Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

by Will Ross

Ten feature films in, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has solidified its scope and range more than perhaps any franchise of comparable scale has before, and for all its flaunting of effects and catastrophes, it’s proven a very narrow range indeed. Though blockbuster series have fallen under the close watch of branding before, the MCU may be unique in the sheer intensity of its efforts; in spite of their “universal” moniker, these films never venture farther from each other than the aggressive rubber banding of their continuity allows.

For the most part, both critics and the public seem to have accepted this, and when discussing the series’s merits, standards are kept in a vacuum: Captain America: The Winter Soldier was generally praised as a major stylistic departure for taking a couple camera cues from Jason Bourne movies. Marvel has set and distributed its own grading curve. It doesn't insist so much that it be taken on its own terms as it does on the a priori merit of those terms.

The latest entry is fairly self-contained, and though this frees it from the other films’ irritating pan-referential cameos, Guardians of the Galaxy is quick to remind us of its trappings: the film begins before the studio logo, showing the origin of a little boy visiting his hospitalized, dying mother. After her melodramatic death, he runs outside in tears, a UFO descends to abduct him, and up comes the Marvel Studios logo with accompanying fanfare; a clearer, more open proclamation of “this movie is primarily characterized by its studio,” I have never seen. It’s a ghastly intrusion of financial structure into art (the intrusion, most tellingly, is for “MARVEL STUDIOS”, not a more understandably titular “MARVEL CINEMATIC UNIVERSE”), but in a way it’s honest: these movies have constantly signposted their blockbuster appeal, and enough people have paid $10 to see Marvel throw money into a mold so that it makes sense to self-legitimize their ethos of marketing corporatized product.

That makes it very hard to see where James Gunn’s direction succeeds and fails on its own agency and personality, and where he's just running the gauntlet ordained by Kevin Feige. Guardians is very much modeled on The Avengers: a rag-tag group must learn to set aside their differences and co-operate to stop a galactic wannabe-god who’s acquired an ancient artifact that grants world-conquering power. Like Avengers, its solution to its bizarre ensemble is to take a more comedic tack with its characters, though despite being heavily pushed as the goofball entry in the Marvel canon, it’s far more reverent than Joss Whedon’s refreshingly light handle on the material.

Here, most of the outlandishness comes less from the bizarreness of the characters than their newness to the general public; let’s remember that the film features Peter Quill, a human man (Chris Pratt), Gamora, an alien who is exactly like a human except for being green (Zoe Saldana), Drax, an alien who is exactly like a human except for being grey and strong (Dave Bautista), Rocket, a talking raccoon (Bradley Cooper), and a dumb humanoid tree named Groot (Vin Diesel). Only two of those are at all goofy for Marvel, and they’re not that much a stretch.

What’s more, only Rocket and Quill have much character to begin with. Though Guardians moves efficiently to form its band of misfits, the chemistry is more or less set when those two sardonic wisecrackers get together, and happily, they are not identical personalities. The rest are just foils: Drax is a slightly nicer, slightly less dumb Hulk, Groot is a much nicer and even dumber Hulk, and Gamora is plainly just the romantic interest. Indeed, Saldana’s is a pitifully thankless role. Her sole purpose is to be the object of desire (and occasional expositor) in an adolescent male power fantasy, and if you think I’m being cynical, consider her conspicuous exclusion from the film’s merchandise.

That can all be just fine (well, the Gamora thing would still sting) in an effective, exciting action adventure that doesn’t foreground its characters, but Guardians doesn’t deliver there. Being a Marvel joint, there is absolutely no sense of physical danger whatsoever (it’s not even a spoiler anymore to say nobody worth half a damn ever dies in these movies, despite their emphatic continuity). It doesn’t come off aesthetically, either; few of its moving parts show much unity or discipline, or divergence from the studio's cursed house style. The soundtrack choices are rote passages from classic rock standards, the visuals are overloaded by colours and a busy, unfocused camera, and the action scenes are toothless collections of disjointed beats (save for one brief moment involving spacecraft ramming through each other that ranks as the film’s only grounded, inventive piece of choreography).

There’s a good handful of inspired comic moments — mostly quips and straight-man reactions from Quill and Rocket — and the sense of timing and delivery in these moments is easily the film’s strongest point. But even these are more standalone, scattered jokes than a consistent sense of humour tying in with and advancing the story, so the film banks pretty hard on its “forming a team and putting aside selfishness is good” message. And, fine, that’s an okay message, but it’s a little hard to invest in that without the rest of the film working to earn our interest. There’s so little real thoughtfulness afforded to anything in Guardians of the Galaxy, except how to maximize its pull on demographics and create merchandising opportunities. The flashes of good ideas are subservient to the whole, which, as usual, never had a chance to really soar when it was towed all the way by the Marvel machinery.


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