Friday, August 01, 2014

A Galaxy of Fun

Marvel Studios has stepped back up to the plate again for Guardians of the Galaxy. No doubt, they have once again scored a hit. For many fans, I suspect it will even be a home run.

Setting itself apart from Marvel films to date, this is the first one to sport a writing credit for a woman. The script was co-written by Nicole Perlman; I've read she got the job as part of a Marvel internal exploration/contest involving several writers, to delve into lesser known material. Her script won a production slot, and was then polished by writer-director James Gunn, the man behind the unusual horror-comedy Slither.

At first, I wondered if we might be in for the most nuanced Marvel movie to date. In an extended pre-credits sequence (a first for the studio?), we get the surprisingly emotional back story of roguish protagonist Peter Quill. It strikes a somber tone, and explains what's going on with this character more concisely than any number of other drawn out superhero origin stories.

But this turns out to be a bit of a fake out. From there, the movie strikes an almost unyielding comedic tone. There are perhaps two or three brief sentimental diversions along the way, but for the most part, the movie has just one thing on its mind: to be fun. At that, it's quite successful. The simple Macguffin, breezy pace, and snappy dialogue keeps you smiling pretty much from beginning to end.

The cast is very well chosen. Chris Pratt makes Peter Quill an intensely charming action-adventure hero in the mold of James Bond or Indiana Jones. Zoe Saldana (joining her third major franchise, after Avatar and Star Trek) portrays Gamora in a way that makes her more than a one-note "strong female character." Bradley Cooper practically steals the movie with his acerbic and clever Rocket. Pro wrestler Dave Bautista shows far better acting chops than most athletes-turned-actors, squeezing plenty of comedy out of the humorless Drax. And Vin Diesel... well... in Groot, he finally has a role that won't overtax him.

The secondary cast is a strong lineup too. Lee Pace chews the scenery with relish as the villain Ronan. Michael Rooker (who worked memorably with director James Gunn on Slither) is even more of a ham, and is having even more fun, as Yondu. Doctor Who's Karen Gillan is nearly unrecognizable as the formidable Nebula. Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Benecio del Toro, and Josh Brolin all turn in brief but memorable performances too. And look for a cameo by another Slither alum, the one and only Nathan Fillion.

While a grade A movie in my book probably would have had a bit more substance beneath than surface than this, I easily left any expectations of that behind and enjoyed the ride. It was, simply, a fun movie. But in retrospect, what really kept me from loving it was the fact that it was, to a large extent, an Avengers redux. Gang of misfits who probably shouldn't be working together? Check. Villain from space? Check. Major character in a bitter sibling rivalry that makes them adversaries? Check. Leading man with a rock star attitude? Check. (This one literally brings his own soundtrack, in fact.) Scores of witty one-liners? Check. For all the talk about how "risky" this movie was for Marvel Studios, it really feels like no risk at all when you really think about it. It's a formula movie, the formula that resulted in their biggest, most profitable movie ever. It's The Avengers, without the Avengers.

Still, I couldn't argue it isn't done at least as well. Maybe -- just maybe -- done even a little better. (Sorry Joss!) I give Guardians of the Galaxy a B+.

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