This is the second in a series of blogs I’ve called “A Year of Unlimited”, which isn’t perhaps the catchiest way to put it, but encapsulates my attempts to blog about every film I see while I’m signed up to the Unlimited service: the first was for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
If you have a functioning brain and eyes, and even a passing interest in cinema, you can’t fail to have witnessed the phenomenon that has been comic book/superhero cinema. And since 2008, this has been dominated by Marvel, who decided that, despite having seen its characters star in films since Blade in 1999 (including the Spiderman, X-Men and Fantastic Four movies), it would start making films itself with its own studio with Iron Man.
Flash forward to 2014, and through tying everything together in a shared universe, and hiring impressive acting and directing talent, is reaping benefits – super-team-up The Avengers is the third-highest grossing film of all time, and Robert Downey Jr. is now the highest paid actor in the world, netting over $50 million for The Avengers ALONE. Fairly successful really!
Whilst every new Marvel film’s hype oscillates between “oh hell yeah” (Avengers) and “meh” (Thor: The Dark World), the films keep bringing in the dosh, and instead of more superheroes, Marvel took a gamble and indulged in its Star Wars-esque back catalogue of space stories for Guardians of the Galaxy. Both Marvel and DC decided at some point that not all characters need be from Earth, and so a fair amount of both companies’ comics feature many weird and wonderful alien species.
The story? Your typical action movie plot (object is powerful, bad people want to kill innocent people with it, good/dysfunctional people have to stop it and find their courage on the way) injected with quite a lot of mad, weird fun that reminded me of what it was like to watch Star Wars for the first time.
Peter Quill is a human kid in 1988 not coping with the fact that his mum is terminally ill, and in a pre-credits scene he’s somewhat abruptly abducted by a spaceship. 20-odd years later, he’s an intergalactic Indiana Jones/Han Solo-type outlaw, and through acquiring said aforementioned plot-moving object (the “Orb”), ends up working alongside/against a motley crew of alien creatures, including what can best be described as: a very angry man (Drax), a green female assassin (Gamora), a walking, talking racoon (Rocket) and a Tolkien-like tree creature who can only say three words (Groot).
In other words, this seemed like a strange film to suddenly catapult into an established, well-known series of movies. But with the film’s critical and financial success, people clearly aren’t put off. For what it’s worth, there should probably be a disclaimer: if you don’t like Marvel movies or anything even resembling science-fiction or Star Wars, this is not the film for you.
For those of us who enjoy all three, or even one or two of those things, this is a great(ish) film that I feel could have been a lot more. It is perhaps the worst thing that the people behind the new Star Wars film could possibly have envisaged, because at times it’s both more funny and less serious than that series has become – and has the advantage of being ridiculously child-friendly as well as building on Marvel’s pre-existing movie universe.
US comedy star Chris Pratt plays Peter Quill, and he’s very well-cast – he hits the point between attractive badass, serious hero and goofy moron pretty well, and I think he has that area of the acting market covered! Zoe Saldana does well with what she’s given as Gamora (yet another female character that deserves more) and does manage to subvert some of the cliches when it comes to attractive women in a male-dominated action film. Casting Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel as the voices of the aforementioned racoon and tree (it’s hard to believe that’s a sentence I can be writing about a modern blockbuster) works well: Cooper manages to make this angry, tortured little sarcastic joke of a character become almost the best thing about the film with his voice alone, and Diesel makes you forget about The Fast and the Furious etcetera by actually managing to produce humour, emotion and feeling with only three words. Finally, former WWE wrestler Dave Bautista, as angry man Drax, is surprisingly good as a man driven by revenge who does not understand metaphors – his scenes were among the most entertaining in the film, and Dwayne Johnson may face some competition in the wrestler-turned-actor stakes.
The villains of the piece are where the film starts to go wrong, and this is a problem Marvel can’t quite get past. Lee Pace’s Ronan the Accuser looks like a man with an item of lingerie on his face, and whilst I was able to get past that, he’s just another aggrieved, fundamentalist bad guy – no shades of grey, nothing interesting. Likewise, Karen Gillan’s Nebula looks cool, but is probably in the film for about five minutes all told, and there’s more that could have been done with the relationship between her and Gamora. Marvel likes to show off how its heroes don’t get along and focus on them, which is the right idea – but they don’t often work on making a villain either tragic or interesting, with the exception of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki – who they haven’t been able to top (and I doubt they will).
A lot of bit-part characters pop up played by some impressive actors – Glenn Close, Benicio del Toro and John C. Reilly in a Marvel movie?! – and other recognisable faces like Michael Rooker (The Walking Dead) and Peter Serafinowicz give the film some extra character and humour. But what I’d have liked to see is more time spent with all of the characters – more time spent on the film, letting it breathe and exploring this mad galaxy in a bit of detail. It all felt rushed: as if every time something was interesting, you were suddenly torn away from it to look at something else.
This ties into the effects and the direction – this was a more shiny, vibrant and lived-in universe than sci-fi has offered for a while, and as I said before, the makers of Star Wars Episode VII should be worried, because this universe feels fun, crazy, and above all, alien. Director James Gunn, who was previously known for black comedies and gore-fest horrors, manages to quite adequately balance humour, 80s references and five very different characters, all whilst introducing the very strange cosmic side of Marvel’s film universe, and I think he managed to make a more distinctive movie than many of the other directors Marvel has hired – which is no mean feat. Unfortunately, the film ends much like the previous few Marvel movies – with a big battle in the sky against a big ship – and this, along with the need to introduce the film universe’s big bad character (Thanos, who we see for a few minutes here as an awful CGI thing with the voice of Josh Brolin), takes up time that could have been spent on more detail.
One very specific area that the film gets really right though is the soundtrack. Being an 80s kid abducted with his Walkman in tow, Quill continues to listen to bands including 10cc, the Jackson 5 and more from before and during the 1980s, and the irreverent use of the music in the very alien environs, as well as the incredulous reactions of the characters hearing our hilarious planet’s music add that little extra something to the film beyond the existing humour.
The constant need to link back to other films, as well as check that you’re always laying foundations for future stories, is becoming more of an issue for Marvel, and thankfully this film doesn’t spend too much time on it – but it doesn’t spend much time on anything, and I felt that it could have been truly great if it wasn’t so tied up with finishing at a set point and shoving so much into two hours. It isn’t quite as funny as you might hope it would be despite the pedigree of its stars and director, but that might be due to aiming it at children as well as adults.
Next: The Inbetweeners 2