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Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

This review originally appeared in Nathaniel's column at Towleroad

The Marvel Universe movies could have not existed before Right Now. Yet, for all the technological advances and computer wizardry that have made The Avengers and the like possible, the magic still comes from the humanity of the actors. No amount of technical prowess can make you care about Iron Man if a great actor hasn’t sold you on the bravado and change of heart of the man inside the suit. Captain America’s shield and super strength are great but his adventures don’t work if Chris Evans’s star turn isn’t so perfectly pitched to invoke fantasies of the nobility of a bygone American era. Without the humanity it’s just Trans4rmers and nobody wants that. (Shut up. I’m in denial about those billions). With Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel Studios has gone Cosmic opening up a whole new movie wing for their ever-expanding universe. As they leave Earth behind, have they found a way to retain the humanity?

Yes and no. But not in the way you might expect.

It helps of course, on a superficial level that the movie begins on Earth and shamelessly pushes collective 80s nostalgia buttons by making Peter Quill, our hero, relentlessly nostalgic about that era. We first meet him as a little boy in 1988 and his most cherished possession twenty some years later when the movie takes place isn’t any of his impressive weapons or starship but a walkman with a cassette tape called “Awesome Mix Tape Volume 1”. It also helps that Quill is played by the endearingly simple Andy from “Parks and Recreation” a.k.a. Chris Pratt. Pratt’s new body may be imposingly hard, with all its cuddly body weight chiseled off, but those years of familiarity have given him a phantom comfy-ness. 

The actor's comic gift doesn’t exactly give Quill much in the way of character - he’s basically Han Solo lite - but it does give him and the movie a great sense of humor; one joke he makes about a black light is uproariously funny and will thankfully sail right over the heads of the little kids who will enjoy this movie most.

The hero is a ‘type” and each character basically only has one distinguishing trait in both personality and appearance: Drax (Dave Bautista), a red skinned strong man who takes everything literally; Groot (Vin Diesel’s voice), a tree monster who knows only three words “I am Groot.”; Rocket (Bradley Cooper’s voice), a genetically engineered raccoon that is a hot tempered genius. They’re broadly sketched but entertaining.

But the true problems lie elsewhere. Humanity is hard to come by in outer space so how to care? The numerous names of planets and races and old un-dramatize politics and feuds start to take on a Green Lantern/Phantom Menace (shudder) who-cares incoherence. The less said about the villains the better. Marvel Studios has now made 10 movies and, apart from Loki, they’ve yet to figure out how to do villains properly which is a completely odd deficit given their other strengths and the studio’s comic book origins where many terrific baddies can be found. Beautiful Lee Pace is utterly wasted, buried in makeup and costuming as “Ronan the Accuser” a Kree fanatic constantly bellowing death wishes on an entire civilization. Worse still is Thanos (Josh Brolin), the intended ‘Big Bad’ for whatever adventures The Avengers are getting up to come 2018. He floats on a stupid throne in outer space and the image is utterly weightless, devoid of any context, danger, impact or sense of reality… even in this unreality.

And don’t even get me started on the sexism. The Marvel Universe now has two women in it (such numbers for 50% of the population!) and they’re interchangeable: Gamora is a clever beautiful assassin and shady double agent who the hero isn’t sure he can trust. Sound familiar? Yup, she’s The Black Widow. Add green skin, subtract personality. (Scarlett Johansson > Zoe Saldana. You know this to be true… and an understatement.)

But I’m underselling the movie. Director James Gunn and his co-screenwriter Nicole Perlman are at their best when they’re playing with these one-dimensional personalities like they’re tricked up action figures with lots of accessories who tell a joke every time you press a button. The movie is colorful and funny which makes it a buzzy tonic to all the morose self-serious action movies (*cough* Batman). I hope other such movies borrow its love of color but I hope they use it with more self-control and taste. Guardians doesn’t manage to be as unmistakably tacky as Thor’s Asgard but By Odin’s Beard, it tries. Especially when we meet the Collector or visit Xandar and see Glenn Close collecting a paycheck. (Yikes. Were they both inspired by Mugatu?) 

Today if you can dream it, you can realize it (with a bankroll), and it's often hard to find restraint that avoids visual clutter and finds a rooting human interest. Which is why it’s something of a mystery, that everything that’s most human and moving about Guardians of the Galaxy is computer generated. Its two most indelibly beautiful and incongruously organic images are fully animated: The first involves thousands of spaceships fusing together to form a protective shield against an alien invader and the image plays slow and golden and begins to resemble a honeycomb with the valiant men as admirable worker bees dying for their essential queen; the second serves exactly the same protective spell purpose but on a far more intimate scale as Groot forms a protective circle around the heroes with his multiple branches. Not one bit of either image is real and yet both are comforting and strangely moving.

Maybe Guardians of the Galaxy shouldn’t work. It laughs at its own jokes harder than the audience and it feels slapped together to get from point A (new wing of Marvel Universe) to point B (Sequels! Future Avengers Integration!). Hell, maybe it doesn’t work. We’ll see in a year when the fog of hype calling each new superhero movie “the best ever” dissipates. But IF it does work, and I’m not here to argue that it isn’t enjoyable, what makes it work isn’t the human element. Instead it’s the conjured humanity of two CG creations and their visually startling devotion to each other. In the end the great takeaway is that gun-toting raccoon and his softhearted tough-barked pet tree. That is a strange sentence to type and these are strange movie times we live in when pixels have more personality than flesh and blood.


Grade: C+
Oscar Chances: Visual Effects is always a competitive category but there's not reason to think this won't be in the conversation given the success of building Groot and Rocket. Any other nominations will be hard to come by as The Avengers, another better lighthearted colorful superhero romp, proved a couple of years back.

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Reader Comments (21)

In fairness to Zoe:
Saldana's first Marvel turn>Johansson's first Marvel turn.
While this is highly unlikely to be true going forward, Iron Man II, never forget.

I found this movie very much like most of the Marvel movies. Entertaining, well crafted, but nothing special.

August 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDrewB

As a comics books based movies fan, I always count on my man Nat to deliver a very balanced review. Thanks again Nat! And I happen to agree on almost everything but as another reviewer wrote yesterday: This movie doesn´t seem to take itself very seriously, so maybe we shouldn't either.
One last note: I absolutely loved everything about Groot. One of my favorite Marvel characters by far. And totally agree on your take of his protective circle scene. Extremely moving.

August 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLuca

I'm so glad to find someone who actually has problems with this movie because the movie is very problematic. I find Groot, Rocket and Starlord saving graces for the film because the rest of the characters where either underwritten (Ronan) or badly performed (Nebula, Gamora and Drax). The writing was my biggest problem where the comedy was very forced and many of the jokes fell flat and did not work for me. I'm thinking of watching the film again but overall the film did not work for me and while I'm a massive fan of the MCU this was one of my least favourites and it makes me fear for where this universe might go.

August 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterEoin Daly

Drew B -- that's actually a fair point in regards to Zoe. My apologies to Zoe. Scarlett was nothing special her first time out, either.

Luca -- i loved everything a bout Groot too. By far the best character.

Eoin -- yeah, it makes me worry a little too. I know it's to be totally expected that people are like "best ever" but when the smoke clears if people still feel this way i will be very disappointed. This isn't even a patch on The Avengers which was already outdone by Captain America.

i didn't even get to the action scenes in this but they were fine but nothing special. Not quite as incoherent as Thor The Dark World but hardly as well choreographed as The Avengers of Captain America or Iron Man 3

August 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNathanielR

Lady Sif, Pepper Potts, Maria Hill, Peggy Carter, and Jane Foster might beg to differ about there being only two women in the MCU, but point taken.

August 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

Hmm, we don't really agree on superhero films. I thought Capt America 2 was going to be awesome based on all the praise you, of all people (who tends not to overpraise these types of films) gave it. In the end it was incredibly bland with weak villains and bad emotional arc and weak central characters.

My rankings (based on the more recent releases/revamps). NONE of these films are perfect and all have big problems. The biggest gaps in quality occurring after tier 1 and tier 4. Having typed all of those out, I'm embarassed to admit I've seen all of these.

Tier 1 - Spiderman, Spiderman 2, Batman Begins, TDK

Tier 2 - The Avengers, Iron Man, X2, Xmen
Tier 3 - Thor, Iron Man 3, Xmen first class, Man of Steel
Tier 4 - Captain America, Captain America 2, Xmen 3, The Incredible Hulk, The Wolverine

Tier 5 - TDKR, Iron Man 2, Thor 2, The Amazing Spiderman, The Hulk, Daredevil, Xmen orgins: wolverine

August 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnonny

I appreciate your review. I can see how the style of Guardians of the Galaxy (and by style, I mean one-dimensional characters, intentionally distant villains, and humor driven from nostalgia above all else) could be off-putting. That really is what the comics are like, though. There's a reason Troma alum and B-movie genius James Gunn got hired to make this film and I was very happy with the results.

And it's been mentioned before, but Black Widow and Gamora are not the only women in the Marvel cinematic universe. They're they only female assassins in the Marvel cinematic universe. Pepper, Maya (both Iron Man), Lady Sif, Jane, Darcy, (all Thor), Peggy (Captain America), and Maria (Avengers/SHIELD) are all important characters. Betty Ross (The Incredible Hulk) also would have continued if Marvel didn't erase the Ed Norton incarnation from canon.

Even within Guardians of the Galaxy, you had quite a few important female characters who shaped the plot beyond Gamora. The highest ranking official we see in the film is played by Glenn Close and the only villain to actually get their hands dirty is Nebula. And don't forget who literally set the final act of the film in motion.

And if you count bonus scenes, we've already been introduced to Scarlet Witch. Wasp is confirmed for Ant-Man (though that's it's own bag of problems with killing off the original Wasp without any screentime to beef up the backstory of Ant-Man). And, though technically removed from this particular brand of the Marvel Universe, the X-Men cinematic franchise has always made great use of female characters. Then there's the issue of the one and only Captain Marvel who has to be announced sooner or later for a standalone film. I've yet to interview or interact with a Marvel comic staff writer or artist who does not want Carol Danvers to be bigger than Iron Man.

August 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRobert G

I know the point in the film where I could finally identify the problem I had. It was when Groot used his powers in a comical effect to take care of about three columns of enemy combatants (you'll know what I mean when you see the movie). Because at that point I said to myself "That's his "Hulk Moment"" i.e. the same as the point where, in THE AVENGERS Hulk punches Thor away for comic effect.

And, despite being an enjoyable movie, that's the problem. It fits "The Marvel Formula". Not much deviates from their standard stories. I even started to analogise with AVENGERS - Groot=Hulk, wisecracking Quill/Rocket = Tony Stark, not-quite-worldly Drax = Thor/Captain America. (I won't go so far as to dismissively equate Gamora with Black Widow - although the reasons Nate explained above were excellent in terms of the female characters in Marvel being under-developed, they would have been different personalities if they were more 3-dimensional). So much more to expand upon, but basically I am going to start getting sick of Marvel movies if they keep sticking to their formula.

August 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTravis C

So does every superhero movie need to be jokey? Sorry, Nat, nothing's going to top The Dark Knight trilogy in this genre.

August 3, 2014 | Unregistered Commentertr

Finally someone who acknowledges the faults in this fun, but flawed film. Agree with everything, even though I laughed more than I expected to and overall had a fun time.

What makes me sad is this was the first Marvel film I saw where I felt they weren't concerned at all with making a good film, but setting up a better "season finale" (if we are comparing Marvel to a TV series) in a few years. All my friends who watched the film loved it and dismissed the poor villains as something that will "be better in other movies so it doesn't matter." Marvel knows it is a blockbuster machine, so they have stopped looking at their movies on a micro level and instead look at it as another episode in a big picture.

August 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterChris

My review of Guardians of the Galaxy
If someone told me, describe Marvel’s new film franchise “Guardians of the Galaxy”, I’d say it’s got this CG raccoon named Rocket voiced over by Bradley Cooper, a CG tree named Groot voiced over by Vin Diesel, the leader of the group is a drawn out young adult named Peter Quill played by Chris Pratt, an alternate galaxy that’s light years away from ours, a Zandorian bad guy named Ronan played by Lee Pace, flying airships, the leader of the Nova system played by Glenn Close and I don’t know what city they’ve landed on that looks like something out of a Power Rangers episode. I’m totally new to the “Guardians of the Galaxy” comic that Marvel brought out in 1969. I don’t really care to read the comic but I did have fun while watching the movie, mainly because the special effects are very strobe light looking and the make-up is on the prosthetic look like “Star Wars” and the comic relief and that 70’s highlight music played on tape deck is being played. I did not know what to except from this movie. It might’ve been just really ridiculously stupid but it’s surprises in it’s fun zany, nerdy heroes that take good over bad or bad over good. I guess realism is not part of this comic like some other Marvel superheroes more well known like Captain America, Spider-Man and Iron Man. You have to escape the escape with this film because it really has a world of it’s own. I’d put this in that weird o rama comic book film that’s flat out funny like “Flash Gordon” or “Mystery Men”. The characters are one-dimensional but there dialogue is complete in a style of comic book/cartoon material that’s funny for all ages. “Guardians of the Galaxy” doesn’t take itself too seriously and maybe that’s why it’ll be such a blockbuster hit because people like lighter tone movies and the Marvel property is signed here which Marvel Comic Book movies have grossed over $3 billion dollars worldwide. Wow, Stan Lee you are bringing in the cash. You must be the richest man in Hollywood right now, no offense your fans are like walking on water raving over your fantasy spandex characters but still I liked “Guardians of the Galaxy” because it was entertaining for 2 hours of my time shorter than some of other Marvel epics.

August 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoe

robert g -- the very list you wrote is the exact problem. Men aren't expected to be relegated to the sidelines without superpowers. This is a completely sexist universe. I wish people would stop making excuses for them.

and the x-men cinematic universe does NOT make good use of its women. It's all about Xavier/Magneto/Logan. Which is really so disappoitning when you consider how rich the female characters are in the comic books. They don't have to take a backseat there.

August 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

The grade you gave for this is more or less what I gave it. It has its fun but the villain - A.K.A the main threat of the story - is a complete dud and the rest of the script seems cobbled together in parts. In saying that, I thought the actors did fine, the humor worked well and it had some strong visuals. Overall, it's entertaining but problematic and disposable.

August 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Armour

Frankly, I'm annoyed that much of this film exists, but that's a completely different story, and if we must have a million of these comic book movies, I'd much rather have them be full of actual laughs and fun like this one as opposed to forced "laughs" and largely morose and pessimistic characters and worldviews. Because I'll be honest, when we get right down to it, I don't care about a single character in the entire Marvel "Universe". I just don't. And I don't care to, because it means that I can feel comfortable skipping the films that simply don't interest me (like the second Thor). So if I'm going to spend my money, I just want to be entertained, and thankfully, Guardians gave me exactly the breezy fun I wanted from it. Yeah, I could ask for more from these films (and The Winter Soldier came really close to delivering on that front), but I don't care enough about them to do so.

August 4, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

It was OK. The long-drawn out ooooookkaaaaaayy type of ok. Not exactly ok, but not bad. C+ is probably accurate. Wacky space is my favorite type of space, an alternate-universe where aliens are larger-than-life cartoons with awesome hair. Barbarella, Flash Gordon, Fifth Element - you know what I mean. So I smiled a lot and did my best to ignore the times when the film tried to take itself seriously.

August 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSawyer

This movie is a prime example of enjoying the characters and, often, the dialogue to such a degree it's faults sort of fall by the wayside to me.

It's not a great movie, but I loved so much of it that I would happily sit through the weak villain and so-so plotting to spend time with the characters.

August 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBrianZ

I was probably the only person annoyed by this detail, but: Quill spends the movie listening to a tape of music which is almost exclusively 1970's-early 1980's stuff, then the last two songs in the movie are "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" (1967) and "I Want You Back" (1969). Not only are these the wrong era time-wise, they're vintage Motown, which doesn't jibe stylistically with the other tracks. (They've also been used as nauseum in other movies.) If they'd replaced "Ain't No Mountain" with "Love Will Keep Us Together" I think they would've had a stronger scene thematically (doesn't that describe the guardians' relationship perfectly? That or "Stuck In the Middle WIth You"). Similarly, if they'd replaced "I Want You Back" with "Good Times" by Chic, or maybe "Higher Ground" by Stevie Wonder, they would've had the same feel-good finish, but with something more on-target musically for Quill's mom. (I did love the use of "Cherry Bomb" "Hooked On A Feeling" "Escape (Pina Colada)" etc.) If they're willing to walk the knife blade of 70's cheesiness, I would love to see a serious shoot-out/smackdown in "Guardians 2" set to Helen Reddy's "You and Me Against The World." (How cool would THAT be?)

August 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDback

As much as it is obviously lighter fare after Captain America: The Winter Soldier... this is the most fun Marvel offering so far, and the one that invites the most, for repeated viewings and cult following. With the added fact, it does not rip off Star Wars at all... Guardians of the Galaxy started as early as 1969!

August 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJesus Alonso

I have to disagree on a few things. Firstly, the grade. I'd give it an B+. It's not easy to do "Space Opera," especially in the massive MC world, and they pulled it off.

As for the women in Marvel, you must not have seen ANY of the X-Men movies; Jean, Storm, Rogue, Mystique, Shadowcat, and many others.

As for the laughs, they NEVER felt forced to me, and pretty much the entire theater was laughing along with me. Dialogue could have been better, but it's always going to be difficult to have great humor/dialogue when all your characters speak different native tongues.

In reply to DBack and the music, that was because the last tape was full of songs his mom loved, not songs he loved...

September 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDan

Check Out Guardians Of The Galaxy 2 Trailer Official 2017

September 21, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAdi

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