Marvel Studios, the film company established to mine the depths of the Marvel comic book empire, has been on a roll lately. With a vast treasure trove of characters beloved by fanboys and adults alike, the studio has brought us a seemingly unending stream of action movies, including the Avengers franchise and its many spinoffs – Ironman, Thor, Captain America, etc. And I will give them credit – most of these movies are earnest, well made films that remain true to the comic books upon which they are based, offering plenty of action, explosions, aliens and other good v. evil scenarios. But to-date, I think it is fair to say that they have been a little TOO earnest. OK, let’s be honest: most of these films are just plain pretentious. With the exception of Robert Downey’s Ironman, there is hardly a whiff of comedy, much less real fun. Until now.
‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ is Marvel’s latest offering and it is the ‘anti-Avengers’. The film follows a group of rouges and scoundrels with limited – if any – superpowers who bond together under extreme circumstances to, literally, save the galaxy. But the best part of the story is that no one here is doing the saving for God, country or some valorous code. They all just want to be able to continue being scoundrels! No galaxy, no one to rob, cheat, or steal from. And it is this premise that makes the story so much fun to watch – anti-heroes doing the right thing for the wrong (or at least questionable) reasons. And having a jolly good time in the process. The wise cracks flow, the jibes are endless, the double-crosses consistent – and yet there is a distinct ‘band of brothers’ (and a sister) flavor to the group. Bad seed brothers and sisters, but a band nonetheless.
This motley crew is ostensibly led by Chris Pratt, a human (or so we are led to believe) taken from earth as a child and raised by space scavengers. While Pratt consistently asks to be addressed as ‘Star Lord’, he is little more than a smuggler and thief, roaming the galaxy as plain Peter Quill. In the process, he comes into possession of an orb whose powers are key to controlling all of the power in the universe. With such a valuable object in his possession, many of course pursue him, including a sultry, green assassin Gamora, played by Zoe Saldana. Both are captured and thrown into prison where they meet super-thief and chief wise-cracker Rocket Raccoon – a CGI creation voiced by Bradley Cooper; Rocket’s ‘muscle’ and sidekick Groot, a tree-like creature voiced by Vin Diesel; and Drax, a hyper-articulate beast of a humanoid creature played by wrestler Dave Bautista. Out of the necessity of survival, the five become a team, breaking out of prison, tracking down the orb, defeating the evil Ronan who would use the orb’s powers to destroy peaceful societies, and restoring balance to the universe – you get the picture.
And the plot is, frankly, unimportant. You’ve seen it plenty of times before and you know the beginning, the middle and the end. What makes this film so engaging is the way the five key players come together by necessity, act together while never really trusting each other, and succeed together by allowing their better instincts to overrule their baser ones. And all the time, they are at each other’s throats – verbally and physically. The banter among the five is worthy of a week of SNL skits: I have not laughed so hard at an action movie in ages – if ever. And the seamless integration of the CGI characters and the live ones is a tour de force of modern filmmaking. Rocket and Groot become integral, vibrant characters the equal of any of the members of the team. I can easily see Rocket and Groot in a spin off film of their own someday (but not until after the ‘Guardians’ sequel, which has already been booked for 2016).
In addition to the core characters, there are a number of wonderful cameos throughout the film. Glenn Close, as the leader of the peaceful alliance, has a hairdo that is worth the price of admission by itself. And Michael Rooker as Quill’s captor, mentor, nemesis and, ultimately, partner is wonderful as a reject from the Blue Man Group. Other recognizable faces include Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly and Benicio del Toro (I dare you to find him!) and even the Godfather himself, Stan Lee (again, I dare you).
‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ was considered a bit of a crapshoot for Marvel. The main characters are among the least well known in the Marvel canon, and their lack of true superpowers make them pale next to the big boys and girls as iconic figures. But the $100 million dollar opening weekend should send a strong signal to the Marvel – and Disney – powers that be, that a comic book themed film that does not take itself so seriously has great audience potential. ‘Guardians’ is a film that the whole family can enjoy together – much like the best of the Pixar films. There is something for everyone, without offending anyone. I hope that the studios will take note, and give us more for our money in the future. I am ready for the sequel tomorrow; but will have to bide my time with another viewing or two – I am sure I did not get all of Rocket’s wisecracks the first time around, nor understood the relationships among all of the many and varied characters. And isn’t that what makes a good film: one that you are immediately ready to see again?
I will make one last pitch for “Slingshot”, the documentary about inventor Dean Kamen that was produced and directed by my friend and classmate Paul Lazarus. ‘Slingshot’ is showing in the new Lowe Theater in the Black Art Center on Friday night at 7.00pm, and tickets are available from the Hop. This is an outstanding, award-winning look into the world of a great inventor, who is seeking to solve the critical problems in the world – in this case the problem if pure drinking water in remote parts of the world. Come join us on Friday. Paul will be present, and ready to take your questions and comments.