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August 7, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy: Playing Favorites

So my brother wants to go see the new Ninja Turtles movie, and I now have a sudden urge to find the largest, heaviest item I can carry so I can introduce him to it.  In the percussive sense.

I probably shouldn’t be too surprised, seeing as how he’s the same person who caused me to watch the unthinkably awful RoboCop reboot.  I guess some people never learn, but I figured it was worth another shot.  So I asked him: “If you want to see the Turtles, then why don’t you just watch the cartoons?”  His answer was that the upcoming movie was new.  And I guess that means it’s…better, somehow?  In which case, I’d point his attention elsewhere

Well, it could be good.  But I have my doubts (for any number of reasons).  Setting aside the miserable fate that may await anyone who has even a passing interest in cinema, I can’t help but think back to a statement made by Michael Swaim of Cracked, and a sort of “understood truth” about the Turtles, or characters in general: whichever one is your favorite says a LOT about your personality.  I like Leonardo, for example, and if you’re familiar with the stuff I’ve said here on Cross-Up, this should be no surprise to you.  But beyond that, the important thing is that by identifying deeply with a character, your overall enjoyment of the story is practically destined to increase.

I say all of this because it applies to Guardians of the Galaxy.  Because not only is it a good, good, good, good, good movie, but your enjoyment will inevitably increase…because by movie’s end, you WILL have a favorite.  Guaranteed.

THE REEL OF FATE IS TURNING
SPOILERS -- TONS -- ACTION!

…Because who needs thought and wit when you can just make references?


Speaking personally, I think Guardians of the Galaxy is a hard movie to pin down.  I’ve argued before that the allure and the quality of the recent Marvel movies -- the “Phase Two” fare, especially -- comes from the strong focus on a central hero.  It’s easy to think of these superhero movies as just being a bunch of sound and fury, but they really are “about something”.  And that something comes from being willing to explore the heroes.  Put them through their paces.  It doesn’t take harebrained navel-gazing, and it goes well beyond slotting a popular character into a busted story arc.  Just give them challenges that are unique and meaningful to the hero. 

But Galaxy is different.  It doesn’t have the luxury of putting one hero under the microscope, even if that inherently adds plenty of focus to a story.  It has to work with five, pretty much simultaneously.  That’s not the easiest thing to do, believe you me.  So in a lot of ways, Galaxy is a departure from what Marvel Studios knows pretty well, and has been pumping out consistently before and after The Avengers.  And because of that -- and because of the entire, eyebrow-raising setup of the movie -- I can see why people would think of/call Galaxy “a big risk”.  In a way, you could think of the movie as a sideways step from the master plan.  An anomaly.  A mushroom.


It really doesn’t say good things about the state of the entertainment industry -- movies, video games, or otherwise -- when a movie as openly imaginative, striking, and flat-out weird is considered to be “a big risk”.  It’s almost as if the assumption is that people don’t want to see 1) cool space adventures, 2) a wacky cast of characters, or 3) anything that threatens to be willing to have fun with itself.  (Given that my screening had a slice of a trailer for the next Hunger Games movie, I’d say there are still “expectations” that moviemakers are dead-set on fulfilling.)  And really, didn’t The Avengers prove years ago that we CAN have color, humor, excitement, and fun in our movies -- AND succeed because of it?

So in that regard, I don’t think Galaxy is as big a risk as others have suggested -- because at its basest, it’s just The Avengers with a different cast, while stripping away the requirement of a moviegoer needing to see three other movies to know who’s who and what’s what.  Actually, scratch that; Galaxy plays out almost like an affectionate parody of The Avengers.  It has a lot of the same basic ideas, conceits, and trajectory, but plays up its fair share of the elements.  So if you’re looking for a two-sentence summary of the movie (without spoilers), here it is: If you liked The Avengers, you’ll like this movie a whole lot.  If you didn’t, then you’d better stay away, because it’s almost a mirror image.

Okay?  Okay.  Now, let’s dig deep into this movie.


The story starts with Peter Quill, AKA Star-Lord, taking on a job to find and snag a mysterious orb to give back to his scumbag boss and the rest of his scumbag group of thieves.  But as these things tend to go, the orb he steals is actually something that no shortage of malcontents would like to get their hands on, because it contains incredible power.  (The orb is just a container for one of the Infinity Stones -- the purple one, meaning it’s the Space Stone.) 

Quill just wants to sell it to get his hands on the cash, but it’s not long before he crosses paths with the green assassin Gamora, bounty hunters Rocket Raccoon and Groot, and Batista Drax the Destroyer.  And as these things tend to go, the band of no-goodniks decide to team up to take the Stone and sell it off/screw up the baddies’ plans/exact revenge…which, of course, leads to them deciding to do the right thing and not just be “a bunch of a-holes.”  Cue galaxy-saving.

No one can accuse Galaxy of being unfamiliar, that’s for sure.  But even if its story beats aren’t exactly revolutionary, they still work.  More importantly, the movie’s good because of the parts, not the frame they’re attached to.  And indeed, there are plenty of good parts.  So let’s talk about them…because I’d assume that’s why you’re here.


For starters, this is more than just a movie that takes place in space; it’s a movie that makes space look freaking amazing.  In the same sense that the Thor movies made Asgard awe-inspiring (dat funeral scene), there are plenty of locales and ships that get the most out of CG tech and those sweet Marvel/Disney dollars.  Knowhere in particular gets top honors from me, because not only is it fully realized in visual form, but it also gets briefly fleshed out in a conversation.  It’s not just a backdrop; it actually had a purpose in the universe’s context.  It was formed from the body of a massive celestial being, and in the years since saw use as a sort of galactic mine.  Minor stuff, sure, but it makes the world feel bigger -- and I hope there’s more like it in the sequel.

It’s also worth noting that this movie was largely the work of James Gunn.  He’s made himself notable via a number of smaller movies, but I know him best as the mind behind Lollipop Chainsaw.  And it shows.  It’s not a stretch to imagine some of the lines/jokes spoken being spoken in that game, but whatever the case, it gives the humor a different sort of tinge from Iron Man 3, or even The Avengers.  (I’d go on to say that Galaxy is the funniest Marvel movie yet, because my cheeks were genuinely sore from all the big dumb smiling I did.)  But the thing that really ties Galaxy and Lollipop together is the soundtrack.  Sure, you’ll get to hear the expected, big whompin’ orchestral tracks, but when Star-Lord isn’t forcibly making you listen to his tapes, the movie itself will provide some poppy tunes.  “Cherry Bomb”, for one, is a holdover from Lollipop.

Yeah.  You could pretty much call this Soundtrack Dissonance: The Movie.


Now, if you’re anything like me, you may know Rocket Raccoon best from Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3.  Sadly, I can confirm that there are no ROCKET-ROCKET-ROCKET SKATES or LOG TRAPs, but the movie’s no worse off for it.  In fact, I’d say that Galaxy lends its own character and spirit to a lot of the fights.  The key word to each of the Guardians’ fighting styles is improvisation; there’s no doubt that some heavy choreography went into each tussle, but it’s played in a way where you can’t help but feel like these people are making up the plan as they go along.  There’s something raw, and reactionary, to the way they do things -- a stark contrast to Captain America’s clear-cut skill, Thor’s overwhelming power, or Iron Man’s…love of blasting things, I guess.

Throughout the movie, Quill struck me as a fusion between Batman and Goofy.  Sure, he’s got all the gadgets he needs to pull off a win, but he’s unlucky enough to find himself constantly at a disadvantage, forcing him to rely on tricks and deception…and a rocket-powered drop kick, if you’re into that sort of thing.  In contrast, Drax and Gamora actually know what they’re doing.  Drax Batista fights like he’s having the time of his life, showing off his monstrous strength and bone-crunching brutality; Gamora is significantly more graceful and…flexible…but no less deadly, and has no problems busting out the occasional blade or two.  Groot is positively vicious when you put him in the fight, as you’d expect from a big dumb tree monster.  And I swear, Rocket is about three seconds away from ruining his pants whenever he gets to go all guns blazing.


All right, so is there anything wrong with this movie?  Yes, of course there is.  For one thing, I’m not entirely sold on the main villain, Ronan the Accuser.  He’s menacing and all, and definitely a threat to the Guardians, but I don’t feel like the movie gave us as much of him as there needed to be.  That’s probably a consequence of the Guardians trying to avoid him for the better part of the movie, but for a guy who’s trying to harness the power of the Infinity Stone to right the perceived wrongs created as a result of a galactic peace treaty, he sure doesn’t feel as in-depth as the others. 

He’s better than Malekith from Thor 2, but I’m starting to suspect that -- unless your name is Loki -- the Marvel movies aren’t THAT interested in making a truly compelling villain.  (To be fair, The Mandarin and Alexander Pierce did better.)  But you can get even more out of your heroes by pitting them against some powerful foes; why the Marvel movies have struggled with that is a mystery the size of a small asteroid.

Also, now that I think about it, Ronan is kind of dumb.  He has the Infinity stone for a good portion of the movie, which means the movie’s pretty much over.  But instead of wiping out the Guardians whenever they try to rush him, he just…shoves them aside for some reason?  Jeez, way to make good use of that limitless cataclysmic power.



Also, for some weird reason it feels like there were a lot of lines trying to cram in some exposition, and it didn’t sit well with me.  It goes by fast enough so that you can get back to the stuff that matters, but it was always jarring to meet some character and suddenly have him be possessed by some space-demon so he could say THIS IS MY RELATIONSHIP TO THIS OTHER CHARACTER or THIS IS THE OCCUPATION OF OUR PARTICULAR GROUP. 

It’s easy enough to tune out (and it’s more in the front end of the movie than the back end), but I have to wonder why it’s forced in if it ultimately plays out as inconsequential.  I want those world-building elements, but there has to be a smoother way to offer it than what’s on display in Galaxy.  On the other hand, the obvious method -- and the cheap and lazy shortcut -- would be to make a know-nothing surrogate character for the audience, and that would take away from the appeal of the movie and the core group.  They’re used to all the oddities of the universe.  We might not be, but we can get over that for the sake of a smooth -- and more importantly, quick -- ride.


Whatever the case, I’d bet that people aren’t going to see the movie because they want to learn more about the Dark Aster, the Kree, or the Nova Corps.  (I’d say that they’re laying the groundwork for a Nova movie, but given that he’s pretty much Marvel’s Green Lantern, and the GL movie was…unfortunate…they’ll probably hold off.)  People want to see Galaxy -- and I wanted to see Galaxy -- because they want to see what the Marvel movies have consistently offered for years: cool characters doing cool things

I’d say that the secret to the “formula” is that while other stories get the “cool things” part down, they stumble on the “cool characters” bit.  So it doesn’t matter how many robots get stabbed in Transformers if they’re built around a scrambling, rambling Sam Witwicky.  Galaxy doesn’t just avoid that pitfall; it speeds over it while riding high and dirty in a private jet.

Well, almost.  So let me just go ahead and point out the weak link.


Gamora isn’t a bad character by any means.  If she was in any other movie -- Marvel or otherwise, green skin notwithstanding -- she’d be great.  She’s strong and capable, and not unable to show emotion or good humor, and she gets in her fair share of great lines.  (“We’re just like Kevin Bacon!”)  The problem is that she has to share screen time with four characters that are significantly more interesting, significantly more malleable, and significantly more charming. They’re allowed to be wacky, nutty, and occasionally stupid.  She isn’t.  Her funny lines are almost purely reactionary, the end result of one of the other characters making her respond. 

The movie might have avoided the big pitfall, but its foot slipped into a smaller one with Gamora’s characterization.  She’s the strong, tough, and cool female assassin…and doesn’t really get to break free from that mold.   The quest to create a “strong female character” has claimed another victim, and made another character that’s got “strong” and “female” down, but stumbles with the last one.  To be fair, she does have and help form the team’s emotional core, she comes into her own as the team’s second-in-command, and she’s got a heaping helping of LOYALTY to her name (not to Ronan or her adoptive father Thanos(!), but more to her friends…and common decency).  But while she’s allowed to have fun, she’s not allowed to be fun.  For a movie like Galaxy, that’s a problem.

Still, if you walked away as a fan of Gamora, then I can see why.  And I don’t fault you for it.  She’s just not my favorite.  So let’s move on to the other guys.


I’m wary of saying this, given the presence of Groot, but Drax is the Guardians’ tank.  He’s the heavy bruiser who makes his bloodlust very clear, but what’s important about his character is that even if he is the big guy, he’s surprisingly well-spoken.  Quill calls him a thesaurus at one point, and with good reason; his oft-proper speech makes you wonder just what kind of person he was before Ronan and his cohorts killed his family and he landed in prison.  The long and short of it?  He’s no snarling monster; he’s just way too overzealous, and learns that for himself when he jeopardizes the mission.  Who would have guessed that Batista would be capable of such a performance -- and with it, sincere apologies?

Still, I’ll have to concede a point to my brother here.  He declared before going in that Rocket Raccoon would be the best character, because of course he would be.  And…yeah, he was right.  Rocket pretty much steals the whole show.  Even if he’s not the leader, he has the highest density of funny lines and actions, to the point where I dare someone to list them all.  (Someone’s probably done it on IMDB or something, but whatever.)  He’s a real mover-and-shaker plot-wise, to the point where the Guardians would have lost if not for his antics.  And while he’s the biggest a-hole of the bunch of a-holes, he still gets some of the most heartrending moments in the entire movie.

But I’ll get to that.


For those of you going into the movie expecting the worst of Quill/Star-Lord (as yet another brown-haired white male) I can lay your fears to rest.  He’s more than just a blank slate, and he’s more than just a stand-in.  He’s the leader for a reason; setting aside his antics -- his very first scene after the opening sequence, wherein he watches his mom die, has him dancing like a goof -- he’s the one who genuinely brings the team together.  He’s the spark that turns the criminals into a true family.  And the reason for that is because he uses what not a lot of heroes use: diplomacy.

Based on the movie, I can only assume that -- outside of a small reveal in the movie’s last five minutes -- Quill’s pretty much a normal, if well-armed, guy.  Because of that, and his “fighting style”, and just considering the sorts of enemies he faces in this movie alone, I would think that fighting is his last resort, not his first.  So naturally, he does what he can to diffuse situations before it breaks down into a tussle.  He’ll make deals.  He’ll calm people down.  He’ll negotiate.  There’s something strangely refreshing -- and outright exciting -- about a hero who’s just as willing to use his words instead of brute force.  Couple that with a genuine streak of goodness, and you’ve got the recipe for a cool character.

But he’s not my favorite.  Neither is Rocket.  Not Drax.  Not Gamora.  And of course, that just leaves one more person.  THE BEST CHARACTER.


Hey, get outta here, Blue Merle!  Go play CoDBlops2 or something!


Ah, there we go. 

Groot is the best character.  THE BEST CHARACTERHe may hang out with the wrong crowd (Rocket, and eventually the rest of the Guardians), and he may spend nearly the whole movie as a big dumb tree monster (given how widespread the English language is -- for some reason -- I have a hard time believing there’s something stopping him from saying more than “I am Groot”), but he manages to have the most character despite having the fewest lines.  As they say, actions speak louder than words -- and Groot does plenty to try and steal your heart, no matter how black or crusty it may be.

He’ll use his tree powers to slaughter a whole bunch of goons at once (to the point of excess), but he’ll turn back toward his pals and flash a goofy smile.  He’ll shout “I AM GROOT!” signaling the start of a whompin’ action scene, but prior to that he’ll silently go and grab just what the team needed to escape space-prison  -- just so he can be helpful.  He’ll give a poor girl a flower he grew straight from his body, and when his friends are bumbling around in the dark, he’ll release hundreds of glowing spores -- and inadvertently make a scene that much more heartwarming.  Suffice to say that Groot fills a role that’s much-needed for the Guardians, and in the movie as a whole: he’s a regular-yet-casual reminder (and injector) of the humanity we might not always know we want, but can always appreciate.

And then he dies.  And I almost completely lost it.



The Guardians are in Ronan’s ship, the Dark Aster, while it’s on a crash-course with the planet Xandar.  Prior to the mission (i.e. the climax), the Guardians have all resigned themselves to death, knowing that there’s no way they can take on all of the Accuser’s forces and the Infinity Stone’s latest owner and survive.  But Groot -- being THE BEST CHARACTER -- decides he ain’t havin’ that.  So he hugs his friends close and grows a wooden barrier to protect them all from the crash, all while giving them another soothing light show.  Rocket pleads with him and says that Groot WILL die, but the tree-man doesn’t care.  He just smiles, says “We are Groot”, and…boom.  There goes my soul.

You know, I’d like to think that most people go into a Marvel movie to have a good time.  That’s why I go to see the Marvel movies.  Yeah, I can find good stuff to defend in there -- and consistently, to the point where I’m worried about the day when the hot streak ends -- but I know that whatever intellectual merit I find can’t compare to the basic reason the movies exist: to get the audience hyped.  And I’m fine with that.  I expect that.  But if you told me a year ago, or even a month ago, that I would be fighting back tears, seconds away from shouting “Groot, NOOOOOOOOOOO!” and trying frantically to rationalize the matter (“He’s not dead!  He’ll be back!  He has to be!”), then I would have given you a hearty “Get outta here!”



So there you have it, folks.  Marvel movies.  They can make you laugh.  They can make you cheer.  And now, they can make you cry.

…Oh God.  They’re evolving.


Thankfully (because he is THE BEST CHARACTER, and letting him go would be the biggest folly imaginable), Groot comes back at the very, very end of the movie, reborn as a simple potted plant who loves to shake his groove thang.  He misses out on the climax, as if to create the illusion that he’s actually gone -- even though Galaxy 2 has already been approved -- but he’s still able to be together with his friends.  So yeah, I guess Galaxy, James Gunn, and Marvel at large suckered me.  I don’t even like the whole “heroic sacrifice” trope, but the movie made it so I didn’t even care.  It overrode my sense of reason and logic just so it could punch me in the liver with a fist that would make GutsMan jealous.

But it works.  Know why?  Because it was earned.

It was earned because even if there are faults, and missteps, and gaps in logic, Galaxy -- like any good movie -- can make you look past that.  It has the hype, it has the humor, and, perhaps more than any Marvel movie before it, it has the heart.  This is a story about five incredibly disparate people coming together to do what’s right.  They don’t see eye-to-eye at first, and they have their grudges, and they will argue with one another (WAY more than The Avengers, if that’s your litmus test).  But there’s a reason why the “ragtag heroes from different worlds come together to fight a greater threat” plotline sees so much use -- because when it’s done well, it works like gangbusters.

And make no mistake: it does work well here.  And that’s precisely why I think I’ll put Guardians of the Galaxy somewhere around HERE on my SmartChart™:


So let’s get down to entirely-unnecessary brass tacks.  Is this a good movie?  Yes, of course it is.  I just spent the majority of this post trying to prove that.  But is it the best movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe yet?  That’s going to come down to your personal opinion…and all told, we really should wait until years after the MCU has gotten through its phases, and/or starts winding down.  (Otherwise, we’re just going to be having this conversation every time the next one comes out.)

Speaking personally?  Yeah, I don’t think it’s the best yet.  Winter Soldier edges it out thanks to its -- for lack of a better term -- intelligence, and presents some big ideas alongside the action and (albeit lesser) heart.  Still, Galaxy is better than Iron Man 3 for managing more tonal consistency, as good as or even slightly better than Thor 2 for giving us even more magical worlds (and a slightly-stronger villain), and is overall a worthy successor, if not outright parallel to The Avengers --managing to tread the same amount of ground in what feels like half the time. 

And there you have it.  Agree, disagree, whatever.  I’ve made my peace.  So thanks for reading, and thank God for Groot.

Now then.  Have some manservice to celebrate reaching the end of the post.



Yikesy mikesy.  I suddenly feel bad about myself…

4 comments:

  1. *paralyze audience or corporate interest

    ReplyDelete
  2. A few points of contention I'll get into a little later.

    First of all (because I know that your notifications are probably limited in their purview): there's a new post of mine in "Can a Franchise Be Ruined?"

    Also, don't knock the Watson, or the Know-Nothing, as you called it. Movies rarely have a more efficient vehicle for exposition when their attention is on other things. A lot of the more subtle storytelling tricks of writing a script were dropped in favor of a glossy ride, and what a glossy ride it is. They've taken a bunch of B and C list characters and spun them off into something quite special. It's proof that something like X-Men Days of Future Past no longer should exist. It's proof that the constant crappy Spider-Man reboots shouldn't exist. Exploration of the various and eclectic comic book nooks is preferable to rehashing the same material endlessly. The reason why executives have tended to pass on stuff like Doctor Strange or, well, Guardians of the Galaxy is because they're worried that audiences will tune it out like poor, neglected Hellboy. They haven't -- not this time, at least. That means we're ready to truly enter a fictional *universe,* not a "starter's kit" of beaten-up toys that have long outstayed their welcome.

    Anyway, the vibe you're looking for is M*A*S*H. Characters shooting the shit regardless of the narrative framework around them. Eminently appealing.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Oh, you got a comment in? Good. I don't know what it is about you and Disqus, but it seems like every time you try and say something here, SOMETHING happens and your comment ends up getting eaten or blown up or something. I practically saw it happen before my eyes once; I had one comment on a post, but then when the page finished loading it went "Nope! No comments! Don't even bother checking!" I knew it was yours because I saw it on the Blogger dashboard, but when it's time for me to try and respond -- and sometimes just get a chance to read it? No luck.


    I think I'm going to have to start checking my Disqus dashboard to see if I can respond to your stuff there. You've got some of the most insightful comments I've ever seen, here or elsewhere, and it'd be a damn shame to let you think I wasn't reading them. Even though technically I'm not because Disqus is being a butt, but let's not get bogged down by the details.


    Anyway, let's get back to something positive.


    It is interesting to see how well Guardians of the Galaxy has done with (as far as I know) everyone -- viewers, critics, and even the box office. That's something to be thankful for, and here's hoping some more good comes from it. It's an example worth following, because even if it's not a super-duper-ultra movie, it still does just what you said. To borrow a phrase from the fighting game community, it "exposes the frauds".


    The big question here is what comes next, Marvel or otherwise. Doctor Strange was mentioned in passing in The Winter Soldier, and I would like to see him get a movie somewhere down the line -- if only because I think he's a cool guy (and certainly NOT because I could abuse some of his moves for a cheap win in Marvel vs, Capcom 3). The only qualification is that whoever takes the Sorcerer Supreme or whatever obscure Marvel team/character has to have the skills for it, and put in the care and effort. Otherwise, I'd prefer for them to not even try.


    In all honesty, though? I wouldn't mind seeing a Doom Patrol movie. I know that's DC, and I know as much about them as I do quantum mechanics, but if Warner Bros. wants to get in the game, they could give it a shot. It could pay off. Maybe.


    ...Anyway, my biggest takeaway from this comment is that I need to check out M*A*S*H. .

    ReplyDelete
  4. No need to worry about the spelling. I get the gist of it. Frankly, I'm more mad about the fact that I'm just now finding out that you made this comment. Seriously, not one word of it showed up on my dashboard, and maybe even the blog at large; the most I saw was your little correction below it.


    Even now, I look at your user name and see that it's all grayed out -- and the rest of them, mine included, are green. I don't know what's up with Disqus (besides it being a butt once again), but I'd recommend taking a look on your end. Just to be safe.


    Anyway, back to the topic at hand. I agree that you can paralyze certain pursuits (it's a strange day indeed when Mario Kart 8 is one of the only few racing games released in years). But man, oh man, there's a part of me that wishes some pursuits would get paralyzed faster than others. The ideal scenario is one where the current -- and apparently terrible -- new Ninja Turtles movie doesn't exist, but its success (like its kin) is what's keeping certain "magical" trends alive. Doug Walker of Channel Awesome says that it's a fad, and it probably is, but...shouldn't THAT fad have bowed out by now?


    This comment is getting increasingly negative. Time to reboot it.


    I really do hope that someday Ubisoft figures out what to do with Desmond (or whoever might take his place, I guess) and the whole overarching conflict. He was a part of the original game for a reason -- just like he was in several games that followed. But I can't be bothered to think of a single outstanding trait about him or remember a single unique line -- except for the joke between me and my brother that suggests he looks a lot like Adam Sandler. Whatever the case, that's not a good place for a character to be. The AC games make exploring the past cool as all hell -- so what's stopping them from doing the same for their fictional future? Or...slightly-beyond-our-time present? Quasi-future?


    I dunno. At one point I was under the impression that Desmond would have to kill the sun or something. But in my defense, I was very sleepy.

    ReplyDelete