to mind the first Star Wars film as well as Raiders of the Lost Ark ( space). It's a throwback, feel-good sci-fi space adventure. And you can tell it's going to be a different beast with you hear "Come and Get Your Love" (by the '70s funk band Redbone) playing once the "Guardians of the Galaxy" title card pops up on the screen. At that point, it's like the film is literally telling you "this isn't quite like the other Marvel movies you've seen."

Guardians has a ragtag team of heroes, but the way they come together is also fun to watch and doesn't at all feel forced. There's Star Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), Groot (Vin Diesel), and Rocket (Bradley Cooper). Star Lord aka Peter Quill first runs into Gamora, who soon makes a play for the orb that Peter is trying to sell. This orb is very powerful and is sought after by Thanos who wants to use the orb to control the galaxy.  Gamora has been sent to retrieve it. But Rocket and Groot stifles her plans when they attempt to capture Quill for a handsome reward.

The four of them wind up getting sent to prison as a result of their scuffle and this is where they run into Drax. They reluctantly band together while in prison as they figure out what to do with the orb, while Drax is promised that Ronan the Accuser (one of Thanos's guys) will be brought to him, as Drax has beef with the dude.

Yadda yadda yadda... The quintet then go off on a set of adventures together. What's great is just how distinct and memorable each of the Guardians are. Peter Quill is like a less sarcastic Han Solo (but just as entertaining), Gamora is a badass who is both attracted and repelled by Quill which makes for some interesting chemistry between the two. Meanwhile Rocket, a talking raccoon, is a chatterbox and a wiseass and Groot... well... Groot only repeats three words ("I am Groot") and you can't help but love him for it.

These are really well-written characters. They each get their moment to shine, they all make you laugh in their own way. And, when it comes down to it, this is a very funny film with a number of legitimately laugh out loud scenes packed in. Unfortunately, and here's where the other side of the coin inevitably drops... the villains are weak. Surprise. Ronan the Accuser is just one-note and humorless and Thanos is rarely seen so he really seems like a non-factor. And I think because of the villain issue, the third act winds up being the inevitable by-the-numbers action fest. Because the Guardians are so enjoyable, it's much easier to stomach this time around. Plus, James Gunn (the writer/director) obviously knows what he's doing. So, it winds up working out in the end, it has its own pizazz, but I can't help but feel that it more-or-less plays out much like it has in so many Marvel movies before it. Now, at least the action ends on an emotional note, which I won't give away but it's a moment that ties in with something that happens in the very beginning of the movie and it's done very well. Still, with a movie that brings so many unique flavors to the Marvel Universe, it's disappointing that it can't keep up that weird energy during the big showdown.

That said, the scene right before (or during, can't remember) the credits is so sweet that you can't help but forgive everything. Most of you have seen the movie so I'll just spill it. Watching little Groot dancing with Drax oblivious in the background is so great. But why is it great? Because of how well you know the characters by the end. This is a 122 minute movie and you don't meet everybody until almost 30 minutes in. So, the fact that the movie can end on a wordless, humorous note and it totally works speaks wonders to how well it's written. I don't know how Marvel could do a 2nd film without James Gunn at the helm. I'm sure he'll be asked back as he nailed this movie.

To clarify the very first sentence of this review, though... about the dichotomy. I really enjoyed the film. Seriously. It was fun. Why was it so enjoyable though? Because it had just enough unique flavors to stand out from the rest of the Marvel pack. The flip side to that though is that it's still guilty of some of the problems that can be found in every Marvel film thus far (though I still give The Avengers a pass for reasons mentioned above). Until Marvel fixes its villain problem and does something new/different/interesting in the third act, even the best film they have to offer can't be any higher than B+ quality. That is, at least, in my view.

Still, in so many ways, Guardians of the Galaxy is the best film Marvel has to offer. And it's so great because James Gunn dared to be different. The gamble paid off and it has been paying off really well in the box office. But as we have seen with the firing of Edgar Wright from Ant-Man, Marvel will certainly lease one of their expensive vehicles to you, but not without a certain amount of guidelines, and you have to have it not conflict with their impending Avengers film. So, no matter how unique and different one of these films can be, because they have to fit in this Marvel Cinematic Universe puzzle, they can only stand out so much.

And considering the fact that it seems NONE of the Guardians will even be in next year's Avengers: Age of Ultron, you have to wonder why it can't just be its own thing altogether. Why not let it be in its own universe? Why not let James Gunn run wild and free? Why not let Edgar Wright run wild and free? Of course, the answer is: $$$. And hey, that's fine. But there are only so many ways you can make an explosive action-packed third act exciting before everyone starts to tune out. Knowing that producer Kevin Feige and Marvel have this whole Cinematic Universe planned out for the next 10-15 years, you have to hope that they have more tricks up their sleeve.

For now, at the very least, James Gunn has raised the bar. He's shown just how much you can do in the Marvel sandbox. Joss Whedon, the ball is now in your court.

Grade: B+

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