Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
We know how the roller coaster goes. Our heroes, misfits all, fight more with each other than with the bad guys, but eventually, through a series of adventures and misadventures, they abandon the more pungent aspects of their personalities for the greater good and come together for the final, big battle, with swirling dervishes going pew-pew-pew, and, somehow, against impossible odds ... win!
We know this going in. The roller coaster, being a roller coaster, can’t alter its tracks. So the question becomes: Do they make the ride fun?
Writer-director James Gunn (“The Specials,” “Super”), and writer Nicole Perlman (this), and some very talented cast members, led by Chris Pratt (“Parks and Recreation”), make Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” a lot of fun.
Who's BFF? (Before Fantastic Four)
It’s all about the characters, and these characters are fairly unique. Count ‘em off:
- Peter Quill (Pratt): Terran, outlaw, raconteur, who digs one-hit wonders of the 1970s.
- Drax (Dave Bautista): massively muscled and tattooed like a Maori warrior, he doesn’t understand metaphor; so he’s like the opposite of the Tamarians.
- Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper): a raccoon bounty hunter ready to sink his teeth into any fight.
- Groot (voice of Vin Diesel): his companion, a calm, giant tree, who can only say three words and only in this order: “I am Groot.”
- Gamora (Zoe Saldana): a sexy, ass-kicking bad girl.
OK, so maybe we’ve seen Gamora before. Like all the time. And Quill is a bit like Han Solo with a better taste in girls and a worse one in music. Groot is the vegetation version of Chewbacca, while Rocket is, you know, a pint-sized Wolverine. Sans cigar. Maybe they’re saving it for the sequel.
But they’re unique enough. Most of them came out of the trippy, 1970s-era Marvel comics universe, the long-haired, cosmic-looking, drug-taking wave after Stan and Jack. Jim Starlin gave us both Gamora (in 1975) and, with Mike Friedrich, Drax the Destroyer (in 1973). Rocket was Bill Mantlo and Keith Giffen’s 1976 homage to the Beatles’ “Rocky Raccoon,” while Steve Engelhart’s interest in astrology led to the creation of Peter Quill in 1976. Only Groot came earlier, pre-Silver Age, 1960. He was one of those “Tales to Astonish” outerspace villains forever imperiling earthlings in the days before the Fantastic Four: Droom and Rommbu and Vandoom and Moomba. Stan was big on the “oo.”
They are, in the comic book world, what they are here: misfits and castoffs and second- or third- or 39th-tier players. But they were put together in 2008 for the second iteration of Guardians, which first failed as a concept in 1969. And boom. Stars. Here, too. Basically they’re a funnier, less superhero-y version of The Avengers. But they’re fighting who the Avengers will soon fight. Spoiler alert.
So one night in 1988, a boy, young Peter Quill, has a bummer of a night: 1) his mother dies, and 2) he’s abducted by a UFO. We next see him 26 years later on the planet Morag. By now he’s a rapscallion bounty hunter, who, like Indiana Jones, enters a cave in search of a precious object, but he doesn’t sweat it in the getting. The opposite. He kicks alien rodents out of the way while dancing to “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone, from his AWESOME MIX TAPE, VOL. 1, which is a cassette of great one-hit AM-radio wonders of the ’70s his mom gave him. He even uses one rodent as a mic. It’s a mix of new technology (spaceships) and old (Walkman). Not to mention old tunes. It’s the fear of the unknown subverted. Remember the creepiness of alien worlds in the first season of “Star Trek”? Now it ain’t no big thang. Now squiggly creatures are just props for our pop cultural miasma. We’re humans from Earth.
As soon as Quill holds the orb in his hand, though, armed men, led by Korath (Djimon Hounsou), come to take it from him, and we set the tone for the rest of the movie:
Korath: Who are you?
Quill (in close-up and with gravitas): Star-Lord.
Korath (perplexed): WHO???
Quill (whiny): I’m Star-Lord, man. Legendary outlaw? Forget it.
I love this bit. A lot. He’s a kid playing a game forced to reveal he’s just a kid. He’s an adult with an inflated sense of self-worth forced to own up to the inflation. Quill is a semi-joke here, and we identify; but he’ll soon be, you know, the other thing. The hero. The One. Bummer.
It’s a busy universe he saunters through. There’s a truce between the Kree and Xander, but a Kree faction, led by Ronan (Lee Pace), is outraged and wants to wage war. The orb will help him do this. It’s got an infinity stone in it. Remember the infinity stone? I think it’s what Loki had in “The Avengers.” I think. Either way, it gives the holder incredible powers. What kind of powers? Incredible ones. Quit asking.
On Xander, Quill can’t unload the orb, and is then pursued by bounty hunters Rocket and Groot, even as Gamora, adopted daughter of the evil Thanos, wants him for herself. All four wind up in prison where they meet Drax, who joins their motley crew, such as it is, since he wants revenge on Ronan. They break out in a not-bad scene, then take the orb to The Collector (Benicio del Toro, channeling Karl Lagerfeld), while Quill tries to romance Gamora by getting her to dance. She says she doesn’t. Then this exchange:
Quill: Well, on my planet, we have a legend about people like you. It's called Footloose. And in it, a great hero named Kevin Bacon teaches an entire city full of people with sticks up their butts that, dancing, well, is the greatest thing there is.
Gamora: (thoughtful pause) Who put the sticks up their butts?
This is the reason the movie works for me: lines like these. In prison, for example, after Rocket explains to Quill that Drax takes everything literally, that metaphors go over his head, Drax is quietly affronted. “Nothing goes over my head,” he says. “My reflexes are too fast. I would catch it.” Does it help that writer-director Gunn (who also played Minute Man, as in My-NOOT Man, in “The Specials”) started out doing superhero parodies? Is that why they hired him? Either way, it was a smart move. Either way, this is a movie with smart people behind it.
Then it all becomes more roller coastery. Ronan, already powerful, gets the infinity stone and becomes super powerful, and he and his minions attack Xander, and pew-pew-pew! The Guardians try to stop him and save the universe. Face to face, Quill distracts Ronan with “O-O-H Child” by The Five Stairsteps and some decidedly post-1980s dance moves (anachronism alert), then Ronan gets shot and the infinity stone is up for grabs. Quill dives for it in slow motion. It’s his! But it almost destroys him. But on the verge of breaking apart, Gamora, then Drax, then Rocket, grab onto him, and together, as a team, they survive. And win. They also survive (and win) because Peter Quill is only half human. The other half is immortal or something. And in the end, he becomes the hero he always imagined himself to be.
That’s fine, I guess. I just like the whiny adult/kid bit better. I like the popping of his pretentions. Because we’re a culture ready to have a few of its pretensions popped now and again.