Cosmo enjoyed this . . .
It is no secret around the virtual corridors of NBC that I am a huge fan of Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning’s revitalization of Marvel’s cosmic universe. Taking the reins from Keith Giffen, they produced some of the best Marvel comics of the past decade. Their run may have ended prematurely, yet, DnA left their mark on the cosmic line. Their lasting influence reached new heights this weekend with the release of the Guardians of the Galaxy film adaptation. (While various comics creators are thanked in the credits, DnA are the only ones whose works are acknowledge as part of the screenplay credit).
When Marvel first announced that they were using these comics as the basis for a Guardians of the Galaxy movie, I was cautiously excited. I wanted very much for this movie to be amazing. See, I am not simply a fan of DnA, but a fan of the whole Marvel cosmic line in general. Thus, my hope for the film was not just to see a great Guardians story, but also one that would kick open the door to the larger cosmic sphere. (Or at least as much of it that is not owned by Fox). And I am happy to report that, for the most part, the film succeeds on both counts.
The story opens with a brief flashback to 1988, where a boy named Peter Quill is sitting in a hospital, listening to a mix tape on his Walkman. After a moment, his grandfather guides him to visit Peter’s ailing mother, Meredith. Peter witnesses his mother’s death and, grief-stricken rushes away. It is at this point that his life goes from tragic to weird, as a huge space ship appears out of nowhere, and sucks the young boy inside with a tractor beam.
Flash-forward to the present where the adult Peter, calling himself Star-Lord and played by Chris Pratt, prowls a desolate planet in search of a mysterious “orb.” Well, prowl is not exactly the right word. Queuing up a tune on his old childhood Walkman, Peter dances his way through a cavern, interacting with various small creatures (including using one as a mic stand-in) along the way. Things turn more serious once he secures the orb, however, as he discovers Korath the Pursuer has, well, pursued him. This extended opening sequences establishes the dual tones of comedy and action that run throughout the film. To the credit of director James Gunn and his very able cast, these potentially clashing registers blend together quite well. One moment, you’re watching Pratt slide across screen, the next he is just as grandly out-smarting his would-be captors. Neither mood seem out of place.
From here, the story travels to Xander, the home world of the Nova Corps, as various pieces of the plot are moved into place. Peter scams his old mentor and friend Yondu, which results in a bounty being placed on Peter’s head. This reward money, in turn, catches the eyes of Rocket Raccoon and his buddy Groot. Meanwhile, conflicting interests hatch their plans to gain possession of the orb. One of these interested parties dispatches Gamora to retrieve the coveted item. Gunn, who wrote the script along with Nicole Perlman, does a good job of juggling these various narrative strands. While the future Guardians are tossed together quickly, the writers take their time building their characters, allowing them to grow at ease with each other gradually. The result is a team formation which feels organic and natural.
Credit for this achievement must, of course, be shared with the actors. As already mentioned, Pratt makes a convincing Star-Lord. The fact that he is an actor equally at home in either a romantic comedy or a military thriller aids him well here, as he conveys both sides of Peter’s personality (the humor and the heroics) with equal believability. As expected, Zoe Saldana makes a good Gamora, tough as nails, though also arguably the most compassionate member of the team. Bradley Coper continues his winning streak, as his voice work is one of the stand-out performances in the film. The writers give him a character that is funny, wily and affectionate in equal measures and Cooper runs with it. It also helps that he and Vin Diesel have a great dynamic together. Yes, Diesel only has three words (OK, there is a fourth in one scene), yet, the actor does vary their delivery according to mood. Having now heard it, I have a hard time imagining Groot sounding any other way. Then there is Dave Bautista. When his casting was first announced, I was worried it indicated that Gunn’s version of Drax would be a silent bruiser, lacking the articulation or personality given to him in the comics. I was pleasantly surprised to discover otherwise. While not the same as DnA’s Drax, Bautista’s is an engaging character. I enjoyed his presence in this film, and look forward to seeing more of him in the future.
The movie is also stuffed with secondary characters. Some of these such as John C Reilly’s Nova corpsman helps out with some plot points, but does not add much to the film. Similarly, the great British comedian Peter Serafinowicz is pretty much wasted as in his Nova Corps role. On the more positive side, Benicio del Toro is delightful as The Collector. Del Toro turns in a fun off-beat performance which might have looked completely out of place in his Thor 2 mid-credits scene, but here feels entirely at home. His time in the movie was too brief, mostly serving to fill in some exposition. Hopefully, Marvel Studios is not quite done with the character. Also noteworthy is Michael Rooker as Yondu. Again, like Drax, this is not a purist take on the character, but, within the film, works quite well.
One of my few quibbles with the movie, though, are the revisions to the character of Ronan. One of the aspects of Ronan which has always appealed to me is his nobility. Gunn and Perlman strip that away turning him instead into a “fanatic” who believes that instead of signing peace treaties with Xander, the Kree should be annihilating them. Admittedly, the idea does work within the logic of the film. Also, the design for Ronan is fantastic, and Lee Pace plays him well. Still, I feel that it was a missed opportunity for the character. It also reveals a potential weaknesses with the cosmic side of the Cinematic Universe. The Kree’s eons old rivals the Skrulls cannot appear as they belong to the Fantastic Four license at Fox. I am guessing that Marvel’s other big galactic empire, the Shi’ar, are probably tied up with the X-Men rights (also at Fox). If so, Marvel will need to get creative to find competitors for the Kree, which is probably why we got the conflict with Xander in Guardians. However, in the movie, Xander is just sort of dropped into the story without ever explaining what exactly it or the Nova Corps are. Also, those of you hoping for flying human rockets, you’re going to be disappointed . . .
That said, the space ships that are created for the Nova Corps are pretty great, as is the design work throughout the film. Again, this is established early in the movie, when Peter first touches down on the barren planet. The sky is a dark hazy color, while geysers launch water at random intervals. It feels like a place, not simply globs of digital painting. A similarly impressive bit of world building is when the Guardians first fly through Knowhere. This is a movie which is lovely to look at. Most outstanding, though, is the CGI for Rocket and Groot. The detailed, expressive rendering of both characters is probably the most impressive we have seen so far in a Marvel movie. It is brilliant artistic work, which when coupled with the voice talents, creates two individuals who are truly alive on screen.
Finally (and as always, no spoilers), there is a bonus scene all the way at the end of the credits. Unlike Winter Soldier, this is not step forward to another movie, but circles back around to a supporting character from this one. The resulting sequence is something I never saw coming, and was well worth waiting out the credits for. I recommend that you do as well (the audience I saw the film with gave the scene possibly the loudest cheer of the whole movie).
Overall, this was another enjoyable entry into Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. For me, it might not be quite as good as Winter Soldier, however, the two films are working within different genres. And, as such, we have another reason for Marvel Studios’ continued success. The Dark World riffed on fantasy motifs, while Winter Solider channeled the paranoid thrillers of the 70s. Guardians of the Galaxy on the other hand, is rollickin’ sci-fi. All superheroes stories, yes, but told in different manners. Next May, Avengers 2 promises to shift the tone to something more somber (even apocalyptic if recent reports from San Diego are to be believed), before relocating to the more comedy & caper vibe of Ant-Man. Just as Marvel’s comics universe is a vast one, encompassing different voices, their cinematic one is as well. This week, Guardians of the Galaxy does its part by expanding that diversity just a little bit further.