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Josh Reviews Guardians of the Galaxy

I had a feeling this one was gonna be good.  I’m glad I was right.

With Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel Studios has blown the doors off of their cinematic universe in a big, big way.  This is a huge movie, filled with crazy alien planets and creatures and hugely original characters and situations.  The opening few minutes takes place on Earth, and then the entire rest of the film takes place in a far-off corner of the galaxy, a one-hundred-percent immersion in fantasy cosmic craziness.  (Man, this is what DC’s Green Lantern should have been like.)  The film is exciting and funny and it looks gorgeous.  I loved pretty much every minute of it.

Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) was born on Earth but was kidnapped and stolen from the planet as a boy.  He grew up among a band of thieves and ragamuffins to become something of a Han Solo type, a roguish scoundrel with a heart of gold.  When hired to find a priceless orb, Quill decides to double-cross his boss, Yondu (Michael Rooker).  But it turns out that the villainous Ronan (Lee Pace) also wants the orb, so he sends his minion Gamora (Zoe Saldana) to obtain it as well.  Gamora also double-crosses her boss, and just as she confronts Quill the two run afoul of Rocket and Groot, two alien mercenaries looking to cash in on a good bounty.  The four all wind up apprehended by the Nova Corps (an intergalactic peace-keeping force) and thrown in jail.  Somehow, these four criminals — soon joined by a fifth, the hulking Drax — find themselves forming a tight bond with one another.  And with the fate of the universe at stake, this motley five-some have to do the thing none of them ever expected to do: become heroes.

Guardians of the Galaxy harkens back to the tone of the first Iron Man, a very silly, goofy sensibility crossed with a great fantasy action-adventure.  Iron Man had stakes, but it was also a whole heck of a lot of fun, and Guardians is exactly the same way.  The film is a riot, but this is not a spoof.  The characters are fleshed out, with fully-realized emotional arcs, and there is weight to the story being told.

Anyone who has been watching Parks and Recreation for the past six years knows that Chris Pratt is a star.  Now the whole world knows it.  Mr. Pratt has been perfectly cast as Peter Quill, the tough space-pirate who is also an innocent boy at heart.  Mr. Pratt absolutely dominates this movie, and he’s magnetic in every scene he’s in, even when standing along-side the ridiculously scene-stealing two-some of Rocket and Groot.  (More on them both in a moment.)  Mr. Pratt is so funny, but he’s also able to really sell those movie-hero moments.  Holy cow does he knock this one out of the park.  Marvel Studios head-honcho Kevin Feige has said that, when casting Quill, they wanted someone who could eventually be able to go toe-to-toe with Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, and after watching Guardians I am desperate for that to happen sooner rather than later.

Two of the five members of the Guardians are fully CG characters, and both are hugely impressive achievements.  Bradley Cooper voices Rocket, a small, heavy-weapons-loving raccoon-like creature.  Rocket is a fast-talking smart-alec, someone who doesn’t believe he needs help from anyone else in the universe, save perhaps for Groot.  The character-design for Rocket is amazing, somehow bringing this goofy little creature from the comics to life.  I love the way we see Rocket’s fur matted on one side of his face after his first night asleep in the prison.  I love the way he gets startled, at the end of the film, when Drax shows him some affection by petting him.  In those small moments and many more, this character comes to life.

Then there is Groot, the walking tree who is Rocket’s partner.  Voiced by Vin Diesel (who is able to give us many different subtly modulated versions of “I am Groot”), this is a character that should never, ever work on screen, and yet does so perfectly.  Groot is the most innocent character on the team, and that is mined for some wonderfully comedic and emotional moments.  (His huge grin after taking out a score of Ronan’s henchmen in the film’s climax is one of my favorite beats in the entire film.)  And yet Groot is far more than just a punchline, he’s a sweet, soulful creature in the best tradition of E.T.  Holy cow is Groot phenomenal.

Then there is Drax the Destroyer, played by wrestler Dave Bautista.  A character played by a wrestler?  Here again is something that should never work, but I was knocked over by how great Mr. Bautista was in the role.  I love this interpretation of Drax.  It’s a very different spin than the Drax I remember from the comics, but it works like gangbusters.  Drax is a hugely powerful warrior, a man driven by hate in a quest to avenge the murder of his wife and daughter by Thanos.  And yet, in the film, Drax is almost as innocent as Groot.  The character speaks in an exaggeratedly formal manner which would be grating if it didn’t work, but in Mr. Bautista’s hands it is hugely endearing.  I love Drax in the film.

Of the five Guardians, it is Zoe Saldana’s character, Gamora, that doesn’t quite work.  I love the visual look of Gamora (a wonderful translation from the comics), and Ms. Saldana does some great work in the film.  But I think the script fails at showing us Gamora’s transition from her introduction as a hardened killer villainess, the right-hand-woman of the big-baddie Ronan the Accuser, to the heart-of-gold woman looking for a way out of a life of violence and evil.  This transition seems to happen almost entirely off-screen, which I think was a mistake.  Also a problem, I felt that Ms. Saldana played Gamora as a little bit too soft in the early going.  I would have expected it to take far longer in the film for this tough-as-nails woman to open up, and yet soon after she meets Quill she’s getting upset at the thought that he’ll be hurt, and (in one of the film’s only poorly-written scenes of blatant exposition) suddenly telling Quill all about her past.  Gamora is perfectly good in the film, but I felt this was the one main character that fell short of greatness.

I adore the script to this film — it’s clever and funny and exciting.  But I think there are two connected mis-steps that the movie makes, one of which I have just alluded to in the above discussion of Gamora.  You see, we are presented with two characters, Quill and Gamora, who will wind up close to one another by the end of the film.  The plot of the movie hinges upon both character’s decision to betray their bosses (Quill betrays Yondu, and Gamora betrays Ronan/Thanos).  And yet, we don’t actually see either character make that fateful decision.  Both seem to have already made their decision before the movie begins.  This leads to a little bit of plot confusion.  (It’d be easier to sympathize with Quill’s decision to go it alone if we had more of a sense, in the early going of the film, as to who Yondu was and why we the audience would agree with Quill that Yondu was a bad dude who Quill was right to betray.  Same goes for Gamora.  I was somewhat confused by her agenda in the early part of the film, and I was surprised that Quill would so readily believe her when she claimed to have betrayed Ronan.)  I also think it would have strengthened our investment in the connection between the two characters had the film played up this aspect of their parallel character-arcs at the start of the film.  It’d be neat had we better understood that both Quill and Gamora were going through similar things and making similar decisions.  I think that would have made me far more invested in the idea of these two very different characters discovering that they had a connection with one another, once their paths finally crossed.

Guardians of the Galaxy digs deeply into Marvel Comics lore and brings to the screen characters I never, ever, ever, not in a billion years, thought I would ever see on-screen.  I grew up reading Jim Starlin’s Warlock comics from the seventies, and while Adam Warlock doesn’t appear in this film, there’s Thanos and there’s Gamora and there’s Drax and, well, wow.  We see the Kree, we see a Celestial, we see Ronan the Accuser, we see Nebula, we see the Collector… not to mention the entire ensemble of the Guardians themselves.  I have enormous respect for the Marvel execs who got behind making a movie about a talking, gun-toting raccoon and a talking tree.

And talk about bold: after the prologue, the film never cuts back to Earth.  And the film never — not even in the post-credits scene, in which I was expecting this to happen — tries too hard to connect itself to the other Marvel movies.  I love that.  Hard-core Marvel fans know where this is going, and perhaps non-comics nerds might still have perked up when the Collector starts talking about the Infinity Stones (at which point we see a brief glimpse of the Cosmic Cube, what was called the Tesseract in The Avengers), but this is a film that stands squarely on its own two feet.  It was a wise choice to leave it to future films for the story of the Guardians to be drawn more closely together with that of the Avengers.

The look of Lee Pace as Ronan the Accuser is absolutely perfect.  I cannot believe how accurately they brought to life his iconic design from the comics.  I wish Ronan wasn’t such a one-dimensional villain, but he works well enough in the film.  Same goes for Nebula (Karen Gillan).  She looks absolutely perfect and works just well enough, though I wish her character had more depth.  Hopefully we’ll get more of the Nebula-Gamora dynamic in a sequel.

Then there is Thanos.  I must admit, I was surprised by how casually Thanos’ appearance was handled in the film.  He pops up, fully revealed, in one single scene of exposition in the center of the film.  (We also see his face, somewhat distorted, on Ronan’s huge view-screen a few times.)  This seemed a surprisingly casual reveal of the big-baddie behind the events of The Avengers.  I liked the look of Thanos, and Josh Brolin’s voice-work was effective.  But I expected Thanos’ first full appearance on-screen to feel more momentous.  Part of me would have preferred had all we seen of him in this film been his face on Ronan’s screen.

I loved Benicio del Toro as the Collector, though as with most of the villains (though maybe the Collector doesn’t quite qualify as a villain), I wish we’d seen more of his character in the film.  I’d expected him to have a more sizable role.  Still, how crazy is it that this super-obscure character from the comics is in this movie??!!  (I am also left wondering at the status of the other Infinity Stone that was given to the Collector by the Asgardians at the end of Thor: The Dark World.  I was surprised that we didn’t get a reference to that in the film, even in the post-credits scene.)

Speaking of Benicio del Toro, I am amazed at the high-profile actors who appeared in supporting roles in the film.  Glenn Close as the head of the Nova Corps??  How did that happen???  Then there is John C. Reilly as Nova Corpsman Rhomann Dey.  He is so great in his small role, so great.  Djimon Hounsou is also perfection as the bounty hunter Khorath, in service to Ronan.  I loved his scene with Quill at the start of the film, and I was pleasantly surprised that he re-entered the story towards the end.

Some other comments:

I loved the cold-opening sequence before the Marvel Studios title card.  I don’t think that had been done in any prior Marvel film.  Loved it.

Loved the rock-music soundtrack.  Perfection.

We actually saw a Celestial!!

I loved seeing Thanos’ vizier from The Avengers pop up again, and I loved his demise at the hands of Ronan.

The Nova Empire?  Eeeeh.  Didn’t like that divergence from the comics.  (The Nova Corps isn’t tied to a single planet or empire.)

How great was Peter Serafinowicz as Nova Corpsman Garthan Saal??  (“What a bunch of a-holes.”)  I love how the film allowed this jerk to get all heroic at the end.  Nice to see this dimensionality to even this small supporting player.

I like how the team wasn’t referred to on-screen as the Guardians of the Galaxy until the very end.

Holy cow did I love the post-credits scene.  I laughed and laughed.  So out-there and so clever.  Part of me longed for more Thanos, but if they were going to go for a joke rather than a piece of foreshadowing of future movies, then this was definitely the way to go.

I loved this film.  Huge props to director James Gunn (who also apparently did a critical, albeit uncredited, re-write of the script) for nailing the look and tone of this film so well.  And the Marvel hit-streak goes on.  Bring on The Avengers sequel, Age of Ultron…

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