Guardians of the Galaxy is the story of a scrappy underdog trying his best to maintain his way of life in the face of an evil empire. I am talking, of course, about director James Gunn and his newfound employment with the Walt Disney Corporation, an intergalactic entity that now owns the rights to both you and your kid’s fantasies. Besides a notable acting credit as the “Insane Masturbator,” Gunn is also a writer and director on several extremely graphic horror movies and, more importantly, a couple deconstructions of the super hero genre. Before Guardians of the Galaxy he directed Super, wherein the gritty reality of masked crusading was revealed to consist of fewer acts of heroism and more wrenches to the face than usually depicted. Gunn mocked many conventions about the super hero genre such as the thin line between a vigilante’s rationale and insanity, but Super was also surprisingly touching. Perhaps Disney realized that Gunn was capable of these withering stories because he was a man who was deeply invested in the comic universe. Still, it is out of character for Disney to risk a cornerstone of their franchise (and perhaps more importantly, the $170 million budget) on a rebel. Well, evidence already exists that Gunn isn’t entirely adverse to working for a massive corporation. Specifically, Gunn was the hired gun who put together the 00’s era Scooby Doo movie and a sequel, indicating a passionate nerd who also is willing to play fiduciary ball. The reason this review is discussing the path to Gunn at length is because Guardians of the Galaxy is as much a product as it is a film. To understand why Guardians improves on other Marvel films by innovating and yet paradoxically fails in some ways as a film by playing so safe, you must consider that Guardians is a work of internal tension. It’s creation as a piece of film resembles its own misfit story arc. However, as a product Guardians of the Galaxy is undeniably a success. It’s a fun summer film with strong echoes of Star Wars and it marks an improvement over many other Marvel properties.
Guardians of the Galaxy happens in a part of the Marvel Universe that is usually ignored but is still vibrant and rich with lore; space. Guardians mentions Marvel Earth but mostly ignores it, along with the other Marvel coterie you may be used to. Instead, circumstance forces several outlaws into competition on a civilized spacefaring planet. Principal among them is Chris Pratt’s Starlord, a thief who may have a heart of gold but also has a tongue of silver. Starlord grew up on Earth, and so he anchors the film’s perspective for us as an outsider in the wild sky. Starlords quirky pop culture snippets and love of 70’s pop rock softens the seriousness of the galactic terror that makes up the main plot. Supporting Starlord in his quest to turn a profit and perhaps save the galaxy is veteran sci-fi actress Zoe Saldana, wrestler Dave Baptista, some superb voice work by Bradley Cooper as Rocket, and Vin Diesel as the monosyllabic (and monosyntaxic) Groot. The core of Guardian’s story is the interplay between these scoundrels, each of which has their own motivation and values. Much of the excitement in the film is generated by tension within the group rather than from Lee Pace’s serviceably threatening but generically glowering super-villain Ronan. This is demonstrated by Starlord’s problems with his disgruntled mentor, longtime Gunn standby Michael Rooker as Yondu. Their conflict is about ideals, loyalty, and self-interest rather than boilerplate hatred, and this semi-paternal relationship subtly drives most of the action in the plot. Character is one thing Guardians does better than any other Marvel film to date.
When that action finally builds to a boil, Gunn proves himself capable of wielding the considerable budget of this fully armed and operational summer blockbuster. Action is staged kinetically, but usually with good spacial reasoning. The macguffin is appropriately awe inspiring, with some cool color effects, and the Ronan the Accuser is represented as a credible threat. Guardians also surprises by providing big budget space dogfights, a setpiece which has fallen off in recent years. Space pirates used to have slightly more cultural cache before they wore out their welcome, but it’s good to see them back. Even in space Gunn keeps everything clearly positioned and originally staged. In one innovative scene, Starlord and Rocket must make do with starfighter pugilism in lieu of weaponry. The 3D adds nothing, but the special effects work is satisfying.
Several elements prevent Guardians from rising too far out of the blockbuster gravity well. Although the film smartly forgoes drama for humor most of the time, the staging of both action and motivations gets a little sloppy as we head to the denouement. Saldana’s Gamora unfortunately has her complex motivations quickly smoothed over. Gunn also uses very simple audience tricks, such as the catchphrase cutaway, the winking con,1 and maudlin shots of innocents with children running away from disaster. There’s also a lot of sword play for a space opera, which isn’t unusual for the genre but is revealing of the fantastical intensions. The heroes and setting of Guardians promise to reveal the seedier and more tactile aspects of the Marvel universe but under that coat of paint is the same light swashbuckling fantasy story we know so well. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it’s certainly a marked improvement on the rest of the somewhat dour Marvel cannon. Also, to Guardians credit, it has one nearly perfect scene out in the cold of space which is compositionally unmatched by any other superhero movie I’ve seen. In all, Gunn has improved the formula although he has not transformed it.
Guardians of the Galaxy is certainly an enjoyable romp. It may have passed as a trifle if released unbranded, but it finds great strength in being an official piece of the Marvel pyramid. It seems clear now that Disney isn’t going to have any of these films reinvent the wheel, but if they continue to improve over each other like this film did we may be surprised yet.