We all know that Disney is trying to take over the world, and now that it has Marvel Studios under its power, it seems like if it isn’t quite ready to take over the whole globe, it at least will take over the internet. Marvel’s latest, Guardians of the Galaxy, despite being based on a highly unpopular comic book, has been met with ridiculous enthusiasm by mainstream audiences; and film critics have mostly showered the movie with praise, calling it “irreverent”, “thrilling”, and “full of heart”. But not everything is as great as it seems. After my indifference towards Thor: The Dark World and my unenthusiastic response to the critically beloved Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy seems to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. I am now convinced that for all it’s commercial and critical success, Marvel Studios’ march toward franchise domination comes at the expense of turning whatever potentially great stories they have into mediocre movies.
The fact that it is only now that I’ve grown tired of this Marvel formula isn’t fair to Guardians of the Galaxy, which is easily the best of the three movies I’ve mentioned so far in this review. But the fact is that Guardians of the Galaxy, being based on an obscure book, and directed by as particular a voice as James Gunn (Slither, Super), seemed like the perfect opportunity for Marvel to finally make a movie that is as fun and liberated of franchise-building mechanics as The Avengers. It was with great disappointment that I discovered that the movie that featured the gun-trotting Raccoon and the walking Tree could feel so been-there-done-that. To be fair, though, Guardians of the Galaxy is a good movie. It starts out a little messy and uninteresting as it introduces its world and its characters, but once the five Guardians come together, the movie finds its groove, and doesn’t let go until the end. These are cool characters, and it is fun to spend time with them. However, they are trapped in a movie that can’t be what it wants to be. Also trapped is James Gunn, whose irreverent tone, as many critics have pointed out, does color the movie with its most entertaining passages, but there is no denying that it feels like the auteur behind this production has been rendered toothless, unable to make a movie that plays by its own rules.
Our main character is Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), who was abducted from Earth when he was just a child, and now roams the galaxy as an outlaw called Star-Lord, stealing precious items and listening to a kick-ass ’70s mixtape. Pratt is great casting as Quill. If you’ve watched Parks and Recreation, you know he is a fantastic comic actor. He puts his talent to great effects in Guardians. The rest of the guardians are dark warrior Gamora (Zoe Saldana), assassin Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), Han Solo-type space pirate Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), and Groot (Vin Diesel), a lovable sentient tree who can only ever communicate by saying “I am Groot”. The movie’s biggest success is its character work, and how it establishes these five as valuable members of a team that has us excited to watch its future adventures.
However, Guardians shows weaknesses even in its most successful elements. Rocket, for example -who as a piece of visual effects is pretty fantastically integrated- feels like a compromised character. You can feel how he is the star of an R-rated, bat-shit crazy action extravaganza, but here has his “Yippe-ki-yay motherfucker” one-liner turned into an indifferent “oh, yeah”. I can understand that as a product of wanting this to be a family friendly movie, but the character who suffers the most, and whose lack of personality I can’t forgive is Gamora, who totally coincidentally also happens to be the one female character of the group. In theory, Gamora should be the most interesting character of the bunch. She is the one that is most closely tied to the movie’s story. She was raised by evil mastermind Thanos, and worked closely for a long time with the movie’s main villain, Ronan (Lee Pace). Not to mention the fact that she has to face her half-sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) in combat because she still works for Ronan. Everything points out to hers being the most important and emotionally resonant character arc, and yet, she is by far the least interesting of the Guardians. Zoe Saldana does what she can injecting some personality into her, but you can only do so much when you’re giving nothing to work with.
Gamora is not the only one who must endure this fate, though. Most of the supporting characters (meaning anyone who is not a Guardian), is as underdeveloped or uninteresting as she is. The most infuriating of these weak characterizations is Benicio Del Toro as The Collector. Del Toro appeared as the character in the post-credits tag of Thor: The Dark World, and was so strange and uninhibited that his brief appearance was the most exciting part of watching The Dark World, and had me very excited to see what he would do in Guardians. Well, turns out not only is he barely in the movie, he gets virtually nothing to do. The same goes for John C. Reilly and Glenn Close, cast as members of the intergalactic police-like Nova Corps, who barely make an impact (Reilly gets a couple good lines, but nothing worthy of his talent). Casting such amazing actors, and then wasting them in nothing roles feels almost like an insult. I know they’re taking the parts so they can buy a new house or whatever, but it is just cruel to tease the audience like that.
But if we’re talking about weak supporting characters, none seem more problematic than the villains. Ronan and Nebula have absolutely no personality. They are covered in makeup, and are boring to the point of anonymity. Crafting memorable villains has become one of Marvel’s biggest problems, and is frankly one that can be easily solved. I mean, how many movies have memorable villains? Even more tellingly, how many villains are the most memorable part of the movies they’re in? The villain used to be the most fun part to play, but Marvel just refuses to give even an ounce of personality to their villains, a big mistake that undermines the momentum and stakes of the movie. Sure, it’s fun to watch our heroes go on a mission, but it would be better if we also looked forward to the point in which they finally face their enemies. When it comes to the confrontations, not only do not care about the villains, but Gunn proves to be a pretty incompetent action director. Action scenes approach Transformers-levels of incoherence, and are rather unimaginative, with the final battle being yet another instance in which a giant alien ship flies over a big city and threatens to destroy it.
The telling sign of what Guardians of the Galaxy does right and what it does wrong is that movie’s best scene is one in which the five Guardians sit down and talk to each other. The movie can’t escape the crutches that the Marvel formula has imposed on it, but for all its weaknesses, it does have a particular voice and a particular sense of humor that turns it into a fun experience, if not a completely satisfying one. I think the best way to sum up my thoughts on the movie is the following: I was deeply disappointed, but look forward to the sequel. Maybe by then Marvel will let Gunn have more a free reign, and if not, then at least I’ll spend some more with these cool Guardians of the Galaxy.
Grade: 6.5 out of 10