Guardians Of The Galaxy: A Star (Lord) Is Born [Review]
Director James Gunn’s Guardians Of The Galaxy is a big gamble for Marvel Studios. It’s an unknown quantity even to most comic fans. It’s a space opera at a time when non-Lucasfilm space operas don’t perform well. It’s a movie with a talking raccoon at a time when even Disney princess movies don’t have talking animals.
Of course, all of Marvel’s movies have been gambles. Iron Man wasn’t a household name, despite how we think of the character now. Thor was a sci fi fantasy movie — what could be worse? Captain America seemed an impossible sell for overseas markets. Bringing those franchises together for Avengers? Insanity. Marvel Studios’ safest bet was probably Hulk — a household name and a proven quantity — and that’s been the studio’s weakest performer. So it looks like the big gambles are where Marvel excels. If Guardians Of The Galaxy is the studio’s biggest gamble to date, it makes a weird kind of sense that it’s also one of the studio’s most delightful successes.
Guardians Of The Galaxy is a crowd-pleaser through-and-through; it’s funny, consistently rambunctious, and even surprisingly touching at times. And the secret of its success can be placed in large part on one set of broad shoulders.
Actor Chrs Pratt was this movie’s insurance against a bad gamble. Pratt makes this movie, and in perfect reciprocal synergy, this movie now makes Pratt. There were a lot of actors reportedly up for the leading role of Star-Lord, the Earth-born space adventurer created by Steve Englehart and Steve Gan in 1976. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Joel Egerton, Jim Sturgess, and Lee Pace were among the names linked to the part, and in any of their hands the character and the movie might have been unrecognizable. Chris Pratt’s comic energy and radiating positivity is what the movie needed — and Pratt’s reward for a job well done is that he’s now going to be a huge star (and the internet’s boyfriend).
Pratt may in fact be Marvel’s most irresistibly charming leading man, even in the face of stiff competition. From his very first scene in the movie, in which he dances through the ruins of an alien temple, he already wins the audience’s hearts.
Pratt as Star-Lord, aka Peter Quill, is an extraordinary synergy of actor and role, actor and tone, and actor and director. There’s a little bit of Indiana Jones in here, a little Han Solo, a little Captain Kirk; but Star-Lord is a much bigger goofball than any of them. James Gunn embraces the three-ring-circus of a universe in which a talking raccoon and a barely-talking tree are a natural fit, and he needed a clown-in-chief who could mesh with the humour that runs through the movie, and in Pratt he found it.
Marvel’s movies have a habit of getting to the core of a character in ways that the comics are often too floppy to do, and in this case Gunn and Pratt have delivered a Peter Quill who perfectly represents post-millennial permanent adolescence. People don’t rush to grow up any more. People are putting off buying homes and starting families, and refusing to put away the toys of the past. Modern adults don’t hide the game console in the front room or take the nerd posters off their walls.
Peter Quill represents that state of adulthood, though in his case it’s because he was abducted from Earth at the age of eight. He never had to grow up, because he got to be an eight-year-old in space. He still holds on to his toys — and his precious Walkman and mix tape — because they’re his only link to home. But like all adults in a permanent adolescent state, the realization that he needs to take responsibility dawns slowly but inevitably upon him.
The challenge here is to present the man-child as someone likeable — and even as someone we feel pathos for — and Pratt delivers. It’s no surprise that he does comedy well given both his work on Parks And Recreation and the charm offensive he’s been on in promoting this movie, but he’s also astonishingly good at finding his character’s soul and making us feel for his sense of isolation. Towards the end of the movie there’s a moment when the camera fixes on his face that’s almost heartbreaking.
If this all sounds a little too much like a love letter to Chris Pratt, well, that’s because I haven’t shown you my actual love letters to Chris Pratt, which use way more glitter. But, point taken, there are other actors in this movie.
Zoe Saldana is a stand-out among them as the green-skinned assassin Gamora, created by Jim Starlin. From the moment this movie was first announced, I was frustrated that the core team imposed the Smurfette principle of only having one woman on the team, and having seen the movie I can say that it still bothers me that, say, Drax was considered a better fit than Moondragon. I also think the role of Gamora is a little under-written here — on one occasion she’s made to appear more vulnerable than I think she ever should be — but Saldana affords the character strength and poise and makes her a wonderfully welcome addition the the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And some of her outfits are killer.
Bradley Cooper is surprisingly good as Rocket. I usually find Cooper unpalatably unctuous in just about everything, but as a voice actor he’s likeable. Rocket perhaps isn’t the breakout character that some fans might have expected him to be, but he’s also not the dead weight that detractors feared. The CGI in some of the action scenes is an ephemeral blur of kaleidoscopic motion, but the character CGI on Rocket and Groot is consistently convincing enough to give the characters weight and let the audience suspend disbelief. Some of the best physical comedy comes from Rocket and Groot.
While I’m on the subject of Rocket Raccoon, it’s important to take a moment here to appreciate Bill Mantlo, who created the character with Keith Giffen. Mantlo suffered a traumatic brain injury as a result of a hit-and-run in 1992, and his family has struggled to cover his medical bills. If you enjoy Guardians Of The Galaxy, that’s at least in part because of Mantlo’s imagination, and you can show your thanks by making a donation towards his continued care.
Rocket’s partner-in-crime Groot, created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Dick Ayers, is going to find a lot of fans after this movie, and the animators manage to make him the heart of the team. Vin Diesel is of course everything he needs to be as the voice of Groot, but this is an animation performance through-and-through. Hopefully more fans will plant trees than try to adopt raccoons.
The only weak link in the cast is Dave Batista as Jim Starlin and Mike Friedrich’s Drax the Destroyer. The character is presented in a way that makes sense of a flat, affectless mien, perhaps as a concession to Batista’s limitations. Even allowing for that, he’s better the less he talks and the more he lets his muscles do the acting.
The rest of the cast is filled with tremendous actors in parts that just don’t require performances of that calibre. It’s very nice to see Glenn Close, Djimon Hounsou, and John C. Reilly, but they don’t get nearly enough to do. Michael Rooker, though, has a lot of fun as blue-necked redneck Yondu. The character is radically different to his comics counterpart, created by Arnold Drake and Gene Colan, but Rooker is so good that I couldn’t get my nerd-ire up, and the movie makes tremendous use of the comic character’s ability to guide his arrows by whistling.
Lee Pace, passed over for Star-Lord, shows up instead as lead villain Ronan the Accuser — and the movie version of this Stan-and-Jack creation is perhaps one of my favorite design elements in the film. Caked under make-up, Pace still puts in a sterling performance that places him more towards the Loki end of the Marvel Studios villain spectrum than the Malekith end.
Don’t expect nuance — Ronan still offers up the same hoary Marvel movie story of a tall pleather-bound man angrily lusting after a cosmic macguffin so he can do something terrible to a planet. The villainy is still underdeveloped. The third act resolution is still magically unsatisfying. Guardians Of The Galaxy doesn’t always do all the work it needs to do to set up its pay-offs.
For all its structural similarities to other Marvel movies, it’s also notable that this really isn’t a superhero story. None of the characters is explicitly on a journey to become a champion. That leaves the movie a little less morally aspirational than some of Marvel’s other works, though at least the death tolls make sense in context (and there is a lot of conscious effort to preserve life). Maybe it’s a spoiler to say it, but Rocket thankfully never utters his horrible comics catchphrase, “Murdered you”, which always felt like a David Goyer-esque stain on the Marvel Universe.
Thankfully the performances and chemistry of Pratt, Saldana, and Cooper, the excellent CG animation work, and the great dialog throughout, should carry audiences past the movie’s imperfections. This movie wants you to fall in love with its characters; all the noise and bombast is only an artful backdrop. Guardians presents a richly developed sci-fi world, and uses elements of the comics to generally great effect without leaving half the audience wondering how much of the story they’ve missed. Of course, the other half will find things missing that they wish the movie had explored. Given that there are fifty years of cosmic universe-building to play with, that’s a hopeless thing to quibble about. But the heart wants what the heart wants.
The music in the movie deserves special mention. This is the first Marvel movie to use a soundtrack so effectively, with the in-story premise that these are the only songs Peter Quill brought with him from Earth.
When NASA sent music into space aboard Voyager, it chose Bach, Beethoven, Chuck Berry and Blind Willie Johnson. Star-Lord’s mixtape is a more honest accounting of the human race as it stands today, featuring The Runaways, Rupert Holmes, 10CC, and — of course — Blue Swede’s ‘Hooked On A Feeling’. This mix of cheese and strut and adolescent energy is unashamed and exulting, and that’s the spirit that runs throughout Guardians Of The Galaxy. This movie may be our generation’s ‘Ode to Joy’.
ABOUT ROCKET RACCOON CREATOR BILL MANTLO
Mantlo is just one of numerous veteran comic book creators in need. You can learn more about artists like him and their lives at the Hero Initiative, the comic book industry’s non-profit organization that offers aid to the men and women who created the industry and work which now fuels Hollywood’s biggest success.