It’s Marvel’s most entertaining and creative film yet, perfectly cast and intelligent enough to learn from what has come before.
It’s hard to believe it’s been sixteen years since Marvel released Blade. Granted, at a budget of $45 million, Blade was a smaller and less ostentatious movie than the kind Marvel churns out once a season, but before that, the comic book company had been relatively quiet, electing to watch from a distance the varying success of DC’s film efforts. In the sixteen years since Blade renewed Marvel’s desire to break into Hollywood, the company has released another 32 comic book films, representing a dozen franchises and countless characters. Marvel’s blitzkrieg swarmed the comic movie market and put DC on its heels,* in the process creating an industry that revolves around big-budget comic adaptations. When Marvel announces a film release, it’s an event, and not just for the fans. Rival studios adjust their own schedules to give their big movies space or, if they’re gutsy, to compete with Marvel directly.
*DC, for its part, has only released 10 films in the same span of time.
The ramifications of this change are massive. The “nerdom” of comics and related properties has captured the national zeitgeist, as those who laughed off people having heated discussions about the Infinity Gems in the 1980s have become the same people filling theaters to hear characters have heated discussions about them in 2014. Your mom searched for “Thanos” on Wikipedia after seeing The Avengers. Your dad wants to know when the next X-Men installment is coming out. Your coworkers are already starting to wonder if they’ll need to play Warcraft to understand the coming movie adaptation. It’s getting crazy out there.
The flipside to this is that, as the market has flooded, the once lively renderings of high-stakes comic panel action have become laughably transparent clichés. It isn’t a comic book movie without a video game-style fistfight, or a loved one in peril, or a mysterious MacGuffin. Some of this is unfair. Just because the market overflows with Marvel and DC films doesn’t mean that the studios are completely free to change the source material. After all, people were drawn to the comics in the first place because of those very fistfights and the situations of extreme peril they usually wrought.
But in the competition to keep pushing the imaginary bar on breathtaking special effects spectacle, Marvel and DC find themselves in something of a rut involving the biggest cliché of all: massive destruction. It’s difficult to pinpoint when it started, but nearly every major release of a comic movie in some way involves the impending destruction of millions of people. Somewhere along the way, people have grown numb to it. You can only see New York City’s landmarks explode so many times before you start to check out before a movie even hits that familiar climax.** This has to be a frustrating thing for studio heads looking to adapt comics set squarely in real American cities (or fictional locales meant to approximate them).
** Man of Steel might be the perfect example of this frustrating development, as a movie tied to the saga of the most renowned hero in the history of comics was bogged down and ultimately undone by a final act that consisted only in riffs on the Inception soundtrack and a conclusion revolving totally around death in all its stages. There was the standard threat of it on a mass scale, with Metropolis (and the earth) facing total destruction. (Ultimately, only like – I don’t know – several million people died, so everything turned out okay.) And there was the threat of it on a miniature scale, as Superman was forced to save a family by, you guessed it, killing someone. For a comic hero that was always associated with hope, the latest resurrection of Superman seemed to Charlie Brown its way through every frame.
But it wasn’t just the cliché of mass destruction that has doomed movies like Man of Steel. It was also an inability to escape the massive shadow of “realism” cast by Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. More than any other comic book movie, the Dark Knight Trilogy has lingered in the minds of studio heads everywhere who mistakenly assume the cinematic success of those films came exclusively from seriousness and believable gadgetry. Even the best comic book movies since Nolan have struggled with this. The best, like Captain America: The Winter Soldier and X-Men: First Class, have incorporated those elements to create something unique. The worst, like Green Lantern and The Amazing Spider-Man 2, have chosen instead to carbon copy and just add the kitchen sink before completion, believing that a full dose of computer-generated wizardry could be enough to cover clear problems in script and direction.
Guardians of the Galaxy, arguably the best movie Marvel Studios has ever released, succeeds because it copies the right things. It has a fully developed cast like The Avengers, operating at peak comedic capacity with the same charming, wink-wink self-awareness. It has the relatability and the heart of Spider-Man’s origin story, drawing you in without inducing eye rolls over any emotional exploitation. And it all works because it features the kind of attention to detail that Christopher Nolan brought to his Batman trilogy. Freed from the trappings of an earthly setting, the absurdist proto-heroes of Guardians are free to travel to bizarre and wonderful places in an insane and universe-encompassing adventure. And audiences are free to join them, gleefully suspending disbelief.
Xandar, the planet at the center of the Guardians’ quest, bares similarities to the cities in other superhero movies, but here it’s merely a backdrop, a distant alien world meant less to steal our sympathies than to color the background for the leads.
And oh man, what marvelous characters these are.
Chris Pratt plays Peter Quill (a.k.a. “Star Lord”), the bumbling savant at the helm. Abducted from earth as a boy, Quill grew into something of a space pirate who never really stopped being a boy. He’s silly, but he finds himself changed when the opportunity arises for him to finally give a damn. Star Lord is also the most normal member of the group.
Zoe Saldaña is Gamora, a genetically modified slave daughter of Thanos. In her efforts to locate Quill, she is joined by the most dynamic of duos: Rocket Raccoon, a verbose and angry bounty hunting procyonid, and his partner Groot, a mostly silent tree creature who provides a very unique kind of muscle. (Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel provide the voices for these respective characters in what are seriously some of the best performances of their careers.) Rounding out the team is Drax the Destroyer, a large chunk of rage seeking revenge for the murder of his family.
I won’t go into discussion of the plot from here, as I really don’t want to rob you of the joy of experiencing this movie from a clean slate. But I will say that there’s a little bit here for everybody. The space scenes recall the scope and expanse of the best of Star Trek, and the set pieces are every bit as grand as The Avengers at its most ambitious. There are only a handful of scenes in the entire movie to not feature sincere belly laughs, and the special effects, particularly the work done on Rocket and Groot, are breathtaking.
But where other genre films might rest on such spectacle, Guardians really gets going with its leads. Like a well-established sitcom, the characters here feel fully fleshed out, developed enough for the writers to simply place them in a room together and watch them go. And as unique as characters like Gamora and Drax are, you find them instantly familiar and endlessly likable. Even the talking tree gets some great punchlines.
The biggest bit of magic here might be how effortless director James Gunn has made this all look. Everything clicks. The bit parts, perfectly cast, stand out without stealing scenes. Every frame is infused with glee and abandon, embracing the film’s absurdity while somehow avoiding descent into outright silliness. Like the characters at its center, Guardians works almost in spite of itself, finding charm and verve in the unlikeliest of places. In its scope, bounce, and heart, Guardians recalls Cowboy Bebop more than it does any other comic book movie, a swashbuckling space pirate opera that never feels bloated or tired. In the three years that will pass before the movie sees a sequel, Marvel Studios will release nine movies from seven or so franchises. If they hope to release anything nearly as good as Guardians, they’d be wise to learn the real lessons of what makes it work.