Last of the Monster Kids

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Sunday, March 24, 2019

Director Report Card: James Gunn (2014)

3. Guardians of the Galaxy

James Gunn was probably an unexpected choice to direct a big budget Marvel superhero movie. “Slither” bombed and “Super” was widely disliked by the few people who saw it. Either Gunn is really good at networking or he made a great impression with the right people. (Joss Whedon is apparently a fan so I'm betting the latter played a role.) Then again, the superhero movie Gunn got hired onto wasn't your typical Marvel property. This wasn't a relatively well-known character, like Captain America or the Hulk. This was the Guardians of the Galaxy, a C-list team of cosmic heroes. Having bounced around since 1969, they didn't get even sort of popular until a completely new line-up was introduced in 2008.  The quirky combination really paid off. “Guardians of the Galaxy” was a massive hit, widely beloved, and quickly became a defining movie of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

In 1988, as his mother dies of brain cancer, ten year old Peter Quill is abducted by aliens. Twenty-six years later, Quill has grown into the cosmic outlaw Star-Lord. While chasing the Orb, an artifact of immense power, he crosses paths with Gamora – daughter of omnicidal titan Thanos – and partners Rocket Raccoon and tree-creature Groot. In prison, they form a loose team with literal-minded warrior Drax. They are pursued by Ronan the Accuser, a religious extremist aligned with Thanos and determined to destroy the planet Xandar. Along the way, the Orb changing hands several times, the unlikely team become the heroic Guardians of the Galaxy.

Up until this point, all of the Marvel movies were based on Earth. “Guardians of the Galaxy” would open up a previously unseen cosmic corner of the universe. This gave Gunn, a highly imaginative filmmaker, a playground like no other to operate in. So, yes, this is a 200 million dollar movie with a talking raccoon and a tree-monster with a limited vocabulary as its heroes. The film is steeped in Marvel lore, truly introducing then-obscure concepts like Thanos, the Kree, the Nova Corp, and the Infinity Stones. Every crowd shot is full of weird looking aliens or creatures. Part of the movie takes place within the head of a dead giant. In other words, this is deep-nerd shit that is also deeply weird. There's a reason why some seriously speculated that this might be Marvel's first flop. Instead, the audience was receptive to the wide-open world and crazy ideas the film presented.

Of course, the Guardians being weird and obscure doubtlessly worked in the film's favor. It's unlikely that Disney/Marvel would've allowed James Gunn to make the Avengers so totally his own. Gunn's aesthetic mostly comes through via the film's highly irrelevant sense of humor. This is, after all, a superhero epic with a jizz joke in it. There's a lot of jokes along that lines, including a space-raccoon pawing at his crotch, the sudden deployment of a middle finger, nobody being one hundred percent a dick, or a robot-leg being snatched for no reason. Running jokes about “Footloose” are highly unexpected, as are moments where the simple act of standing up becomes hilarious. The movie's hilarious streak is such that it can casually introduce the likes of Howard the Duck or Cosmo the Spacedog like it's no big deal. I attribute the film's wide ranging success largely to its fantastic sense of humor.

And getting to that point probably wasn't easy. The first act of “Guardians of the Galaxy” is its messiest. Getting all of these characters together quickly, each one with their own convoluted origins, is tricky. Star-Lord is the de-facto protagonist, Rocket and Groot speak for themselves and don't need much explanation. Drax's backstory is quickly explained. Gamora and Nebula, meanwhile, get the worst of it. There's a lot of convoluted stuff here, involving Thanos and Ronan's backgrounds. The whole movie has a slight problem, juggling its individual needs with all the established lore of the Marvel universe. While the plot is never hard to follow, you can sometimes get a little lost about where everyone is from or where they are going.

But it doesn't really matter much. The cosmic connections of the Guardians aren't really important anyway. What truly bonds these characters are their mutual statuses as heartbroken losers. Quill has never processed the death of his mother. Drax is still avenging his wife and child's murders. Rocket suffered cruel experiments most of his life. Gamora was raised by one of the universe's biggest supervillains. Each one of them are, in their own way, broken. It is this element that links them together. It takes a lot to establish a cast as feeling like family just within one two hour long movie. “Guardians of the Galaxy” pulls it off, creating lovable, wounded characters that you believe as a lovable unit.

Something else that differentiates “Guardians of the Galaxy” from typical superhero movies is how rift it is with nostalgic signifies. Quill's collection of seventies Top 40 pop hits accompanies him everywhere he goes. He peppers his dialogue with other eighties call-backs, “Who's the Boss?,” “Alf,” and Troll dolls just being some others. Yet this isn't just the movie trying to get some cheap laughs or nods of recognition by shouting something most people in the audience will know. “Guardians” struggles with what nostalgia actually means. Peter's arrested development, his boyish obsessions and consequences-free womanizing, are linked directly to the loss he suffered in childhood. These things are escapes from the hurt that still wounds him. He's not bad for relying on this stuff. It's a part of who he is. But it's not exactly healthy either.

It's sort of hard to realize its only been four years since Chris Pratt was transformed from the schlubby guy on “Parks and Rec” to a superstar headlining two different billion dollar franchises. Yet, watching “Guardians of the Galaxy,” it's easy to see how that happened. Pratt is so damn appealing as Peter Quill. He's obviously extremely handsome. Yet his easy-going comedic persona makes him incredibly likable. He's believable as an action hero, accessible as a hurt man-child, and really funny. It's no surprise that Star-Lord, a character with a long and convoluted history that never connected much with fans, was totally re-written to resemble his film counterpart after this.

The other great discovery of “Guardians of the Galaxy,” most surprisingly, is Dave Bautista as Drax. We all just thought he was another hunk-of-beef pro-wrestler. His previous turns in stuff like “Man with the Iron Fists” did little to dissuade that notion. As Drax, Bautista creates a hilarious and immensely likable character. His literal mind makes Drax a great source of comedy, his inability to understand metaphors being a rich source of jokes. Bautista's totally straight-faced delivery utterly sells these lines. That comedy helps sell what otherwise might've just been another tough guy hero looking to avenge a fallen family.

The break-out characters, even more than any of the other characters, were obviously Rocket and Groot. Yes, at one point, people feared a talking space-raccoon and a soft-spoken tree-man were “too weird” for the mainstream. Hard to believe that now that both are among Marvel's most beloved characters. Yet its not just their memorable gimmicks and cuddly appearances that make Rocket and Groot lovable. Both are the secret hearts of the team. Groot only says three words, delivered by Vin Diesal's distinctive growl, but each are packed with so much meaning.  He's the immediately empathetic core of the film. Rocket may be a bad-ass with a giant gun but he wears his fears on his fuzzy sleeves. Bradley Cooper's voice work is similarly strong. The partnership between the two, especially how it plays out, cements the love beneath this sci-fi tale.

Of the main Guardians, Gamora doubtlessly has the least interesting subplot. Her emotional core is connected to a largely off-screen villain we wouldn't really get to know until 2018. The sisterly rivalry with Nebula is similarly underwritten, the blue-skinned alien never quite coming into her own as a character here. Zoe Saldana's performance is strong, as she projects an appealing, no-nonsense toughness. Yet the character only really comes to life when interacting with Quill. It ultimately doesn't matter too much, the character works and the film is a delight, but the scenes expounding on Gamora's background are definitely the slower-going ones.

In fact, the intergalactic politics in the story are not what made people love the film. Ronan the Accuser is a character with a long history in the comics, having fought the Fantastic Four and the Avengers. As an antagonistic force in the film, he totally serves his purpose. His fanatical desire to destroy innocents, delivered grimly by a growling Lee Pace, provides a proper obstacle for the heroes. There's even some interesting parallels to Islamic extremism to be seen there. Yet Ronan is still a bit of a blank villain. He's a big evil dude who wants to kill everything but doesn't have much in the way of a personality.

The movie's supporting cast is loaded too. Gunn regular Michael Rooker gets a juicy role as Yondu. A founding member of the Guardians in the comics, the proud archer is turned into a weirdo redneck space-pirate here. And it totally works, Rooker's oddly paternal warmth mixing nicely with Yondu's grittier appearance. John C. Riley's role as a wholesome Nova Corps. member may be small but it perfectly utilizes Riley's special brand of warmth. Glenn Close, who has admitted she took the part of Nova Prime for the money, still brings some class and dignity to the role. While Benicio del Toro has the job of delivering exposition during one of the film's more convoluted stop-offs, he does bring a certain degree of style to the part.

James Gunn has clearly never handled action scenes of this scale before. Not that the action in “Guardians” is bad. It's actually really good. Quill's rocket boots are utilized in creative ways. The siege on Ronan's ship in the last act features lots of cool moments, like the Milano's dramatic entrance or Groot discovering how deadly he can be. Yondu's magic arrow emerges from the film as one of pop culture's coolest weapons. Yet you also don't see the same degree of Gunn's visual sense that you saw in “Super.” The spaceship-heavy action scenes, while still really cool, were directed more by the special effects team than anyone else. Mostly, Gunn's style emerges from brief rough-zoom on Drax or the occasional leap towards the audience.

Since “Guardian's” release, there have been several attempts to emulate its soundtrack. Admittedly, scoring a sci-fi comic book flick to classic pop/rock radio shouldn't work. You wouldn't expect schlock like “The Pina Colada Song” or “Hooked on a Feeling” to have any pathos inside them. Yet Gunn digs under these bubblegum tunes, finding deeper meaning. Gunn's directorial vision especially come through in catchy scenes set to numbers like the Runaways' “Cherry Bomb” or “Come and Get Your Love.” He even taps into the unexpected haunting beauty of something like 10cc's “I'm Not in Love” or “Fooled Around and Fell in Love.” While the Five Stairsteps and the Jackson 5 provide the perfect note to take things out on. Tyler Bates' score is pretty good too, it must be said.

“Guardians of the Galaxy's” pop culture spanning success can be seen in how much it would influence future Marvel Cinematic Universe offerings. The cosmic tones of “Thor: Ragnarok,” “Avengers: Infinity Wars” or “Captain Marvel” likely would have played out very differently if Rocket and Groot hadn't gone there first. Though the film isn't without some bumpy story turns or underwritten decisions, it is ultimately an utter joy from beginning to end. By letting his imagination run wild, and letting him do what he pleased with less known characters, James Gunn became maybe Marvel's most distinct and lovable auteur. [Grade: A]

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