Chris Pratt as Peter Quill/Star-Lord
Zoe Saldana as Gamora
Dave Bautista as Drax the Destroyer
Vin Diesel as the voice of Groot
Bradley Cooper as the voice of Rocket
Lee Pace as Ronan the Accuser
Karen Gillan as Nebula
Michael Rooker as Yondu
Djimon Hounsou as Korath
John C. Reilly as Rhomann Dey
Peter Serafinowicz as Denarian Saal
Glen Close as Nova Prime Irani Rael
Benicio Del Toro as The Collector
Josh Brolin as Thanos
When it was announced the obscure ’80s outer space super hero group the Guardians of the Galaxy would be the first non-sequel Marvel project since “Avengers,” many scratched their heads in wonder at what they could possibly have in mind. Then the trailers started to land and many wondered if they could pull it off.
The answer is, more or less. “Guardians of the Galaxy” is a good first effort filled with magnificent vistas, fun set pieces and an outstanding sense of humor, but also plagued by many of the issues of exposition and pace the first entries in a franchise are.
And make no mistake; “Guardians” is most assuredly the first entry in Star Wars-y space opera franchise.
Co-writer/director James Gunn (“Slither”) and his crew led by production designer Charles Wood (“Thor: The Dark World”) have created a truly epic universe for the Guardians to play in, albeit with lots of help from Framestore (“Gravity”) and MPC (“Godzilla”). The worlds they’ve created (particularly the giant floating head which has been transformed into a mine) are both familiar and inventive.
The character designs are just as good; particularly the villains. Evil overlord Ronan (Lee Pace) and his helper Nebula (Karen Gillan) are a great looking pair of villains (though no one bothered to do more with them than that), matched only by the weirdness that are Rocket and Groot, a foul mouthed mutant raccoon and a (semi-) talking tree.
It’s that sort of bizarreness which makes much of “Guardians” work. As you might expect from a James Gunn film, it has a fantastic sense of humor and it is when he is taking the mickey from his own movie (and movies like it) that “Guardians” is at its best.
It’s an aesthetic and a story-telling style that fills “Guardians” and sets it apart from other films of its type. The best moments are the bits where Gunn and his characters fully embrace that particular aesthetic; not so much pointing out how silly the movie is as how silly they are.
The best characters, not surprisingly, are the ones who are good at that (and played by actors who are good at that). Pratt sets the tone from the get go as he dances his way through an alien tomb to collect its hidden treasures, but the cake (and the candles) are quickly stolen by Bradley Cooper’s Rocket and Vin Diesel’s Groot as the unlikeliest pair of bounty hunters in the galaxy. The characters, strange as they are, are fully realized from Rocket’s dark joy de vivre to Groot’s mixture of violence and naiveté. They’re the heart and soul of the film and almost always in the center of its best scenes.
It’s when the film tries to play itself straight (*cough*Gamora*cough*) or worse, tries to mash the two together, that it stumbles over itself, as the intentionally silly aspects can’t help but highlight how unintentionally silly the other stuff is.
The result is characterization which is frequently haphazard, rushing between brilliant and lazy in part due to the need to quickly build his world, forcing Gunn to do a lot of telling instead of showing, breaking the only filmmaking rule you really shouldn’t break. The Guardians are thrust together VERY quickly and in order to make room for the plot, they frequently exposit their backstories at each other for no good reason other than we the audience need to know it. We never really feel why, for instance, Gamora (Saldana) is betraying Ronan; we meet her and then she’s explaining she must betray him and it’s off to the next plot beat. And it’s the same around the circle; literally the first minute they meet Drax (Bautista) he is explaining where he came from and why he is the way he is to a bunch of bystanders (or they’re explaining it about him) in a way that is clumsy it’s hard to believe it’s happening in the same movie with Star-Lord and Rocket. As a result, the team we’re supposed to be following around and caring about feels grouped together entirely arbitrarily.
Some of the characters can get over this mainly the ones with actors who know how to pull off Gunn’s winking tone but the ones who can’t (Drax and Saldana’s Gamora, mainly) tend to get mired in their dialogue and never break free. Gamora in particular has the most bog-standard Space Opera dialogue, and Saldana is not the actress to make it play in a world where everyone else gets mocked for talking that way. Put a girl talking about looking for a man of honor next to a talking raccoon who steals prosthetic legs, or a space pirate who likes to line up troll dolls and other knickknacks on the controls of his pirate ship, and it’s not hard to guess which one is incredibly dull to listen to. It doesn’t help that there is a profound effort to make her The Chick,’ a role she does not fill well, partly because she has zero chemistry with the much more likeably Pratt.
This would still probably not be that noticeably if the villains didn’t suffer from the same problem, only more so. It’s not so much that Lee Pace’s Ronan has no sense of humor as he has no personality. He delivers all of his dialogue at full volume–he’s always either shouting at someone or just the universe in general–and his backstory is mushy and ill-formed. His people the Kree have been at war with the planet Xandar for a long time for… some reason, but they have now signed a peace treaty. Ronan doesn’t like that, so he’s going to keep fighting and try to wipe out Xandar because… he’s the bad guy and that’s what bad guys do. From his first appearance sleeping naked in what seems to be vat of blood (because, hey, that’s what bad guys do) he is the epitome of style over substance. It’s like he was given the Big Book of Evil Overlord Clichés when he was kid and nothing else, so he just follows it hook, line and the other thing. The idea may be to contrast the silliness of the Guardians with the intense seriousness of Ronan, but he’s so dull the satire misses its mark.
Nebula (Gillan) has the same general problem and even less backstory, except for a vague notion that she’s jealous of Gamora for always being the successful daughter’ in the eyes of their uber powerful father Thanos who (we assume) is providing Ronan with all of his soldiers and weapons. And I actually forgot Djimon Hounsou was in the movie until he shows up again near the end.
The mixture of these problems means the conclusion is ultimately a bit anticlimactic. Because it’s an adventure film, eventually the final confrontation has to be played as straight as possible which, combined with Ronan’s lack of personality, makes the climax one of those actors staring at computer generated effects’ affairs that never quite has the emotional content the filmmakers seemed to be going for.
But for all that doesn’t work, a lot does and hopefully with time and distance, Gunn and his collaborators can chuck all of the non-silly stuff they just don’t need for “Guardians 2.” They’ve got a firm foundation to build off of.