Guardians of the Galaxy

by Jake Mulligan

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday August 1, 2014

Zoe Saldana and Chris Pratt star in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
Zoe Saldana and Chris Pratt star in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'  (Source:Marvel Studio)

A lot of comic book movies try to run away from whatever's most idiosyncratic about them. Think about the way Christopher Nolan doggedly avoids calling Anne Hathaway's character "Catwoman" in "Dark Knight Rises," or the way "Man of Steel" morphs into every-other-2010s-action-movie in its last half-hour rather than follow up on the promise of the title character's previously nonviolent demeanor. "Guardians of the Galaxy," from director James Gunn, lives on the other side of that spectrum. The film wants to be as weird and kinky as it can possibly be. Put it this way: It's the first superhero movie to build a scene around a this-spaceship-would-look-gross-under-a-blacklight joke.

The title promises us some Guardians, and the movie gives us five: Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), abducted from Earth on the night of his mother's death and found illegally scavenging for stolen space scraps decades later; Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the scorned adopted daughter of the evil Thanos (Josh Brolin); Drax the Destroyer (professional wrestler Batista), who maintains his own beef against Thanos; Rocket Raccoon (the voice of Bradley Cooper), a raccoon who shoots rockets; and Groot (the voice of Vin Diesel), who partners with Rocket on intergalactic bounty hunting missions. They're fighting for an all-powerful orb, which is desired by the villainous Ronan the Accuser, but that doesn't matter much. You'll notice we're detailing tone and characters, but hardly discussing plot. There's good reason for that.

The orb is a MacGuffin - and if you weren't sure of that at first, the movie lets you know with nods to the "Ark of the Covenant" and the "Maltese Falcon." What's at work here -- what makes "Guardians" a superhero film worth paying close attention to -- is an extremely skewed personal vision exuding out of the five titular characters. Director James Gunn came up doing Troma films (super low-budget gross-out gorehound flicks), made his own feature debut with "Slither" (an equally gross-out throwback to bygone eras of allegorical horror cinema), and then followed it up with the supremely disturbing "Super" (an indie film that basically asks what would have happened if Travis Bickle existed in the age of Nolan's Batman).

These characters are all built from parts that were highlighted in those three films. Quill's the sarcastic shithead ironist (hey, Troma), a kid who would have come of age in the '90s had he not been abducted by aliens. Gamora feels like a character right out of pulp fiction -- the design like it could have come out of Burroughs -- which has also always felt an influence on Gunn's work. Drax is pure anxiety: Literally unable to understand irony (to Quill, he may as well not understand fun), he's the rattly half of the artist's brain. Rocket's depressed, and Groot is his upside: A spiritualist who offers a sort of soulful connection to the universe (Gunn has spoken sincerely, years ago, about transcendental spiritual visions and experiences).

So all those elements add up to his voice -- but what the hell does that matter? What Gunn's voice represents, exactly, is admittedly hard to define. There's an individualist reinterpretation of comic-book-style entertainment media in his work -- you get the feeling that he grew up devouring the kind of niche genre media that's currently influencing our biggest movies, but that maybe he also dove into the darker corners of genre media, too. The kind of stuff that people like Zack Snyder never cared for much -- you can bet that Gunn has seen "Riki-Oh," and, as mentioned, he's built a whole film before out of the "Taxi Driver" mythos. His hard edge obviously has to be sanded down for the PG-13 here, but there's still an exceptionally admirable unrepentant goofiness to the picture. It feels like someone threw Spielberg movies, Stephen Chow movies, and "Flash Gordon" into a blender, and "Guardians of the Galaxy" is what came out.

That's not even to mention that Gunn, alongside cinematographer Ben Davis and a visual effects team the size of a small country's military, has created a film that is gorgeous to look at, and in in a way we don't see too often, either. They're swirling colors together and apart again in fluid backgrounds, filling the background with strange practical effects work, using long-shots rather than close-ups much more often than most do, to emphasize all that background strangeness... it's a trippy film. There's also some uproarious images. One, a shot that views a battle between spaceships from so far away that it looks like a game of "Space Invaders," packs more visual punch than most other Hollywood movies do in their entirety.

You've probably noticed that we got through almost this entire review without having to say the m-word: Marvel. "Guardians" does, indeed, take place in the same universe as films like "Iron Man 2." And no doubt the stuff with the aforementioned Thanos character is sure to reverberate in their upcoming films, like "The Avengers 2." Yet past that, there's nothing explicit here that connects "Guardians" to that canon, and even Thanos feels built into this particular film fairly organically. Gunn seems to have been given the go-ahead to rewire the formula -- "Guardians" is the first Marvel movie you could comfortably call a comedy. It doesn't break the formula, it just makes it weirder. The characters still have their big speechifying and all-in-together-now moments, but they're calling each other "asshole" while they do so. "Guardians" may not be a great movie, but it is a damn refreshing one.