Sunday, August 3, 2014

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY Is One Rocking Cosmic Comic Book Jam


- Here it is. What we've been waiting for. Now ... we get to the good stuff. I said it back when I reviewed Thor: The Dark World, but I'll repeat: Marvel is boldly going to some very weird places with its big-budget movies, and I'm lovin' it. Think about where we've come from. When this whole big-screen superhero renaissance started with movies like X-Men, the colorful comic book heroes of Marvel made it to cinemas in a whitewashed, scrubbed-up fashion. "Yellow spandex" was a punchline. Black leather was the order of the day. The characters were mostly intact, but the sci-fi grandeur and acid-trip visuals of Kirby and his ilk were all but gone. Now, slowly but surely, Marvel Studios has brought the weird and cosmic aspects of its comic book universe to its movies - and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY is the apex of that evolution, a loud-and-proud color-burst of a movie that feels like a statement from Marvel: the Marvel universe has officially been cracked open, and there really are no more limits to what can happen in these movies.

The man who makes it all happen is director James Gunn. Just saying that is sort of weird and sort of awesome. Until recently I knew Gunn as an outside-the-system director of genre movies that were, by and large, insane. I saw an opening-weekend screening of his movie Super a few years ago, featuring a Q&A with Gunn. Super remains one of the strangest movies I've ever seen. And Gunn seemed like the kind of guy who'd perhaps be happiest doing these oddball, limits-pushing, low-budget movies filled with his usual cast of go-to actors. But here's the remarkable thing: GUARDIANS is very much a Marvel movie, but, no question, it's also a James Gunn movie through and through. The movie revels in its own weirdness, much like Super and also Slither. It features the oddball, oddly-perverse sense of humor that Gunn is known for. It's got his brother, Sean Gunn, appearing in a supporting role, as he always does in James Gunn films. It's got other Gunn regulars like Michael Rooker. Gunn's movies push boundaries and go to unexpected places, and this is no exception. This is rock n' roll filmmaking like we haven't see yet in the Marvel cinematic universe.

However, what keeps all of the cosmic craziness of the film grounded is the real humanity at its core. As out-there as things get, even the movie's strangest characters have surprising depth. At the center of it all is Chris Pratt as Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord. Quill is a classic, swashbuckling rogue in the grand tradition of Han Solo and the like - but Gunn (along with screenwriter Nicole Parlman) also give him a tragic backstory and a real warmth. Also credit the gifted Pratt for making Star-Lord into a character both empathetic and hilarious. Pratt - so good for years on Parks and Recreation - is a natural at this sort of action/comedy leading man role. The guy has the bravado for epic adventure, but also the dude-next-door affability that makes him easy to root for and care about. He nails it in this film.

I can't say enough about the rest of the film's eclectic cast. It's no major surprise that Zoe Saldana is fantastic as the traumatized adopted-against-her-will daughter of Thanos, Gamora. Saldana is now a multi-franchise sci-fi superstar, but Gamora is an interesting new twist on her usual badass persona - a woman hated and feared because of her father, out to prove that she is, in fact, nothing like him. Gamora is also the moral center of the movie's ragtag team - the only one who, from the outset, has an altruistic agenda. What is more of a surprise though is that wrestler Dave Bautista is actually really, really good here in a scene-stealing role as Drax the Destroyer, a muscled-up alien hellbent on revenge for his wife and child, killed at the hands of the power-mad Ronan. What is also a surprise is how a character that I assumed would be pretty awesome - Rocket Raccoon - is not just awesome, but also the emotional center of the movie. I would never have expected that the talking raccoon would have some of the movie's most emotionally-charged moments, but James Gunn and co. go all-in with the Bradley Cooper-voiced creature. Rocket rules, but he's much more than just comic relief. Same goes for talking tree-man Groot, elegantly voiced by Vin Diesel. Groot is funny and weird, but also the source of several moments of awe, wonder, and emotional resonance. Give both Cooper and Diesel some major, major props here for their voice work. Cooper is the lovable, fast-talking, Brooklyn-accented, chip-on-his-shoulder badass we all hoped and wanted Rocket to be. And Diesel pulls an Iron Giant with Groot, making the lumbering tree-creature somehow full of pathos.

I could go on an on about the cast. Michael Rooker is just great, in a distinctly Michael Rooker sort of way, as the blue-skinned alien outlaw Yondu. Yondu is a perfect example of how Gunn just flat-out embraces the craziest aspects of these characters and goes all-in. Yondu isn't *just* a badass blue alien who talks like a southern-fried redneck, you see. He's also got a deadly blowing-dart that he controls by whistling, which he can use to take out armies of enemies simply by whistling a tune. Holy $^&#, people ... James Gunn isn't messing around. That same wholesale embrace of comic book insanity is evident in the film's chief villain, Ronan The Accuser. Played by Lee Pace - of late the master of over-the-top genre movie grandstanding - Ronan is a straight-from-the-comics cosmic bad guy of epic proportions. There's a similarly otherworldly sheen to Karen Gillan's Nebula, another daughter of Thanos, whose metallic blue skin and cybernetic enhancements make her a truly alien creature. We caught a glimpse of Benicio Del Toro's enigmatic Collector at the end of Thor: The Dark World, and the character is yet another that is just plain nuts, in the best way possible. And of course, the mighty, mad titan Thanos lurks in the background of the film - menacingly voiced by Josh Brolin and looking straight out of a Jim Starlin-drawn comic book page - waiting to stake his claim as the Marvel Universe's most-wanted.

In fact, the comic book literalism in GUARDIANS is pretty crazy. There's a clear reverence for the architects of Marvel's weird and cosmic corners - Jack Kirby, Jim Starlin, etc. - and I don't know if I've ever seen a comic book adaptation that so faithfully reproduces the costumes and colors of its source material. As others have pointed out, the movie is not just visually jaw-dropping, but also bursting with color in a way that the dulled-out modern superhero movies have mostly avoided to date. Star-filled cosmos flooded with neon-colored splashes. Gleaming alien cities filled with colorful locales. Space-bars to rival the Mos Eisley cantina. A legion of Nova Corps agents wearing their trademark gladiator-helmets and Kirby-ringed uniforms, riding around in a battalion of starburst-shaped attack ships.

Gunn shoots the film in a classical manner that calls to mind 70's and 80's sci-fi films. The movie's action is fast and furious, but also well-staged, easy-to-follow, and impactful - littered with character moments both funny and poignant. The film's exotic alien locales are all unique and memorable and teeming with detail and motion and easter-eggs. And the movie's various depictions of the vast reaches of the cosmos are both awe-inspiring and fit for framing.

The film is also very funny. Sure, other Marvel movies have had quippy humor and self-referential gags, but GUARDIANS is the first true Marvel action/comedy. The movie's got a plethora of extended comedic scenes that go for big laughs. Comedy vet Chris Pratt anchors the humor with his great timing and delivery. And, despite its massive kid-appeal, Gunn sneaks in plenty of scandalous little moments that may go over the heads of the younger set, but that are guaranteed to get a chuckle from adults. But what's really remarkable is that the movie can switch gears and deliver epic action, romance, and space-opera - all while being very funny and light-on-its feet. In that way, it really is a throwback of sorts to the classic sci-fi cinema of the 70's and 80's. Action, humor, and moments that kids will later look back on and wonder "how did they get away with keeping *that* in there?".

The movie packs in so much that it does, inevitably, leave you wanting just a bit more. While an opening prologue nicely establishes some backstory for Quill, other characters' origins are often only briefly alluded to, left to be further fleshed-out in future sequels, tie-ins, etc. Certainly, I would have loved to have gotten some additional history around Gamora - to really get a sense for what her childhood must have been like under the thumb of Thanos, and what it was like to be raised alongside his other "children" like Nebula. There was also plenty of untold story with Rocket and Groot. Some mystery is good, but having just a bit more to chew on for the non-Star-Lord characters would have made things feel a bit more substantive. Same goes for chief villain Ronan. I know some of his background from the comics, but here he gets only minimal screentime to properly explain his sinister motivations.

Overall though, what James Gunn and his team have accomplished here is pretty remarkable. They've brought the Marvel cosmic universe to the big-screen, and they've taken characters and concepts that were long thought too weird for the mainstream and made them work - not by watering them down, but by going all-in and just fully embracing the awesome. For many months I've heard speculation that GUARDIANS would bomb, that Marvel movies worked because of a particular formula, and  that any deviation from that formula would spell box office disaster. But this is a new dawn, a world where weird is accepted and where comic book adaptations can let their freak flag fly high. It's funny, because in this film alone there are several concepts that have clear DC Comics analogues, that Marvel has now beat them to the punch in doing right on the big screen. As Marvel has done Thanos, DC could do Darkseid. As Marvel has done a pretty epic take on the Nova Corps, man, that's how DC could do Green Lantern. Seeing the visuals on Groot made me realize how cool a Swamp Thing film could be in 2014. And seeing Marvel embrace its comics' weirdest corners on the big-screen made me realize that there are no more limits. Because as a young comic book fan, sure, I loved the big heroes and the iconic stories, but most of all I loved the way that these comic book universes seemed to expand across all of space and time, filled with an endless collection of characters and concepts that ran the gamut of genres and artistic influences. With GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, the Marvel cinematic universe now feels ever closer to the kind of place that made comics so cool to generations of readers. The kind of place where Steve Rogers can rub shoulders with The Hulk, who can pick a fight with Thanos, who can run afoul of the Kree empire, who might tangle with Spider-Man, who might just share an adventure with Howard the Duck. The beauty of these organic fictional worlds is that anything is possible. And GUARDIANS - complete with an off-the-wall end-tag that serves as a sort of exclamation point for this idea - confirms that this is now true of the movie-verse as well.

It's fitting then that the iconic object of GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY turns out to be Peter Quill's mix-tape cassette - a memento from his mother - that provides the soundtrack for his adventures, and for much of the film. The tape jumps from "Hooked on a Feeling" to "Cherry Bomb," a diverse playlist of pop  favorites that somehow adds up to Peter Quill, in miniature. So too is the film an anything-goes mix-tape of pop-art - a color-soaked genre mash-up that evokes the same anything-goes spirit of the comics it adapts. Those books were rock n' roll. This movie is rock n' roll. And it delivers one awesomely groovy space-jam.

My Grade: A-

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