Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

If we run through a superficial description of Guardians of the Galaxy, it sounds a hell of a lot like The Lego Movie. Chris Pratt plays a likable nobody who acquires an artifact that makes him the target of a manhunt.  He accidentally assembles a team of misfits and they embark on an epic battle upon which they learn the relative merits of teamwork, the strengths of their own unique brands of weird, and the importance of a good pop song.  Throw in a love interest, a raspy bit of extra muscle, and a talking animal (heeeyy, Unikitty!) and you're even closer.  

Of course, The Lego Movie is built to play off of the tropes of so many action movie origin stories, and I don't mean to suggest that Guardians necessarily follows those rules. It's more of a misfit piece in the Marvel canon, pulled from a relatively recent comic book iteration of an already obscure team.  Though the origin story patterns may repeat a bit, Guardians plays fast and loose with formula.  Where we've become used to muscle-bound dudes battling out political issues and repping masculinity, for example, the origin story here is one that doesn't fit the stock Avengers-style construct.  There's no real ascension to power or acquiring of mutation, and the only characters to come out of a mad science experiment gone wrong aren't all-powerful super-soldiers...they're a jabbering raccoon and a magical walking tree. The buff white guy at the group's center is less a leader by any display of skill or power and much more so the type who simply brings folks together accidentally. He's just an affable dude, and -weirdly- there's something unique about this.  

As Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord, Pratt skips around the galaxy thieving objects, dancing to a mixtape made for him by his dead mother, and bedding ladies.  That's about the extent of it.  He has aspirations towards being a recognizable, legendary outlaw, but their mostly of his own design.  Quill has no real powers to speak of, no skill outside of the occasional smart-ass retort, and his pecs? Mostly used to seduce.  He's not particularly smart, driven, or tough, but he comes across as somehow well-meaning, even when his acts are criminal.  When a public brawl finds him locked up with the bounty hunters on his tail, Quill transitions quickly to warily accepting Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) out of something like fascination.  Though they'd made attempts on his life, Quill quickly recognizes their strengths and is naively willing to trust them in a half-baked escape plan.  It's this willingness to recognize the abilities of others and, against better judgment, to stand up for those getting a raw deal that finds Quill at the unlikely center of an even more unlikely team.  Add revenge-minded Drax (Dave Bautista) into the mix and the only thing holding the self-titled 'Guardians of the Galaxy' together is a string of agendas at the center of which is Peter Quill's ability to reason.

 The "team of misfits" (or, "team of rivals") arrangement certainly isn't new in the world of the action movie, but Guardians offers an assortment so random and unusual that it's a wonder it works at all.  Everything here lends itself to the cartoonish; Groot's repetitive incantation of his own name, the sprites he seems to release from his roots, the gun-toting woodland creature, Gamora's bright green skin, the kitschy use of Blue Swede's "Hooked on a Feeling."  It's all a far cry from the heaviness lately imposed on the genre, and there's something bold and refreshing in the brightly colored way Guardians so clearly doesn't give a shit.  Science? Fuck that. Explanation? What the hell do you think you're watching? High drama? No, the movie is concerned with fun first and jokes second.  From there it's anyone's guess, but it nails the first two components and quickly establishes itself as a summer movie force to be reckoned with.  It's the sort of sloppy entertainment that offers a little something for every taste, and though its straight appeal may gun for the trifecta of nerds, kids, and stoners, it charms without effort. 

Sometimes, that's all that really matters.  Guardians of the Galaxy isn't quite as slick and smart as The Avengers or the latest Captain America, but what it lacks in cohesion it makes up for in likability.  The opening scene suggests that the franchise wears its heart on its sleeve, and when we chip away a bit at the grimy crusts of the characters, that proves to be the case. Each member of the team brings something endearing to the table, and it's surprising how much range Vin Diesel can squeeze into "I am Groot" or how amusing Drax's warlord literalisms manage to be.  By the end, they all fit.  Together, they can overcome anything.  From questionable screenwriting to spastic editing to the challenge of taking on a genocidal megalomaniac, the Guardians are here to save the day.

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