Stay Addicted and Endure, by Scott Nye
On Earth in 1988, a young Peter Quill watches his mother die. Distraught, he runs outside and is immediately abducted by aliens. Not a bad start to a movie, all things considered. Twenty-odd years later, Peter (Chris Pratt) has grown into a space outlaw, aged but not yet grown up, closely attached to the few objects of his youth he still has – in particular, a mix tape his mother gave him, full of their favorite songs from the 1960s-70s. He is our hero. Marvel’s James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy is sci-fi/fantasy, all right, but fantasy for an older generation still clinging to the objects of their youth. By arresting the progress of culture in its tracks, Peter not only remains the definitive authority on all that is “hip,” but actually, literally uses his nostalgia to help save the day and win the girl.
As the title indicates, this is not solely Peter’s story. While trying to sell an orb of tremendous value to a pawn shop, he encounters Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who has her own designs on the object; Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper, played on set by Sean Gunn), a genetically-engineered-raccoon-turned-bounty-hunter after the price on Peter’s head; and Groot (voice of Vin Diesel, played on set by an uncredited Polish mime), a walking tree and Rocket’s muscle. None are the subtlest operatives, and, after a scuffle, they are all arrested. In prison, they meet Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), hellbent on an act of revenge to which Gamora can lead him.
Each stands to gain something from another, and Gunn and co-writer Nicole Perlman deftly interweave their goals to ensure them inseparable. They pile conflict on the gang, often anticipating a succession of obstacles only to unload them all at once, leaving everyone scrambling to just to keep up, never mind gain the upper hand. The teamwork builds gradually, confidently; by making them first look out for one another for selfish reasons, they habitually begin to sacrifice to do the same. Gunn gives (the men in) his cast, Pratt in particular, room to play around and shape the characters outside of their purpose in the story (even if Rocket is rather calculatingly given defining moments), imbuing them with an actual, unforced sense of humanity almost totally absent from the rest of the Marvel cinematic universe. For the first time since Jon Favreau’s Iron Man run, it’s a movie that feels like it was made by people, albeit now under obviously strict guidelines from Marvel Studios.
Peter’s hero journey in particular becomes awfully forced, Pratt’s bouncy performance resisting the necessitated beats only to flatly indulge them. The action sequences display a certain imagination in design that carries them through some of the more limited execution (it’s standard “rise-fall-rise” every time out); Gunn has such a tremendous eye for capturing the wonder of this world that it’s a shame he couldn’t find ways to more imaginatively explore it. Certain images – the galactic reflection on the windshield of Peter’s space pod, an asteroid hideout, the whole of Benicio Del Toro’s appearance, an especially a masterful sequence near the end that’s better left unspoiled – linger powerfully, and it makes a tremendous difference to have an actual director with an actual point of view behind it all, livening up a rather tepid emotional journey.
I do have to wonder, after ten of these things, whether producer Kevin Feige (or anyone making the big creative decisions at Marvel) has ever actually met a woman before. Aside from Pepper Potts in the first two Iron Mans, the women in their films are unbelievably badly-served, only there to provide exposition and reinforce a moral code to help the growth of the male protagonist, granted none of the traits that would make someone, you know, a person. Saldana stands out all the worse here, surrounded by an entertaining bunch of men who have actual desires, interests, and personalities, while she is defined solely by her role in the story and unflinching desire for justice. That, plus the fact that she can fight, is supposed to make her a “strong female character,” a quality only a major Hollywood studio could so totally misunderstand for so awfully long. They expect direction to substitute for dimension, hoping that simply orienting a character along one of a set of acceptable paths would be good enough.
“Good enough” has been Marvel’s mode of operation all along, and while Guardians of the Galaxy is better enough than most of what they’ve done (outclassing even The Avengers), it’s pretty far from the sort of truly imaginative expression or thrilling execution that will keep it in mind beyond its ability to serve this particular stage of its studio’s grand, multi-pronged and ever-evolving story. They give you just enough of a hit to satisfy the temporary urge and come back for more. It’s cleanly, professionally made, rarely bad (its most egregious offenses – total disinterest in women’s thoughts/feelings and valorizing arrested adolescence – are so embedded that they never actively interfere), and an enjoyable ride for the short distance it goes. It’s the kind of movie perfectly designed for the Rotten Tomatoes pass/fail era – it earns that “fresh” rating, but not in many ways that would make it overtly worthwhile.