Guardians of the Galaxy
based on the comic book by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning
2014 • 122 minutes • Marvel Studios
Ever since the first trailer dropped, featuring sci-fi action, comedy, and Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling,” I’ve been excited to see Guardians of the Galaxy. Not because I have any familiarity with the Guardians themselves, but because anything that combines the hits of the seventies and eighties and speculative fiction is one hundred percent my jam. (I will admit to being a little disappointed that my first theory, that Guardians of the Galaxy’s soundtrack was, in fact, just the Reservoir Dogs soundtrack, was wrong, but “Cherry Bomb” is in there, so I am content.) Now that Marvel is on top of the world, the fact that they’re reaching back into their catalog and digging up obscure characters is heartening, especially for those of us desperate to see Black Panther or Captain Marvel finally make it to the big screen.
The finished Guardians of the Galaxy is less heartening. It begins perfectly, with the young Peter Quill witnessing his mother’s death and, running out into the woods overwhelmed by his emotions, getting abducted by aliens. Cut to the adult Peter landing on an abandoned planet to find an artifact for a client. Face shrouded by his retro-cool mask, he stalks around like Han Solo—before taking his mask off, revealing the kind (if currently very chiseled) visage of Chris Pratt, and turning on his Walkman so he can dance his way to the treasure to “Come And Get Your Love.”
But, one action sequence later, when Peter returns to his ship to find a half-naked fuchsia space babe and can’t remember her name, the film reveals its dedication to what I ended up, in a chatty rage over Chipotle after the film, referring to as “going full dudebro.” After the towering, humanistic heights of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it’s disappointing to be presented with a film that treats its female characters shoddily, tells far more than it shows, and revels in violence. Obviously, there’s a major difference in tone between the two films, but I have selfishly come to expect that the characters in a Marvel film will be treated like people.
(Or raccoons. Or tree people. You get my point.)
Perhaps that was too much to ask from James Gunn, who famously wrote “The 50 Superheroes You Most Want to Have Sex With,” a virulently homophobic and sexist post about the sexual attractiveness of various superheroes (as voted on by readers of his website). He’s since made an actual, sincere apology for the post, but it’s hard not to think about that when Guardians of the Galaxy attempts to make a light-hearted joke about how the very literal Drax the Destroyer expresses his friendship while insulting his friends—and having him call Zoe Saldana’s Gamora a “green whore” to that end. While Gamora and Nebula, her adoptive sister, have a powerful but fundamentally conflicted relationship to rival Thor and Loki’s, it’s largely unexplored. That’s all before you get to the sad fact that Djimon Hounsou took the role of Korath so his kids could see a superhero of color onscreen—only for that character to suffer largely the same fate as Kurse in Thor: The Dark World.
And this underdevelopment plagues Guardians of the Galaxy as a whole. We spend a lot of time establishing Peter as a character, but since he’s essentially a Han Solo type, it’s unnecessary, especially when Gamora’s far more intricate backstory is clunkily handled solely in dialogue. Even Rocket Raccoon’s breakdown in a bar over constantly being dismissed as an animal misses the mark, as we’re taken out of a romantic scene between Peter and Gamora and don’t see why he finally broke. They are a likable bunch, especially—and perhaps specifically—the marvelous Groot, but this underwriting makes them more compelling concepts than characters. And those are the main characters. The villains of the piece, despite having an interesting motivation that’s never really explored, are just outlines.
This is all the more frustrating because the cast is so very game. Chris Pratt’s Peter is engaging and fun; Saldana gives Gamora a nice balance between her serious, honorable side and a more pragmatic side; Dave Bautista’s extremely literal Drax adds a wonderful physical presence and deadpan to the proceedings; Vin Diesel’s sheer dedication to Groot will result in your weeping or your humanity back; and Bradley Cooper does a fair Denis Leary impression as Rocket. Seeing Pratt’s little personal flourishes on Starlord is delightful, as well as seeing the rest of the cast riff off of Peter’s eighties references. (“We’re like Kevin Bacon!”, as delivered flawlessly by Saldana, may be my favorite line in this film.)
But Guardians of the Galaxy does succeed brilliantly in one department: the visuals. Gunn clearly wants you to think of Star Wars when you watch this film, but I was particularly struck by how this marries modern CGI with practical effects in a way that the Star Wars prequels utterly failed to do. It’s a tactile universe, from Star-Lord smacking a scanner to make it work to the innards of Ronan the Accuser’s ship to Yondu’s dashboard tchotchkes. While Gunn occasionally gets lost in the action set pieces, the sets and locations themselves are so well-balanced that they’re just a joy to look at. Marvel’s Asgard can sometimes feel toy-like, so it’s incredibly refreshing to see it done well. May it set a standard for speculative fiction on film in the future—but only visually.
(Oh, and that half-naked fuchsia space babe? Her name is Bereet and, in the comics, she’s an alien filmmaker. You know, a character with stuff going on beyond alien conquest of the week.)
I saw this film in theaters.