Thursday, July 31, 2014

Chris Pratt and the Infinity Watch


Great space opera, by the skin of its stupid, laughing, grinning teeth.

Directed by James Gunn
Written by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman (based on the comic by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning)
With Chris Pratt (Peter "Starlord" Quill), Zoe Saldana (Gamora), Vin Diesel (Groot), Bradley Cooper (Rocket), Dave Bautista (Drax the Destroyer), Lee Pace (Ronan the Accuser), Karen Gillan (Nebula), Josh Brolin (Thanos), and Benicio Del Toro (The Collector, whom a reasonable person would have believed would have been in the movie more, but gosh if he ain't great)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Guardians of the Galaxy was the one entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe that I was looking forward to the least, but my reasons are, I'm sure you'll agree, bad ones.  Basically, it boils down to the problem that seems to accrue to far too many superhero projects: terribly mistaken conception.

The villain-behind-the-villain featured in Guardians is Thanos, and the plot involves the Infinity Gems Stones.  Thus is Guardians made the most important brick in the foundation of the inevitable film version of The Infinity Gauntlet, butin Kevin Feige's far-less-than-infinite wisdomthere shall be no Adam Warlock in this adaptation of the single most famous Adam Warlock tale of them all.

And that's how I know this must be a bad reasonyou don't even know who Adam Warlock is, so how could you possibly give a single, solitary shit about his absence?  But, God, how it poisoned me against this movie.  It's no more than two weeks ago that I once again pored over Jim Starlin's defining run on the character, and I assure you that whatever Guardians offers, it cannot compete with the time-warping, mind-bending conclusion to Warlock and Thanos' first great war, written long before The Infinity Gauntlet was even a marketing idea in Tom DeFalco's mind.  (And The Infinity War is even better than either, though on this reasonable nerds may differ.)

The miracle of Guardians is that for nearly every second of its running time, I did not think about Adam Warlock at all.

That running time, incidentally, includes a post-credits scene.  This is de rigeur by now, but it is at once the most essential and inessential that Marvel has ever offered; I will simply state that it presumably promises no future plot developments, yet demands to be witnessed with your own eyes, unspoiled, for it is truly glorious and cannot be expected.  This comes from one who was not especially surprised that a substantial fraction of the film is set upon the planetoid-sized head of a dead Celestial.

As you've no doubt intuited, Guardians is a movie for dorks by dorks.  It is easily the dorkiest property Marvel has yet unleashed, perhaps the dorkiest project ever undertaken, on a dollar-per-dorkiness measure.  Its success or failure will, I think, serve as a very interesting barometer for our society.  Essentially, what we have here is not a superhero film at all, but the zaniest of planetary romances.

Peter Quill, who "goes by" the totally cool name of "Starlord," in the sense that he's constantly trying to cajole people into actually calling him that, is a human in space.  He was abducted from Earth by space pirates back in 1988, while he was still a boy.  His only contact with the culture of his birth are the mixtapes his dying mom left him, selected hits from the Before Times that she had a particular fondness for and which now, in his adulthood, form the soundtrack to his weird space-faring life.  If Guardians never quite banishes the impression that it's James Gunn making a wacky stylistic choice, it is nonetheless a wacky stylistic choice that, overall, works.

Starlord's an outlaw, of course, the Han Solo of a movie that already has at least one more Han Solo to get to, and in due course we meet the rest of our gang of misfits.  There's Gamora, an assassin rebelling against her former master, Thanos, mad Titan, and his miniboss, Ronan the Accuser, Kree fanatic.  There is Rocket, a foulmouthed cybernetically-enhanced procyonoid bounty hunter, out to collect the bounty on Quill's head.  There is his partner in human trafficking, Groot, an awesome semi-sapient tree whose dialogue consists entirely of variations on "I am Groot."  And there is Drax, a convict on a vengeance trip against Ronan.

Drax' adaptation from his four-color source is the cleverest of all.  On the page, he was a physical colossus, but one rendered mentally handicapped due to a convoluted backstory that I would just love to share; whereas on screenin a nod to the former's storied lack of cognitionhe is made a member of a species of eloquent but inordinately literal doofuses, incapable of understanding metaphorical language.  Drax is thus made the source of the film's very best jokesor, at least, the ones that do not involve the words "I am Groot."

Pictured: Vin Diesel in, perhaps, his career-best performanceand I'm not being ironic or derogatory.

By the way, did you like the part where I just assumed you knew what a "Kree" was?  Well, I hope you did, because the movie doesand God bless it.  I told you it was made for dorks.

These five wouldn't-be heroes are thrown together by circumstance, and must come together as a family in order to save the universe from the evil machinations of... well, it's always in the execution, ain't it?

Execution is not a sure thing going into Guardians.  Witness its beginnings, and you may wish you had not, unless you're a terribly big fan of hilariously fake movie cancer, grotesquely bad child performances, CGI animal cruelty, and prison rape jokes in what I guess is some kind of family film, and all in the first twenty minutes.  It's a space prison, though, which makes it still about as funny as Irreversible.

Honestly, the funniest part of this is when you realize that whether the movie meant to or not, it has told you plainly that Peter's alien dad's Space Penis gave Peter's mom her Space Cancer.   (It's even funnier to me if you still think Starlord's heritage is a "spoiler," once Starmom drops the "angel made of light" line about two minutes in.  Hey: don't be such a Drax.)

And then things even out.  You realize that for a movie to have a tone problem it needs to have a tone in the first place, and that the best thing possible is to sit back, relax, and enjoy.  Guardians is completely unafraid to look foolish, and that is its undeniable charm, even a source of great strength.  I doubt any film will ever again come close to equaling the cognitively-impossible camp super-genius of Flash Gordonwhere it somehow knows you know that it's preposterous and silly, but it does not, itself, know that it is preposterous and sillybut Guardians operates in much the same style of half-comic space opera.  Only, in Guardians, everyone outside of the film, both creators and audience, as well as most of the characters within it, already clearly realize that it's a joke.  (The one who most clearly doesn't is Groot, and as a result he is both the most entertaining and the most emotionally investing of all the characters, despite just having that one line.)

And though obviously they don't reach the rarefied heights of Danilo Donati, Guardians is also the first Marvel movie in at least three full installments to finally return to the same universe that Bo Welch and Alexendra Byrne live and work inBravo to Charles Wood and... well, Alexandra Byrne.  Anyway, Guardians features extraordinarily good costume design, particularly on Ronan and Nebula, and also perhaps the best new spaceship design on film in... well, an embarrassingly long time.

Guardians' go-for-the-laugh attitude serves it extremely well throughout most of its two hours, but comedy can go too far, even in a comedy.  No less bonkers a production than Evil Dead 2 still knew when to throttle back on the larfseven Red vs. Blue's Recollection Trilogy knew when to get seriousbut Guardians doesn't, and its climax is at once quite funny, quite appropriate, and groaningly awful.  Ultimately, it banks on its comedy as denouement, and the result is the dramatic equivalent of drawing a stupid mustache on what I thought, up till then, had been a rather compelling sketch of a villain.

But I can't demerit it too strongly when it also features so much that I truly loved.  95% of the jokes do land.  Groot's sequences have a tendency to get outright Spielbergian in their wonderment, and one moment in particular, because it is merely a moment disconnected from the narrative, and nothing like the despicable foreshadowing I feared it might have been, is likely the single most heartwarming bit I've seen in a movie all year.  And, much like my beloved Europa Report, Guardians also features a vacuum-of-space scene where no one's fucking head explodesand if they go overboard on the CGI ice and the magically-disappearing ocular trauma, it's still better than the alternative posed by Outland or Total Recall.

Not that they weren't cool as all hell, but I demand extreme scientific accuracy in a movie about a guy named "Starlord."

It's those elements that elevate a rather goofy comedy (with some real staging problems in its space battles) to something legitimately kind of great all the same.  Disney has been, all in all, good to us these past few years, for they gave us John Carter and Thor, our last two great theatrical space operas, as well.  At the same time, I won't deny that the comedy that does work in Guardians also elevates its space operatics in its turn.

Of course, there is also something of the very deliberately derivative to Guardians, though, and even if I was able to forget about Adam Warlock for all of two hours, there was no way I was ever going to stop being aware of the enormous debt James Gunn owes Joss Whedon.  Look carefully at Chris Pratt, too, and ask yourself if he is not consciously synthesizing Nathan Fillion and Alan Tudyk into some kind of well-built, metajoke-cracking geek omnibus.  Should we fear what he will become?  Time will tell.

But why shouldn't Gunn take Whedon's lead?  Firefly was rad, and this is rad too.  If Gunn seems only to have learned the quip and the self-reference, and failed to emulate the genuinely mythic story Whedon told, and told expertly, in his cinematic run at space opera, this is only why Guardians is not a perfect film like Serenity.  (I am willing to concede, before you get upset, that Serenity is only a perfect film to those who had seen all of Firefly already.)

No, perfect it is not, even wanted it was not, but Guardians of the Galaxy won my broken little heart anyway.  It is the best of Marvel's Phase 2 so far, and my enthusiasm is beginning to return to this mismanaged universe like life's blood itself.

Score:  8/10


  1. Wow, so much context blazing into my skull. I'm surprised my brain survived reading this review. I've never been big on comics themselves, so this is really interesting to learn about.
    I absolutely agree with the questionable staging in the space battles, but I had a blast watching this film. I want to vote Chris Pratt for next James Bond. See if that doesn't spice things up.
    Also congratulations on this prolific week you've been having! I am duly impressed.

    1. "Wow, so much context blazing into my skull. I'm surprised my brain survived reading this review."

      I'm just pleased I managed to get a superhero film review in under 2k. The only time I ever did that was when I was able to apportion my "let's talk about comic book history forever apparently" stuff over five entries of the Spider-Man series. And a couple still breached an appropriate word count. Well, the point is, it beats reading books.

      "I absolutely agree with the questionable staging in the space battles, but I had a blast watching this film. I want to vote Chris Pratt for next James Bond. See if that doesn't spice things up."

      His vault into beefiness is certainly some kind of miracle. I've decided that what I need to do is get cast for a superhero movie, then Disney will pay to have someone shadow and shame me for four to six hours a day until I look amazing. Dunno about Bond. But maybe if they remade Casino Royale... No, the other one. The weird one.

      "Also congratulations on this prolific week you've been having! I am duly impressed."

      Thanks! It's basically a case of being able to get out to darn movies in a serious way for the first time in a little while and clearing out all my Criterion buys that I would talk about, except if I ever opened my mouth about Investigation of a Citizen Under Suspicion all that would come out would be "Well, I watched Suspiria once. This is kind of like that, but not really at all. Sproing?"

  2. I saw this on the long weekend (Happy Heritage Day!), and I have to say I was really impressed. Sure, there were minor quibbles I could have made about the adherence to the great cosmic mythos that was crafted throughout the 70s and 80s, but I found that I liked this movie for what it was. For some reason, I got the feeling that Pratt's character was an amalgamation of Peter Quill and Richard Rider, although I'm not 100% sure why. Maybe the Gamora thing? I think there's also potential to bring Moondragon in down the line. Really, I felt like they all got some really good moments, although I felt that Gamora suffered a bit by being 'the girl'. Couple that with some dynamite supporting performances by Rooker's Yondu and the Nova Corps members. They probably made a good decision by having the Nova Corps be more like the Xandarian police/military rather than being the Green Lantern Corps of human rockets. I would have liked it the other way, but I can certainly understand why they would want to avoid any resemblence to the worst superhero film of all time. But I do think we'll meet Richard Rider in a sequel.

    Two points that I found interesting: The Collector was in the movie for about 3-4 minutes, despite being heavily featured in promo material and the scene at the end of Thor 2. Also, did it seem to you that Thanos looked a little bit off? Kinda cartoony? Like the limbs weren't quite jointed right? Maybe it was the chair he was sitting in, but something seemed off. Given how well they did the Hulk, I don't know what they did different here but it doesn't seem right. After all, Thanos and the Hulk should have roughly the same body type.

    Also, I've always pronounced it 'Thay-nos', not 'Than-os' That kept bothering me throughout the film.

    1. The thing about the newer Marvel cosmic stuff is that I've just never read it, since, sure, maybe Comics Used to be Good, but also Comics Used to be Reasonably Priced. Still, I enjoyed Abnett and Lanning when they did their LSH work, at least to some degree (though they always suffered immensely from inappropriate/less than entirely adequate art, and in their brief Threeboot run, from coming in after Waid and Kitson had shown us all the way).

      I guess it's easy enough to understand why Marvel didn't do Warlock--Starlin's Warlock books are basically the story of a cosmic sad sack. Now, this is why he's probably my favorite comic book character, but general audiences seem only to really respond to that if it's Batman.

      (I also am unsure if Disney even owns the rights to Warlock, since as I reckon you know, he did originate in the Fantastic Four's book as "Him"--but to what extent his rebranding as Warlock puts him outside Fox' ambit is a matter for either a contract or IP lawyer, and I am neither. It does make me wanna qualify a little bit what I said a couple months ago about being satisfied with the partition of the Marvel Universe between the studios: the X-Men can stay where they are, but it's a pity the FF belong to Fox.)

      Re: the Nova Corps. I was a little dorkily bummed when they didn't all turn out to be flying superhumans. I thought that might've been where they were going, with a great army of superpowered cannon fodder for Ronan and his Infinity Gem.

      Re: Gamora, I agree a bit. I think it's more a matter of her having to play the straight (wo)man to four outrageous cartoons with outsized comedic traits, however. They needed someone to be relatively grounded, and in the tradition of male writers everywhere they made the girl fill that role. And as far as Saldana's extraterrestrial roles I think she winds up with more to do than Uhura or whatever he Na'vi lady's name was.

      Re: the Collector. I honestly wonder if his role was reduced from the first drafts of the script to accommodate Ronan. That is, that the Collector was originally Thanos' minion, but in order to minimize the already-very-heavy Mystery Men vibe they rewrote it so that the villain was decidedly straightlaced, rather than a real Casanova Frankenstein.

      Re: Thanos. YES. I don't know what they were doing. The chair was great, but Thanos looked... weird.

      P.S.: it is Than-os. Actually, I used to have a friend that said "Tay-nos" because he was a pompous ass.
      P.P.S.: I really need to get around to seeing Green Lantern.

    2. I actually liked the 90s Legion too. Something about their cast of thousands just appealed to me. Back when they were running Legion of Super Heroes and Legionnaires, they had a team that was even bigger than X-Men big. Sure, they weren't producing the greatest stuff ever written back then, but this is DC. You have to grade on the curve.

      I agree with you on the rights issue. It's a good thing that the X-Men are their own little universe where they can be hated and feared by world that doesn't understand them, without us having to wonder why Iron Man doesn't show up and get embarrassed by Magneto. And nobody cares about Spiderman. But the Fantastic Four were kind of Marvel's flagship book in spirit, even after it long ceased to be in sales. Huge portions of their universe were launched out of those books or tied heavily into them. I would wonder about the subsidiary character rights though. Sure, Fox has the FF, Dr. Doom, the immediate supporting cast and, alas, Galactus and the Silver Surfer (that would be a fun movie, albeit even sadder than Warlock), but what does it take for them to own the rights to a character? Do they own Black Panther, who first appeared in an FF book?

      I'm sure they felt that a superheroic Nova Corps would detract from the very sci-fi atmosphere they've created for the film. Really, every scene in the film where they appeared would have worked just fine with human rockets flying around, but then they wouldn't have been quite the work-a-day cops that they were portrayed as so well, especially by John C Reilly.

      You can see Green Lantern, but it suffers heavily from not being sure if it's a movie that takes place in space or a movie that takes place on Earth. They could straddle the line in the old comics because they were releasing a monthly publication for decades, so you had time to tell both sci-fi stories and superhero stories. In a 2-hour film, you have to be a little more focused.

      And now I have to go watch Mystery Men. Again.

    3. Best Legion is Threeboot. Well, the best Legion is the cartoon, but that may not count.

      You mentioned Black Panther, and that's something Marvel's been rumored to be making (or it may even be confirmed), so it can't just be "the owner of the rights to wherever you appeared first owns the rights to you." I suppose there's probably a very long exhibit attached to the contracts specifying which characters the deals include.

      Also apparently Warlock's cocoon is visible aboard the Collector's ship. Shee-it.

      And we should all watch Mystery Men. What a fun, underrated--indeed unfairly maligned--movie that is.

      P.S. I care about Spider-Man. Well, movie Spider-Man. Comic book Spider-Man can eat me.