Guardians of the Galaxy – Quality, Fun Throwback Action

Grade: B+

When the first Guardians of the Galaxy trailer came out, I watched it on a loop. It had jokes, fun characters, and intensely visual action – all set to cool 70s music. To say that it exceeded my expectations would be an understatement – I had never read a GOTG comic, and had barely heard of the team before the movie was announced. Brett White is right on Twitter – the promotional campaign did sum up the movie almost perfectly, the movie is what you would expect from the trailer.

Of course, those elements do not necessarily make for a perfect movie. In terms of pound for pound enjoyment, however, Guardians of the Galaxy is hard to beat; even in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which was already characterised by the tone of joy and humour, few movies approach GOTG.

The opening sequence, set in 1988, is more somber than the rest of the movie, setting up the tragedy in Peter Quill’s past which ends up sending him into space. At the same time, it also hints at a reveal much later in the film which helps rationalise why, exactly, did this boy who’d grow up to be played by Chris Pratt, would be singled out to go into space and hang out with thieves. After that, however, the film launches directly into the plot, as 26 years later young Quill (who occasionally goes by Star Lord, to everyone’s amusement) is looking to steal a mysterious orb from an abandoned planet. It is difficult not to think of Indiana Jones as he deftly and joyfully infiltrates the location of the ancient artefact, only to have everything nearly go wrong when competitors try to take it away from him. It’s a great teaser for the rest of the movie – there is tension at times, to be sure, but it’s also handled with such genuine glee on the part of the filmmakers that it cannot but be infectious. This is the case even when there are glimpses of the fact that Quill is clearly a thief, and not the nicest guy in the Galaxy either despite ultimately wishing well. Han Solo comparisons are inevitable as well, and it’s ultimately rather nice that the movie is not being dragged down by a whiny Luke Skywalker archetype. He was, to be sure, necessary in Star Wars, and I am generally strongly in favour of more sincerity and less irony in cinema – but GOTG is unashamedly about a group of outlaws, and the tone of irreverence it strikes only serves the movie.

Of course, Peter Quill’s actions angers all the right humanoids. He comes on the radars of Rocket (the CGI raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel, the walking tree), who are looking to cash in on his bounty, and Gamora (assassin played by Zoe Saldana) who needs the orb he stole. The orb is evidently a highly sought-after item, and aside from complete coincidence, it is unclear how everyone became aware of it at once. The movie rather rightly does not concern itself too much with that, however. The four of them are captured and brought to prison, where they are joined by Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) to escape and, ideally, get rich in the process.

The character motivations for the group of misfits is arguably one of the faults of the movie. Conversely to most movies of its ilk, where everything seems to make sense until you think about it, I occasionally did not find the characters’ reasons for sticking together believable, and considered it a flaw until after the movie, where I actually can see why everyone behaved as they did, mostly. It’s clear that the filmmakers, in particular the writers James Gunn (who also directed) and Nicole Perlman thought about the motivations, and dropped in just enough clues to explain them. It’s just that (almost certainly due to the jam-packed nature of the movie), it often seemed like there wasn’t enough time to really get into them. And it’s a shame, really! In a movie where the characters are almost certainly the best part of the whole thing, the interaction is ultimately left sort of light and surface-level, despite there being hints of greater motivation. They each have larger-than-life backstories, but the pain only ever comes out briefly, enough to suggest that there is something there without getting to really examine it or live in the emotion. Gamora hates Thanos, and with VERY good reason, but the range rarely actually comes through, for all her general attitude. Drax is burning for revenge, and yet when he fails to achieve it towards the end of the second act, there is barely a beat of him recognising his failure. This stuff matters – and the drama, the opera-level emotions are arguably what separates superhero movies from other action.

The other weak spot is the general plot. The saving of the Galaxy is important, sure, and there are other reasons for characters to move the plot along, but I just can’t escape the fact that I’ve more or less seen that a few times now, and without the real involvement in the motivations the plot just sort loses relevance. It isn’t bad in the slightest, mind you. It’s just that it’s… sort of standard. Ronin the Accuser, played by Lee Pace, and Karen Gillan’s Nebula are both menacing and interesting, but ultimately sort of thinly drawn. Ronin’s motivation is, once again, “destroying stuff”, despite mention of some injustice committed in his past. The comic book fans will appreciate seeing more of Thanos, but at the end of the day, he just kind of sits there, on apparently the same asteroid he was seen on in Avengers. Surely, there must be something more to his life than sitting on his throne and making threats? He is evidently the most dangerous being in the Galaxy, and it would have been nice to see more of that.

Now, it may sound like I’m coming down on Guardians of the Galaxy hard, but I want to make it absolutely clear that I LOVED the general experience of watching the film. The reason for that is undoubtedly the humour and the genuinely fun characters. Whatever other complaints I have are simply there because without those flaws, the film would actually be the masterpiece of comic-book storytelling that many people online claim it is, and that I believe Avengers to have been. Absolutely every one of the Guardians deserves every moment on the screen. Peter Quill is funny, and for all his posturing heroism – sometimes kind of a loser, which makes him relatable (I can’t imagine how insufferable he’d be without that). Gamora is intense and bad-ass, even if she does require saving from a man at least once too often (though to be fair, they each rely on saving from each other more than once). Rocket and Groot are a great odd couple, both scrappy bounty-hunting weirdos. Drax takes himself far too seriously, which causes Bautista to be funnier than he, frankly, has any right being (him struggling to understand metaphor yields some of the biggest laughs). Most importantly, though, they’re a joy to have on the screen together, which really is what you want in a team superhero movie. Their interaction is consistently not only funny, but generally kind of sweet. Rocket crying when Groot seems to be dead is probably the only moment, aside from the opening, that really pulls at your heart strings, but other stuff is not a loss. Quill explaining the concept of dancing to Gamora plays nicely, and is then instantly undercut by a joke to keep it from going too serious. Their prison escape uses action to establish character (which should always be the case with action, really, but here it’s particularly poignant as they’re really working together for the first time), all the while twisting tropes of heists in movies. I cannot think that at least a part of it is because not only James Gunn, but everyone involved, seems to be ecstatic to get to do the things they’re doing, to play with the toys they just received.

Then, of course, there are the visuals, which are absolutely stunning. While the action can occasionally be a little too shaky for my taste, the general environment of the film is imbued with so much beautiful colour that as a general rule, it is a true pleasure to watch. This is lacking in superhero cinema, which tends to be over-serious in tone and dark and bland in visuals (presumably to distance themselves from Batman & Robin). The genre has proven itself, though, and while the general trend in cinema in the 2000s was blacks and greys, I could not be happier that we’re moving away from it. What digital film offers us is clarity, crispness, and intense colour. I am overjoyed to see filmmakers make use of it (I know I keep going on about it, but the new Mad Max: Fury Road trailer does a great job of it). James Gunn pulls out all the stops to wow us with his vision of space, and it is genuinely beautiful – even when it’s grimy.

Overall, I had a whole lot of fun with Guardians of the Galaxy, and while I do think there were things that could be improved, that would probably have had to come at a cost of other things, which Guardians does beautifully, such as enjoyable, humorous, character moments and their fun romp through space. For what it’s worth, I am almost certainly seeing it again next week – and having a better idea, now, of the character motivations may mean I’ll actually enjoy it at least as much this time around. I’m not advocating that every superhero movie take on its tone – a good contrast would be this year’s much more earnest Captain America: The Winter Soldier. For this corner of the Marvel Universe, though, it really worked wonderfully. And if a talking raccoon is not crazy enough for you, be sure to stick around for the end-credits scene, which has little to do with the overall plot and structure of the universe at large, but is a great little wink-wink, nudge-nudge moment for the Marvel fans.

Casting Friday: Batffleck, Rocket Cooper, Scarlet Olsen, and more

Each Friday, I will summarize the important casting news or rumors from the preceding week, giving you a preview of who’ll be playing who in the future!

Batffleck

affleckIn what is by far the biggest movie headline of the week, Ben Affleck was confirmed to be playing Bruce Wayne/Batman in the upcoming Batman vs Superman movie. The news coming out last night simultaneously ended months of speculation, and set hundreds of thousands of fans on a joke/complaint tirade across the internet.

This is hardly surprising, as the decision is definitely controversial. Ben Affleck has gone from being written off by Hollywood entirely, to winning several Oscars last year for Argo. His road to redemption has, however, been in more grounded films, playing simpler characters, and letting the film’s writing and directing drive the picture. Is a return to superheroics a good idea for Affleck? That being said, Affleck is clearly a capable actor, and while his resume is not characterized by very broodingly dark characters, maybe that is precisely what the Batman franchise needs. Clearly, the era of the Dark Knight is done, Christin Bale is not returning to the role. Going in a slightly different direction is what the new DC franchise very much needed.

Zack Snyder, director of Man of Steel as well as the upcoming Batman vs. Superman film had the following to say in the press that broke the story: “Ben provides an interesting counter-balance to Henry’s Superman. He has the acting chops to create a layered portrayal of a man who is older and wiser than Clark Kent and bears the scars of a seasoned crime fighter, but retain the charm that the world sees in billionaire Bruce Wayne. I can’t wait to work with him.” Ben Affleck is Cavill’s senior by 11 years.

This is not the first we’ve heard of Affleck flirting with the DCU, of course – a year ago, Affleck reportedly may have been offered the director’s chair for a Justice League movie, and turned it down, sources claiming he may simply be not interested if he is not allowed to play one of the leading characters.

An interesting side-note is the fact that Affleck himself has already played Superman – or at least, worn the suit, when he played George Reeves, the 50s TV Superman, in the 2006 biopic Hollywoodland.

The same press release that confirmed the casting news, also reported on an initial release date, which is July 17th, 2015. This sets the release of the film two months after the planned May 1st release of Avengers: Age of Ultron, which is sure to be the film’s main competition in the box office. So, three years later, we have another Avengers vs Batman rematch in terms of success in the cinemas; a battle which was won by the Avengers in 2012, making over 623 mln. in domestic box office vs Dark Knight Rises‘ 448.

I suppose we really won’t know what to really expect with the direction the character is taking until we begin seeing set photos and a trailer, which will most likely be coming in a bit over a year.

ComicBookResources’ poll currently says 49.3 percent of voters said “I’m not sure – I’ll have to wait and see”, while 34.8 percent selected “He’s absolutely the wrong choice”, and 15.9% – “He’s perfect for the role – I love it!”. What do you think? State your opinions below!

Rocket Cooper

cooperMoving over to the Marvel side, last week we had news that Vin Diesel is voicing Groot in the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy film. This leaves one spot on the core cast available – that of Rocket Raccoon, the talking, flying, gun-toting racoon.

It may be filled shortly, however. According to Latino Review, which, while having a spotty record, has broken big Marvel news in the past (including the fact the studio is working on a Guardians of the Galaxy film), claims that Bradley Cooper is in talks to voice the character in the upcoming picture.

This news has since been confirmed by The Hollywood Reporter, making this seem all the more likely to be true.

Scarlet Olsen

olsenThe same article by The Hollywood Reporter also claimed that Elizabeth Olsen, who made big waves in the indie community in 2011 with Martha Marcy May Marlene, and is starring in next year’s Godzilla, is in talks to play the Scarlet Witch in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Her and the character’s brother Quicksilver are the two major new additions to the hero cast of the film, with all of the Avengers from last year’s film expected to return.

Olsen’s talks for the role are evidently further along than Cooper’s are for the Guardians.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson is reportedly in talks to play Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch’s brother. Quicksilver is also set to appear in next year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past.

Cumberbatch-less Peak

cumberbatchBenedict Cumberbatch has dropped out of Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak, a gothic horror film which the filmmaker says will be “the first time I get to do a movie more akin to what I do in the Spanish movies.”

According to Deadline, Cumberbatch’s departure is not due to scheduling conflicts – which means there was likely some disagreement or creative difference must have caused it. Perhaps with time, the details of the move will be released.

The film is still expected to star Mia Wasikowska in the lead role.

22 Russell Street

Wyatt Russell, who previously had roles in Cowboys & Aliens and This is 40, is confirmed to have a role in the sequel to last year’s delightfully funny 21 Jump Street, which will feature the returning characters played by Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill in college. The sequel will be called 22 Jump Street and is set for a June 13, 2014 release.