Everyone and their dog seems to be saying positive things about 'Guardians of the Galaxy', enough that I started actually looking forward to seeing it. That's not like me, because I'm nowhere near the Marvel fan that the rest of the world seems to have gleefully become. I'm much more into pulp adventure than comic books and want to see good old fashioned thrills over CGI-bound superhero nonsense.
That doesn't mean I can't enjoy Marvel movies when the family makes me watch them. They're usually well made and some, most obviously 'The Avengers', are superhero movies done very right, popcorn flicks but ones that don't leave a bad taste. I'm merely one of those heretics who doesn't believe that Robert Downey Jr walks on water and don't even get me started about 'Thor'. I'll happily argue that it's the biggest waste of major talent since 'The Phantom Menace'. I cringe even thinking about it.
It won't be surprising to find that my favourite Marvels are the ones that aren't superhero movies. I loved the first 'Captain America', for example, which is really a pulp war movie, my sort of action flick, especially given its period setting during World War II. If history has taught us anything, it's that Nazi soldiers are only outranked as movie bad guys by Nazi zombies.
And I found that I loved 'Guardians of the Galaxy', which is further from a superhero movie than I could ever have imagined from Marvel. That statement alone is enough to make me happier about the future state of American blockbusters. This is a good old-fashioned pulp adventure story, a ripping yarn that thrives on action but builds from its characters up, a space opera with production design that knowingly references golden era sci-fi.
It's hard to pin down exactly what works best, because there are many things working in tandem here, but I'd bet it's the way the characters are handled. The team of the title ends up numbering five, four of which are antiheroes who are not, shall we say, at their best when we first meet them and the fifth of which is a vaguely humanoid tree whose inner self is a little harder to fathom, given that its only dialogue is 'I am Groot'. He's the Hodor of space.
The leader is Peter Quill, because he's the one who comes from Earth. The slowest scene of the film is the first one, as he struggles to say goodbye to his mother, who's dying of cancer in a hospital bed, and rushes outside only to be captured by a passing UFO. He grows up with the Ravagers, a team of wreckers led by Michael Rooker painted blue. As an adult, we first see him betraying them in an Indiana Jones in space sequence. The jungles of South America become the abandoned planet of Morag, the tech is full of space age imagination and he ends up with a mysterious metal orb rather than a stone idol, but it's just the same underneath. He calls himself Starlord, but nobody's heard of him, a very nice touch.
If he's the latest in a long line of lovable spaceship flying rogues, he carries more old school arrogance than Han Solo or Captain Mal. Actor Chris Pratt suggested that he was a mix of Solo and Marty McFly, but I felt his personality is more reminiscent of Slippery Jim diGriz, the Stainless Steel Rat, who came often to mind here as a common source for attributes belonging to a number of characters.
The genetically modified Rocket Raccoon has a lot of him too. He's a glorious wildcard who plays rather like Danny DeVito playing Jim diGriz, because he has the mouth (and let's face it, half the height) of the former but the ingenuity of the latter. Add to that a homicidal streak reminiscent of Jim's wife Angelina and we have a character who would deserve his own movies if he wasn't so much fun in this company. This is the character who could have gone most horribly wrong in the script and the design, especially as Bradley Cooper plays him like Joe Pesci in 'Goodfellas', always ready to fly off the handle in an insanely violent manner, but he's probably the most engaging of the group, however inappropriately he treats cripples.
Groot, the humanoid tree, is Rocket's sidekick, who again is a pitfall avoided. He could have become a nothing character, but he's strongly written to have a drive and meaning all of his own. A good deal of Groot's success is due to Vin Diesel, who does a superb job voicing him. Sure, he only has one line but he repeats it a lot, each time with a different intonation. I never thought of Diesel as an actor, but this is the best I've ever seen him.
Gamora is the lady of the group, painted green perhaps because Zoe Saldana had already done blue in 'Avatar'. She's a trained warrior, the daughter of one bad guy and the assassin of the other, sent by the latter to obtain the orb and allow him to destroy an entire populated planet. She's both the most moral character of the group and the one who's performed the worst deeds. Much of her power comes from the fact that she knows that.
And that leaves wrestler Dave Bautista as the bare chested and heavily tattooed Drax the Destroyer, a violent criminal with a one track mind and consistently deadpan delivery. He's bent on revenge because Ronan, the chief villain of the piece, killed his family, which slides him into the story easily. He's from a race that functions literally, a facet of his character that has joyously given a number of autistic kids a hero of their own because they finally have someone to relate to. 'Metaphors go over his head,' says Rocket. 'Nothing goes over my head,' Drax replies. 'My reflexes are too fast. I would catch them.'
This team doesn't exist at the beginning of the movie, only the circumstances they go through moving them closer together, but each member does belong there and each of them prove it during this film, without it ever seeming like events are tailored for that purpose. None of them are good guys, but none of them are really bad guys either. They're each in it for themselves, whatever it happens to be, but they each find a believable higher calling when the chips are down.
Partly that's because this is literally a galaxy spanning action flick. We skip from world to world, from one end of the universe to the other, yet each place we see is magnificently imagined. Nothing can touch Knowhere, which is a mining colony inside the severed head of a celestial being, but each of the locations is magnificently designed. If 'Thor' consistently felt empty, its sparsely populated locations vaguely strung together, this feels gloriously full. Every planet and every spaceship, not to mention every backdrop they move against, is a gigantic bundle of eye candy. I often prefer DVDs to BluRays but this is the quintessential BluRay movie, because each extra pixel has something on it worth looking at.
It's not a perfect film. While the antiheroes are written with panache, none of the villains get the same treatment. Each is close to being a one note character, cartoon villains doomed by their predictability or their lack of screen time. Karen Gillan does a great job, for instance, but still has a tough time being remembered for her work. Similarly, the people who run the planet Xandar, which looks just like all those cities of the future painted half a century ago, aren't on screen long enough to build any depth. It takes a tried and tested scenestealer like Benicio del Toro to make himself memorable without enough time to do so. He's the Collector here, a character of which I'd love to see more.
The story isn't particularly deep either, perhaps inevitably given the two hour running time, the broad ensemble cast and the large number of major characters. However it's leagues deeper than other origin stories with similar challenges. I hated the first 'X-Men' movie's story, for instance, because it did nothing until the last ten minutes except introduce the people we'd see in future films and attempted to pass off that finale as a whole movie. This one introduces just as much but does so within the framework of a well-written script that's as full of action as it is three dimensional characters, cool dialogue, cooler tech and wonderfully weird worlds.
Even with such a strong script and excellent casting choices bringing life to each of the magnificently varied characters, it's that fabulous production design that I left with. It's so deep that it feels fractal and even the colours are a delight. A lot of the look is CGI, of course, but as much of it as possible is physical, which means that only the things that are supposed to be shiny are shiny. George Lucas would hate the look of this movie and I don't believe there's a better recommendation to go see it than that.