Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

When Batman Begins--and more importantly, The Dark Knight--came around, superhero films had license to be dark and brooding, gritty and realistic. Thankfully, the Marvel Studios have managed to find a fairly consistent tone that mixes darkness and humor in a satisfying way; in other words, they're a hell of a lot of fun. While I stand by my opinion that the first Iron Man is the best of these films, one of the funniest superhero films of all time might just be Guardians of the Galaxy. Unlike most films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this one plays by its own rules.

That's not to say that Guardians doesn't have some serious moments, but at heart, it's a comedy. An amazingly big-budgeted comedy with lots and lots of death, violence, and action… but a comedy nonetheless. We are first introduced to Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) as a young boy going through a rather traumatic experience involving his sick mother. During the worst possible moment, he is abducted by aliens, and we fast-forward a few decades. Now calling himself Star Lord (what better name for an '80s kid's space outlaw fantasy hero?), but failing to acquire the infamy he would like to aspire to, Peter finds himself being assaulted by numerous aliens after stealing a very powerful MacGuffin orb. Among the aliens who get mixed up in Peter’s quest to keep the orb out of deadly hands is a bounty hunting raccoon named Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his muscle, a tree alien named Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), as well as an assassin named Gamora (Zoey Saldona) and a revenge-seeking juggernaut named Drax (Dave Bautista). 

While the story may be simplistic, the characters sure as hell aren’t. Each of the so-called Guardians is given a distinct personality, and each actor fits their role perfectly. Chris Pratt may have emerged as a true star with this movie, carrying the film with confidence, spot-on comedic timing, and genuine emotion. “Starlord” is such a fun character, and while he’s selfish and cocky, he’s never unlikable. There’s not a moment he’s onscreen where he doesn’t look like he’s having fun.

While CGI characters can sometimes be a distraction, Rocket and Groot never stick out for a second among their live-action costars. In fact, they might have been my favorite characters in the whole film. Rocket is a pyromaniac genius, the results of laboratory experiments on an Earth raccoon. His foul-mouthed dialogue had me rolling, and his animation blends fantastically with the reality of the other characters. Groot’s constant switching from a naive picture of innocence to badass bodyguard is hilarious, and his design is just brilliant. You might think that because his only dialogue only consists of “I am Groot” that he would get tiring, but it’s somehow funny every time. Both Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel give great performances and inject their characters with tons of charm.

Drax is an unexpectedly great character as well. The writing must be given special credit for not turning him into a cliché, revenge-seeking character. In fact, the way it plays out seems to be more of a parody of that cliché, always injecting humor into scenes that you thought were being played straight at first. His schtick is that people from his planet don't understand sarcasm, which is a small problem when you hang out with people that do few other things than dish out sarcastic one-liners. Bautista not only looks the part, but he plays it without flaw. I honestly don’t know how this wrestler/actor got through some of his lines without laughing (and same goes for the rest of the cast). 

Gamora has a great, green-skinned look, but her character isn’t quite as well-drawn as the rest of them. A daughter of the Big Bad of the movie, she decides to betray him and keep him from getting the MacGuffin orb. Her personality is not consistent; sometimes she jokes around with the other characters and other times she’s just as laughably serious as Drax. Don’t get me wrong; Saldona is great in the role, adding another great sci-fi performance to her resume alongside Avatar’s Netiri and Star Trek’s Uhura. However, given that she’s the only female on the team, it would have been nice to have her character be a bit more distinct.

Facing the same problem to a much larger degree is the villain set, who are honestly a bunch of generic bad guys with hardly any depth or backstory. It only stands out so prominently because of the excellent characters that surround them, mostly reciting dialogue that exposits about the plot (which doesn’t take itself seriously enough for the audience to really care about). There are rare moments when they actually feel threatening, and that’s down to the actors and the fantastic make-up jobs on all of them. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a minor issue.

The pacing, the visuals, the music, and the action all help sell the film as well, keeping things moving and never dragging its feet for a forced sentimental moment. The sound design is immersive, the writing is sharp and hilarious, and the cinematography doesn’t push for the shaky-cam crap that clutters up so many modern action movies (including the recent Captain America movie). Although CGI is used heavily, there are a good number of effects that utilize make-up, animatronics, and real sets that help the film’s world look lived-in rather than sterile. The soundtrack is also littered with great pop songs of the 70s and 80s courtesy of Starlord’s walkman, which provides some of the film's best montages and laughs, though the orchestral score fails to deliver a memorable theme. 

Director James Gunn clearly has a knack for this kind of thing, and I’d love to see him direct the sequel (which I was just craving by the end of this).  I’ve seen the film twice now, but I didn’t really see it until I experienced the IMAX 3D (actually the Grauman's Chinese theater, the most beautiful theater I've ever seen (and I refuse to call it the newly-named TCL Chinese Theater, just in case you thought I didn't know)). It’s the funniest superhero (or really, super anti-hero) movie I’ve ever seen, and comparing it to the other Marvel movies in the canon (I guess you could call it The Avengers saga), this is one ranks highly. Unlike those films, however, the film has a charm and sense of humor all its own, making it stand tall among the crowded field that is the superhero genre.