Saturday, August 16, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

The Un--usual Suspects
or
The A-Hole Team,  ("But Not 100% a Dick")

Marvel Studios takes a side-step away from super-hero movies with Guardians of the Galaxy to try another genre of film, the space adventure (something that is somewhat tangential in the "Thor" series) with a super-toe dipped into the comedy dunk-tank. A good thing, too. The latest bunch of Marvel films (post-Avengers) seem ready to atrophy, and are beginning to feel like the same movie over and over again, concluding with a "Really Big Flying Thing smashing into a city-scape."* A little of that goes a long way. Especially after 9/11.

But, it's mixed in with the "Motley Crew" adventure film, where a disparate group of specialists from various walks of life come together as a unit for a common goal (after a requisite period of squabbling and marking each other's territory). Think Seven Samurai and its progeny, and, in comics, The Justice Society and the medium's various "team" books. For this film, Marvel decided to go with the 2008 version of GOTG (cobbled together by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning), rather than the 1969 Arnold Drake version, set in the 31st Century—the various super-beings of that group being largely unrelatable and obscure.

Not that the 2008 crew were any more well-known—their series lasted a mere 25 issues where the first lasted 62—but they are less cosmic in nature and more human in attributes and sensibilities. Its most famous member is probably Rocket Raccoon (who has appeared in various Marvel comics, and is voiced here by Bradley Cooper in a performance that is so distinctive, it doesn't once remind you of Bradley Cooper), because who doesn't love a a laser-blasting procyonid?**  It also has a fully-functioning human character in Peter Quill (Chris Pratt)—who calls himself "Star-Lord"—hijacked by space-pirates from Earth, as a boy.  The group feels like a more species-diverse version of Joss Whedon's "Firefly" crew—and that group's leader was played by Nathan Fillion, who appeared in Gunn's previous movie Super (which we looked at earlier this week) and who provides a vocal performance in GOTG
"Who doesn't love a laser-blasting procyonid?"
Guardians begins with the de rigeur origin story of Quill's abduction and his obsession with a mix-tape from the 70's (an "Awesome Mix Tape" which, indeed, imbues the movie with a lot of its good feelings—like the sight of Star-Lord dancing over the Main Titles to Redbone's "Come and Get Your Love" which is oddly perfect), while, Indiana Jones-ing, he grabs an orb of some significance.  It is the movie's "McGuffin" and will contain a secret "thing" that the villains of the movie want, but the heroes are unaware of its significance or worth.  

Now, stay with me here. Quill ("I'm a junker, dude!") has the orb. His pirate boss, Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker) of the Kree wants it, too. So does Ronan (Lee Pace) "The Accuser" (not much of a nick-name, frankly) in his capacity for Thanos (Josh Brolin—the character hasn't been seen since the first "Thor" movie's post-credit sequence). Thanos' adopted daughter Gamora (Zoe Saldana—she's green this time) is after the orb for Daddy. Rocket and his pal, the tree-thing Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel, minimally) want Quill for the bounty on his head.  But they cause such a ruckus in town on the planet Xandar, they get the attention of the local constabulary, The Nova Corps (led by Glenn Close, with John C. Reilly as the corpsman with the most lines—in fact, I think that's his name in the movie).
The four are sent to prison in "The Kylin" where conflicts bring in another party to the group Drax (WWE star Dave Bautista, who's not bad, really...) a literal-minded brute ("Nothing goes over my head. My reflexes are too good") with several axes to grind with Ronan—while he was "accusing" one day, he managed to kill Drax's entire family, and Drax wants to "make his stand...though I may die" against him. The party escapes to "Knowhere" where Gamora attempts to find out the secret to the orb by contacting The Collector*** (Benicio del Toro, in a typically bizarre del Toro performance—I mean, why not, this isn't Shakespeare) who reveals that the orb is in reality...
Wait a minute. Wait. At this point, anybody who isn't in the Grootish weeds by this point must have a basement stacked with Marvel comics, all poly-bagged, in acid-free storage boxes, all neatly lined up, either by title alphabetically or by year, and has actually read them and retained all the arcana. The rest of us who don't know the difference between a Kree and a Necro-cat should probably buy a score-card or a libretto before we go in, or console ourselves with the fact that so much of this stuff has such a goofy spin, that the best thing to do is take a "just go with it" attitude and take none of it too seriously. That's easy to do, especially as the movie sails by on a series of distinctive feel-good oldies that are comically out of place in a space epic, even if they are effective in lightening the overall tone of the film.
And it's nice that the film has, as part of its structure, a desire to break the mold of Marvel movie expectations, both in tone, resolution, and in exceeding the grasp of subject matter without getting too heavy about it (as the "Thor" films perpetually do). It walks a rather ungainly tight-rope of having a good time, while raising the bar a bit to expand the playing ground of story material to include more than usual disgruntled tech-masters and villainously-empowered accident victims as antagonists for the heroes. That was wearing a bit thin, especially in the last couple years. It makes this part of the series feel less Earth-bound and thus a little lighter on its feet, paws, or roots and less bound by a force of gravitas—we're talking super-heroes, after all, no matter how dark and leathery we may dress them.

Josh Brolin voices Thanos, who might be the real "McGuffin" of the film.

* Two lines of comic dialogue always defined the rather-unspecifically cosmic Marvel Universe for me:  "Look at THAT!"  and "I don't know what it is but it sure is big."

** I talked to a customer in my day-job who mentioned she took her four year-old to see Guardians, and I asked "How'd she handle it?" And she laughed and said "She loved it, but all she can talk about are the raccoon and Groot." It gave me a lot of insight as to how kids might relate to the film by concentrating on the fun aspects and letting all the Marvel insidery going over their heads. "She likes to dance like Groot," she added. That scene, which is a charmer is the first of the two post-credits sequences. The other, which is a shock and a surprise, is almost not worth waiting for.
Kids love Groot.
*** The Collector was last seen in a post-credit teaser in Thor: The Dark World.

1 comment:

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